By Big Dan Pfeiffer
Southsider Voice correspondent
Before Gameboys and computers, children of the 1950s actually played outside, rode bicycles and found or created their own entertainment.
Yep, that’s true, and a then-young Bob Keeney did just that.
When he was 11 in 1950 he rode his bike from his home just east of where Southern Plaza is now to a gas station at the corner of Hanna Avenue and Shelby Street, where a man from Calumet City, Ind., showed up from time to time to pinstripe cars and motorcycles with tiny brushes and paint.
The man was Dean Boger, and he called himself “Booger.” He popped in at six or seven gas stations around Indianapolis to put his artistic touch on customers’ hot rods. Bob loved to watch him work and would do so every chance that he could.
Bob soon decided that he, too, wanted to pinstripe cars. He searched high and low for the special tiny brushes that Booger used in his work, but they were nowhere to be found in Indy. Bob wrote to a company in Chicago and finally located a supplier. He mailed the company some money and got his brushes.
The first thing that he striped was the furnace in his parents’ basement! He went on to pinstripe almost everything down there, including the refrigerator, cabinets, the toilet and sink. Anything with a flat surface was fair game.
Bob eventually, at 13, striped his first car, his mother’s 1948 Jeepster.
In the fall of 1952 he started his freshman year at Southport and was soon pinstriping other students’ cars. It wasn’t long before he arrived home from school on the bus to find one or two seniors waiting in his driveway to have their cars striped.
In 1956 while still in high school, he did his first complete paint job on a friend’s car. Bob didn’t have an air compressor but his next door neighbor, Lawrence Treon, did, so Bob painted the car in Lawrence’s driveway.
He met his future wife, Judy, when he was 14, and she began watching him paint whatever was brought his way. His style of custom painting cars was mostly being done in California at the time, so you could say Judy got in on the ground floor of this craze as well. She often assisted him.
Bob soon combined his first initial, “B,” with his last name to give himself the now-famous nickname of “Bikini,” which he has added to every custom paint scheme he has done over the past 60-plus years.
Bikini started setting up shop on Friday and Saturday nights in the parking lot of a Standard gas station next door to the old Tee Pee Drive-in restaurant on the Southside Strip. Cars cruised from the diner south to the Southern Circle Drive-In. He and Judy would sit there while guys stopped by to have their cars striped.
Needless to say, Bikini usually had plenty of running-around money, but upon graduation his dad insisted that he had to get a real job.
After graduating in 1957, Bob went to work for Hamilton Displays and hand-painted commercial advertising displays until 1961, at which time he started working for Indiana Wire, where he designed display racks for companies such as John Deere, Coca-Cola, STP, Kodak and Proctor & Gamble.
Throughout all that time he was still striping hot rods, lettering wreckers and painting logos on semitrailers.
By 1968 it was time for Bikini to pursue his passion on a full-time basis. He rented some space in the building behind what is now Long’s Bakery. He taught himself how to use gold leaf paint, began etching glass and doing air brush designs on cars and motorcycles.
He outgrew the facility in 1973 and moved to a larger building at Franklin Road and Southeastern Avenue, where he started painting murals on custom vans and cars. At one time was painting 200 vans per year for a conversion company.
In the early 1970s, he and Judy started spending the month of May at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. He painted cars and helmets for the likes of Roger Penske, Mark Donohue, Johnny Parsons Jr., Art Pollard, Salt Walther and Lloyd Ruby. Additional business came his way during the ’70s when Circle Chevrolet, Palmer Dodge, Tutwiler Cadillac and Albers Rolls-Royce had him striping their new cars.
Bob and Judy finally bought a building in 1976 in Acton, where he still works.
One summer in the 1970s, Bob, Judy, their son, Kris, and Bob’s parents took a motor home to Daytona Beach, Fla. While everyone else was swimming and enjoying the beach, Bob started to pinstripe his dad’s RV. Young guys on motorcycles soon stopped to watch, and it wasn’t long before he was striping their motorcycles. Those guys told their friends, and Bob soon had customers waiting for him to show up at the beach each morning. He recalls making enough money to pay for the entire trip.
Bob still works 40 hours a week restoring porcelain and metal antique signs, as well as doing custom paint work. He often sees cars he painted 30 years ago with their artwork holding up nicely.
The Southsider Voice will honor Bikini during its cruise-in on Friday, during which he will be recognized for the 60-plus years of work he has done to enhance the hot-rodding hobby. The event gets under way at 6 p.m. at 6025 Madison Ave. and will feature classic cars, music and food.
Car Nutz Contributors
Big Dan Pfeiffer