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Car Man Bertolucci Shares Some Stories

Fans of hot rods and car customization crowded into Time Tested Books on 21st Street Sunday night to hear from a legend in the Sacramento car customization scene.

Dick Bertolucci, 82, had more than 100 fans eating out of his hand as he and his longtime friend Bud Ohanesian recounted tales from their pasts, all the while grinning like children who have just gotten away with something naughty.

As part of a series hosted by Time Tested Books, Bertolucci was this month’s guest in “The Sacramento Living Library,” a series that chooses its guests for their unparalleled knowledge in a particular field.

As historian and auto enthusiast Bruce Woodward sat beside Bertolucci and Ohanesian, it became clear that he wouldn’t need to do much to spur the two old-timers’ memories as they laughed and joked with the audience, reliving their glory days.

From tinkering with model airplanes as a boy to running his own successful auto-body shop in East Sacramento, Bertolucci told stories of drag racing his friends down the streets of Sacramento, a honeymoon spent touring various body shops around Los Angeles, and more than one encounter with the police.

Recalling his first car, a ’33 Chevy Roadster his father bought for him for $150, Bertolucci remembers getting it home only to have his father tell him they had to take off the front end.

“Why?” 14-year-old Bertolucci asked in horror. He had just gotten his first car and didn’t understand why he had to take it apart.

“These motors are no good,” Bertolucci’s father said. “I’ve got a ’41 high-torque truck engine we can put in there.”

Bertolucci said his father wouldn’t let him do mechanical work, so he had to do body work. His father showed him how to take a dent out of a fender. That was it for Bertolucci – he said he hasn’t looked back since.

As a teenager, Bertolucci raced up and down the streets of Sacramento. Late one night, an out-of-towner tracked down 16-year-old Bertolucci and challenged him to a race. Initially hesitant, he eventually gave in and accepted.

They decided to start the race on 16th and K streets and end at the railroad tracks a few blocks down. Bertolucci was worried about getting caught racing, so he gave his opponent a head-start. They screamed down the empty street until Bertolucci caught up. Racing neck and neck, they were nearing the finish line when he said he heard a sound.

“Ding, ding, ding…” Bertolucci said, eyebrows raised. “The train was coming.”

Bertolucci slammed on his brakes and came to a stop just feet before the tracks. His opponent, however, was unable to stop in time and the side of his car was pounded by the incoming train.

Bertolucci was so scared, he said, he just got out of there as fast as he could. He read the next day in the newspaper that the boy had only broken his arm, and there was no mention of racing.

“I think I used two of my nine lives on that one,” Bertolucci said.

At several points in the evening, the meeting between the old master and his fans took on the feeling of a family sitting together sharing stories. The man telling the stories just happened to be one of the founding fathers of the California custom car scene – a big deal to that audience.

“Remember that, Bud?” Bertolucci said to his friend several times throughout the night, chuckling about some good fortune he had or a time he had narrowly escaped some peril unscathed.

“Maybe the man upstairs is on my side,” he said quietly.

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