Tom E. “Tommy the Greek” Hrones

Among the many Greek-Americans who have directly influenced art in the Western World few have had the kind of impact inspired by Tom E. Hrones. Known as “Tommy the Greek” Hrones was a recognized master of automotive decoration. As such “he was known as the master of the art of pin striping, especially for his trademarked Hrones hash marks, “teardrops and arrows (Alameda Times-Star January 29, 2002).” Along with other persons of Greek descent such as brothers Sam (1924-1967) and George Barris (1925-2015), Alex Tremulis (1914-1991) and Sir Alec Issigonis (1906-1988) Hrones literally altered the world of modern automotive design.

Tom E. Hrones was born on December 14, 1913, the eldest son of seven children born to Greek immigrants. The Hrones originally settled in the Oakland, California neighborhood enclave of Emeryville just after the great fire and earthquake of 1906.

Hrones began his painting career in 1925, while working for his uncle’s auto paint shop on Oakland’s Broadway Auto Row as Hrones was later to recall of his beginnings: “yeah we’d work all day in the grease pit; freezing, wet and cold in the winter and hotter than hell in the summer. My job was to pull wooden wheels, rub out the spokes with pumice stone and then varnish each wheel prior to painting.

We’d rub out the car bodies with gunny sacks and then wax and polish ’em up. I could fix mechanical stuff too, but I preferred the painting, mainly the striping. My uncle John wasn’t too good at that part. He’d shake, so they’d let me lay the lines…almost every car made in America then was striped in some manner or another (letterville.com).”

Throughout the 1920s and into the Great Depression Hrones continued experimenting with custom hot rods and motor cycles perfecting his pin striping. Tear drops, hash marks and arrows became his signature designs such that Hrones was inducted into the Hotrod Hall of Fame but it goes way beyond tributes into the establishment of fundamentals.

In the Ultimate Hot Rob Dictionary, Hrones has his own entry: “Tommy the Greek teardrops: n. Distinctive pinstripe accent as popularized by the legendary Northern California striper Tom ‘Tommy the Greek’ Hrones (1914-2002). Hrones’ styled teardrops appear as a uniform series of very narrow, inverted tear-drop shaped stripes. Frequently, a set of parallel teardrops is diagonally canted and positioned near the end of a dashboard or exterior automotive body panel. Teardrop sets are also sometimes presented in a symmetrical grouping with a number of smaller stripes flanking a single center teardrop.”

Herb Martinez (b. 1947) who worked in Hrones’ shop has this memory in his book, “Herb Martinez’s Guide to Pinstriping” of how The Greek became inspired to create the teardrop: The story goes that after Tommy the Greek washed his car one day and drove it back to the shop, he noticed that the water had formed, what looked like a teardrops, from the wind blowing on it, and he designed his teardrops from there.”

Fine, this is what other artists thought and maintain, but what about the common man? How well known was Hrones’ automotive artistry? In the book, Soul on Bikes: The East Bay Dragons MC and the Black Biker Set by Tobie Gene Levingston, leader of this fabled Oakland based motorcycle club, there are several entries on Hrones but here is one of the most telling: “Tommy was the master striper. Nothing crazy, just real clean, cool, and neat. He was great with flames and teardrops. That was his signature. Cadillac cars would drive down the street bearing his stripes and teardrops. Dudes in the know would see them and holler out from the street corner, “Greek!”” So while, today, Hrones is best known as a quick high-caliber pinstriper during the Depression he would stripe and entire car for 75 cents to $3.00.

Hrones struggled through the Depression owning, fixing, altering cars into his custom creations. “Tommy’s penchant for expressive styling eventually led to experimentation with early customs. In 1937, he restyled a 1936 Ford Phaeton by removing the running boards, adding a DuVall Windshield, shaving the door handles, adding fender skirts and bobbing the trailing edge of the front fenders, a la contemporary Cadillac-LaSalle styling. Tommy owned and sold dozens of cars in the ’30s. He claims to have owned over 75 cars in his life, mostly Caddy sedans. That doesn’t even take into account the endless stream of Indian, Triumph and Harley-Davidson motorcycles he’s owned. In 1944 and 1945 Tommy completed and all-black 1940 Mercury convertible with molded-in seamless fenders, sunken taillights and a recessed license plate, gleaming moondisc hubcaps, Appleton spotlights and a padded top by Carson Top Shop (kustomrama.com).”

One point that all sources agree on is that given Hrones’ daily work load there is no way to ever calculate how many cars, motorcycles, hot rods this hardworking artist decorated. But Hrones didn’t just decorate these kinds of automotive machines. As an example of Hrones’ output he once recalled: “I did five White fire engines that went to England during the war. I did airplanes, race cars, Jim Hurtibise’s Indy car in purple and silver. I did the jet jobs for Dago (the late race car innovator Romeno Palamides). Stanley Dollar’s “Hawaii Kai” hydroplane. More boats, kitchens, motorcycles, dragsters, commercial trucks, helmets…even toilet seats. (letterville.com).”

In 1940, Hrones married Jayne Hrones of San Lorenzo where the couple lived for the next 62 years. In December 1994, Hrones closed his last working shop in Oakland. Long before this Hrones had been inducted into the Hotrod Hall of Fame. Hrones was especially recognized as the master of the art of pin striping, especially for his trademarked Hrones hash marks, and the creator of the “teardrops and arrows” motif.

Tyler Hoare, artist, chronicler in-residence for the West Coast Kustom Crusin’ newsletter and author/editor of a series of illustrated monographs on the stars of the automotive customizing world had this to say about Hrones: “Being a sculptor, I understand that the 15 minutes of fame is the easy part. The rest is the hard part. The artist always has to have faith, even when no one else seemingly cares. Tommy has always known who he is and what he’s doing. He’s a Picasso…with the same personality as Picasso (letterville.com).”

Tom E. Hrones died January 25, 2002 in Hayward, California, he was 88 years old. Hrones was laid to rest with military honors at a private burial service at San Joaquin National Cemetery in Gustine. Burial was at the San Joaquin Valley National Cemetery in Santa Nella, California (Alameda Times-Star 1/29/02).

When one thinks of California car-culture its theme song Misirlou, and leading designers like Sam and George Barris’ hot rods and Tommy the Greek teardrops all come to mind. Yet what is missing from a full consideration of the direct influence of Greeks on modern car culture are the careers of Alex Tremulis and Sir Alec Issigonis. Tremulis was designing cars from the early 1920s with his rocket ship style tailfins and oval holes in the side panels now signature elements of Detroit-made cars of the 1950s. And again, right at the historical moment Sam and George Barris, Alex Tremulis, and Tommy the Greek Hrones were in their creative prime Sir Alec Issigonis was designing the Mini in Great Britain. What other cultural contributions have Greeks made in the last 150 years that are so taken for granted as fundamentally American and/or modern that their creators are now long forgotten?