On their first date they argued about the grill on a ’38 Ford pickup. She was right. More than a decade has passed and car talk still dominates John and Jenny Parker’s conversations. Married now for eight years and living in Port Hueneme, they are preparing for their sixth annual Primer Nationals Hot Rod & Motorcycle Show, to be held at the Ventura County Fairgrounds on Labor Day weekend.
With three yearly car and motorcycle events (they also produce Back to the Beach Car & Motorcycle Show and the Vintage Outlaw Motorcycle Races ) and Jenny’s thriving handbag business (see sidebar) the Parkers are kind of a big deal in hot rod circles.
When discussing the Primer Nationals, John continually refers to it as a cause rather than a business venture. True veterans of the kustom kulture movement — an amalgam of art, fashion and music that revolves around customization of cars and motorcycles — their main focus was to celebrate burgeoning talent of all sorts. “Our dream was to give people the opportunity to show their goods and give everybody a place to launch their careers,” he says.
The event was never intended to compete with other events but to complement them. And while a major part of the show involves a judged competition, the word makes them both bristle. “It’s more like a beauty pageant than a contest,” Jenny says. “They’re not our competition,” John adds. “What they are, are our compatriots.” Already well entrenched in the kustom lifestyle when they began imagining the Primer Nationals, the Parkers felt that while there were some great car shows in Southern California, there was definitely room for more. “We wanted to create an event that would help keep the scene alive,” Jenny says.
Turnout for the event exceeded the couple’s expectations and had them scrambling to learn the ropes quick. “We thought we’d have about 100 or so cars,” she says, “and we ended up getting over 300 cars and we freaked out. We didn’t know where to put them. We didn’t know how to park them.” Before long, the Primer Nationals became a holiday weekend destination event that has grown to accommodate the 1,000 cars and motorcycles and 10,000 people expected to roll into Ventura this weekend.
The fact that motorcycles are not only included but welcomed sets the Primer Nationals apart from other shows, but the Parkers’ success with the event has as much to do with their relational approach to business. Jenny vends her handbags at kustom-oriented shows worldwide, which has helped her build a huge network of friends and associates with common interests. “Business in general is about relationships and friendships,” she says. “I see these people on a regular basis and we share the same passion.”
John’s roots in kustom kulture run deep. In the late 1970s, he filled a position left vacant by pinstripe artist Von Dutch, working for the legendary stuntman and motorcycle fanatic Bud Ekins. “It was a real treat for me to be a young man working there,” he says. “Those were enormous shoes that I did not even try to fill.” The Von Dutch brand has achieved high status in mainstream fashion, but John is one of the only people to have seen some of the artist’s unknown work. As he tells it, Von Dutch would take a loaded brush of paint to the toilet every morning and decorate the bathroom door while he sat. “He left these incredible pinstripe artifacts that are probably worth a half a million today,” he says. Now retired, John’s career as a custom welder for the motion picture industry earned him both film credits and street cred. Some of his more notable achievements include the Back to the Future car, Cheech & Chong’s ice cream truck in Up in Smoke and various projects for the television show Dukes of Hazzard.
While their shared passion for all things mechanical effectively closes their 21-year age gap, when the Parkers get downtime, they don’t talk shop. And when “downtime” means “riding time,” they don’t talk at all. “The beauty is her on her motorcycle and me on mine. You know, it’s shut up and ride,” John says. The fact that Jenny rides alongside her husband rather than behind him on his bike isn’t too unusual these days, but the fact that she rides an Indian motorcycle is. “Most men don’t even know how to ride my bike,” she says. “To know that I ride with some of the most accomplished riders, who have been riding for 15 years, who tell me they can’t tell if they’re riding with a guy or a girl — that’s the ultimate compliment.” John is equally proud. “My wife is amazing to ride this 60-year-old motorcycle over Tioga and Senora Pass with no help from anybody, totally self sufficient,” he gushes. Weekend warriors they’re not. “We live and breathe the culture for sure,” Jenny says.
It is their authenticity that has made them kustom kulture’s power couple. “The tide comes in and the tide goes out,” John says. “There’s people you see who are all greased out with cuffs rolled up and tattoos, and two years later they’re gone.”
But while the Parkers are purists, particularly in their devotion to the old-school ways, hospitality trumps everything. “The Ventura County Fairgrounds is a jewel of a place to hold an event,” John says. “We are determined this stay a family event, that you can come to and not be bothered by people with a bad attitude.” The Parkers commitment to quality brings people from near and far. Last year, John met a man who was taking a “monkey bath” in the men’s room. The man told him that he and his brother drove 26 hours from Vancouver and never turned the motor off.
To the couple’s credit, there has only been one fistfight in the history of the Primer Nationals. Two guys who arrived in a Roadster pickup truck, hung out all day together and as they were leaving, they pulled over by the Derby Club and proceeded to “beat the Christmas out of each other,” says John. They quietly got back in the truck and drove away.
The Primer Nationals, along with their other events, keep the Parkers plenty busy, but make no mistake: Their labor is one of love, not riches. A work in progress, their ’51 Ford still sits in their driveway sans rear glass. “A testament to the Parker family budget,” John says. Economics aside, John and Jenny Parker remain true to the cause and true to each other — no easy feat in any day and age. “He’s my cabana boy,” she jokes. To which John replies, “Yeah, I keep her motorcycle running.”
The Primer Nationals will be held Aug. 30- Aug. 31 from 8 a.m.-3 p.m. at the Ventura County Fairgrounds (10 Harbor Blvd., Ventura, 648-3376). Musical entertainment includes Southern Culture on the Skids, Homer Henderson and High School Caesar (see page 24). For more information, visit www.primernationals.com.
Have Vinyl, Will Travel
Many women will tell you that finding the right handbag is not unlike finding the right man: You wade through a lot of junk to get to the one with just the right balance of good looks and functionality, and when you finally get it in your clutches, you never let go. Jenny Parker got lucky with her man, but the handbag was another story. So, necessity being the mother of invention, Parker took matters into her own hands. Some eight years later, the bookkeeper-turned-fashion-designer has a full-scale manufacturing operation in industrial Ventura, with six employees and a clientele that includes Kat Von D, Courtney Cox and Marky Ramone.
Modeled after vintage car upholstery styles, Trophy Queen handbags and accessories in many ways mirror their designer’s personality: unique and adaptable, strong and feminine, pretty and capable and definitely not cheap. At around $250 each, Trophy Queen bags are not for fear-of-commitment types.
When Parker first began to conceptualize the hot-rod-inspired handbags, it became clear that an auto upholstery class was in order. Once the bags caught on, design school seemed the next step. And so it was by natural progression and very hard work that Trophy Queen grew and thrived. In those days, Parker worked 60 hours per week while she was a full-time student at the Fashion Institute of Design and Merchandising in Los Angeles. “It was insane,” she remembers. “I about had a nervous breakdown.” Now, with a degree in manufacturing under her belt and a talented staff, Parker spends much of her time traveling the globe marketing her niche line.
Trophy Queen is sold in select stores worldwide, but a majority of its business is done via the Internet. Customers can build their own bags using color and design templates or request custom detailing like pinstripes and automobile emblems. The line also features hip diaper bags and a few luggage pieces.
There was a time when Parker thought succeeding in the fashion industry was about as plausible as becoming an astronaut. Now, she says she’s a firm believer in fate. “I was truly meant to be a fashion designer.”