I see a red door and I want it painted black.
No colors any more, I want them to turn black…I see a line of cars and they’re all painted black.
— “Paint it Black” The Rolling Stones
To borrow Tom Wolfe’s famous phrase, “Blackie” Gejeian lived a life in full. A member of the “greatest generation,” he endured the Great Depression, survived World War II, and went on to accomplish so much in the following decades — innovative hot rod builder, show promoter, race driver, even farmer.
A first-generation Armenian immigrant (his family survived the Armenian genocide), Gejeian grew up in the small agricultural berg of Easton, California, outside of Fresno. The extended Gejeian family counted 17 — and they all lived together on the family ranch.
Like most young boys, things with wheels drew his attention, and Gejeian was bombing around the spread in his father’s car by the age 12. By 14 he was aiming to duplicate the tricks of daredevil driver Joie Chitwood. After high school, his auto exploits were interrupted by a stint in the US Navy during the final days of World War II.
Returning from the war, Gejeian looked to embrace his love of fast cars, setting a humble goal of building the fastest hot rod in the California central valley. Whether he succeeded or not is an open question, but his wildly modified ’26 T roadster on a ’34 Ford frame — no running boards, no fenders, no upholstery — was certainly in the conversation. More importantly, Gejeian painted the T black and dubbed the ride “Blackie” — a moniker that stuck.
Automotive journalist David Fetherston knew Gejeian well, and he shared this gem of a story that Blackie told him about that period in his life:
“I lived out on farm where I had everything to build my roadster in the barn,” Blackie told Fetherston. “That black roadster was a rocket and we would go drag racing as often as we could on the long straight roads around Fresno. But our favorite thing was to leave Fresno on a Friday afternoon and drive all night, 800 miles to Salt Lake City. There were a couple of wild bars in Salt Lake and we just whooped it up chasing girls and drinking all weekend. Then on Sunday afternoon and night, the three rods would haul ass back to California to be at work Monday morning. Back then it was single two-lane all the way, but we use to just run flat out. We had so much fun on those road trips, especially chasing the girls.”
Blackie also was drawn to the SoCal lakes scene — with tragic results. In 1947 at El Mirage, according to a tale recounted by hot rod historian Dick Martin, a bizarre pit-road accident with a fellow racer cut Gejeian’s car in two and sent him on a backboard to a local hospital. While recovering, he learned two friends had been killed at the lakes. He never went back.
Undaunted, Blackie decided to convert his roadster from damaged race car to standout show car, a transformation seldom attempted. With equal parts ingenuity, inspiration, and lead filler, Blackie smoothed and channeled the body. But the genius of the car was its undercarriage, which he chrome plated. All of it. Every nut and bolt, every component. At its debut at the Oakland Roadster Show in 1955, Blackie and his crew would turn the car on its side every hour so attendees could see the shiny magic underneath. Hence the car was nicknamed “Shish Kebob.” The car was crowned America’s Most Beautiful Roadster.
Gejeian also played a key role in the creation of one of hot rodding’s most famous cars, the Richard Peters Ala Kart ’29 pickup, which was a collaborative effort among Blackie, Peters and George Barris. Blackie and Peters built the chassis in Fresno, while Barris handled the bodywork in L.A. Dean Jeffries created the distinctive pinstriping.
The car dazzled, winning America’s Most Beautiful Roadster – twice! To show off Blackie’s signature chrome underpinnings, he decided a mirror was in order. At Oakland, he purloined a mirror out of a women’s restroom. According to legend, that was the first time a looking glass had been used so show off the underside of a custom.
The yin-yang of Gejeian’s automotive personality included motorsports as well as rods and customs. And he was equally accomplished at both. His early days of drifting on dirt roads led him to the local dirt tracks, where he raced “hardtops” and became a five-time NASCAR regional champion. He also served as promoter of nearby Clovis Speedway, eventually guiding the track to prominence as a center of dirt track competition. It was a common sight to see Blackie himself watering and leveling the surface before competition. He had a flair for promotion, as well, once bringing in eight sled-dog teams from Alaska for a dirt track demo. As if he didn’t have enough to do, he also owned Fresno Dragway for two decades — where he occasionally ran four dragsters at once down the quarter mile!
Gejeian is perhaps best known for his founding and management of the Fresno Autorama. He began the Autorama car show in 1958 and it was held continuously for 51 years, ending in 2010 after Blackie retired. Indulging his penchant for doing it all, his orchestration of the Autorama was absolute. As he once explained to Hot Rod magazine, “There is nobody that does any part of my Autorama show but me. In every year of my show, I have done it all myself,” Blackie said. “I pick the cars, I set up the cars; nobody works with me because I’m very particular on what I do. I want to make sure it’s right.”
Blackie Gejeian’s long, fast, and memorable ride through American hot rod culture came to end in 2016, when he passed away age 90. Brian Brennan, longtime editor of Street Rodder, crossed paths with Blackie many times. Brennan’s touching tribute to the man closed with these words: “He was one of the toughest, hardworking, imaginative, hot rodders any of us will ever know.” ‘Nuff said.