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A club for men of his stripe

Published Oct. 18, 2005

It is the most exclusive club in the Tampa Bay area. Money won't ease your way into this bunch. Neither will family background. Education at a fine college could be counterproductive.

The dozen or so members of this club do not favor neckties. A little grease never hurt their complexions. Blackened fingernails are not grounds for expulsion.

Yet these people are so secure, so quietly confident, they have never even bothered to name their organization. Its social center _ in fact its only center _ is two adjacent commercial garages in a small factory area of St. Petersburg.

Members keep their "serious" cars in these garages, and come there, mostly in the evenings, to work on them. There is no showroom gloss about these cars.

The kind of person who would buy a new Rolls or order a Lamborghini from the factory would bore club members. For these are people who build, combine, indeed, create cars that are like nothing you will find in any new or used car showroom.

Deep in the clubhouse, John McNally paints blue striping on the fender of a "low-rider" 1972 Buick with Cadillac El Dorado taillights. "It belongs to a guy from Daytona," he says. "I'm charging him for the striping."

McNally's stripes are nationally known. He put some intricate curlicues on a hot rod that was displayed in a show at Columbus, Ohio, last July. Strangers from California looked at the striping, recognized its quality, and said to the owner: "That has to have been done by John McNally."

Back in the '20s and '30s, most car striping was done by hand. No more. "Stick-ons," McNally says with a sigh. "I don't understand people today. They've forgotten how the car industry was built. They've forgotten how we got here."

During the day, McNally, 54, has worked at the same bank (now known as C&S) for 29 years. He lives for evenings with his cars.

"You've got to have something in your life that you enjoy better than your job," he says.

His own car is a 1940 Ford, still unfinished, which he has worked on four years. It has '71 Mustang suspension, a 500 cubic centimeter Cadillac engine and ultimately will have one "narrow, clean and neat" gold stripe.

McNally seems vague about his rates for striping. Another club member, Al Holliday, explains: "He charges more if he doesn't like you. And more if he doesn't like your car."

There is a story around the club about a doctor who brought in his Rolls-Royce to be striped. McNally kept him waiting 30 minutes while he talked with a high school boy "about some problem on the kid's old Pontiac."

McNally explains: "The kid had more of himself invested in the Pontiac than the guy had in his Rolls."

McNally's son, John, 15, is around the garage sometimes. "His name is John, not John Junior," says McNally. "I was about that age when I started striping."

Though he seems to know a lot about robotics and other advanced engineering concepts, McNally, son of an auto mechanic, went to work right after high school in St. Petersburg and courses at technical schools.

"I should have designed cars. Some of the designs I did in the '50s, they're doing right now.

"But I wouldn't have been hired. I didn't have the background, didn't have the paper. If you don't have the paper, you don't get hired. Well, I've done some good things anyhow."

"John McNally is one of the real ones," says Holliday, "maybe the last of the real ones."