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A Life in Smoke

June 13, 1996|CHARLES PERRY

What is this connection between vintage cars and exotic charcoal-burning barbecues?

Perhaps it comes from a feeling that certain supposedly outdated technologies have never really exhausted their potential, that they still offer possibilities to explore. On the other hand, maybe guys just like to mess with things made out of metal.

At any rate, once upon a time Leonard Gray, otherwise known as Smokey, was an auto mechanic in Dallas. His pride was a beautifully restored red-and-silver '37 Chevrolet coupe; he keeps photos of it on the wall of his Hyde Park sheet-metal shop.

Thirty-odd years ago, he got started making barbecues out of oil drums, and that's what he's been doing ever since. But there's still something faintly automotive about his barbecue designs: the hinged lids on the smoke vents that look like the lids on diesel truck exhausts, the bright paint jobs, various little customizing touches--such as the wheels on some of his barbecues that have the letter S, for "Smokey," cut out all around the rim.

His basic oil drum barbecues come in 5-, 35- and 55-gallon sizes (Baby, Mama and Big Bears), priced at $55, $140 and $175, respectively. Two 55-gallon drums welded in line make a Long John. The $350 Piggy Back, in which one drum is welded above the other with a thick pipe linking them, is designed for smoking meat.

But these are only basic models. "I don't like to do everything the same all the time," Gray says. "I get bored."

So he's done lots of custom models: little hamburger-sized barbecues on long legs, a condensed Mama Bear only about a foot-and-a-half long, a Long John with two separately hinged lids. He's even done all-steel smokers without a bit of oil drum in them, including one with three boxes linked by pipes: firebox for heating, smoker/warming box and barbecue box.

In the 1960s Gray also made what he claims was the first barbecue out of an old refrigerator, now a fairly common way of making a smoker. There's a photo of it (labeled "The Barbecue of Tomorrow") on his wall, right next to the one of his '37 Chevy.

His latest contribution to barbecue history is his $20 "burn-out kit." It's a heavy iron tray for holding the hot coals, so you don't have to throw your old oil drum barbecue away when the metal burns out on the bottom.

He's lost track of all the places his barbecues have ended up. There are a lot in California cities--Bakersfield, San Francisco, Lake Tahoe and Placerville, to name a few--and elsewhere in the West, from Dallas, Texas, to Butte, Mont. There are even a couple in New York.

"The Police Department just bought two Long Johns," he says. "They had me paint them LAPD blue, too," he adds with a chuckle.

* Smokey's Bar-B-Que Pits, 1615 W. Florence Ave., Los Angeles; (213) 971-0227.

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