J.B. Nethercutt, who made a fortune in women's beauty products as the co-founder of Merle Norman Cosmetics and used much of that wealth to assemble one of the world's finest automobile collections, has died. He was 91.
Nethercutt died Monday at St. John's Hospital in Santa Monica, said his son, Jack Nethercutt. The elder Nethercutt had been in failing health for some time.
Respected in the beauty industry as an expert on cosmetic chemistry, Nethercutt created a number of his firm's most popular products, including blush rouge, perfume and lipsticks.
But Nethercutt is perhaps better known to the public for his private car collection, housed in two buildings in Sylmar and open for viewing.
The Nethercutt Collection and Museum contains nearly 250 automobiles, as well as a nationally known automobile library and a state-of-the-art restoration shop. It has become a mecca for car enthusiasts and collectors since it opened in the 1970s.
Jay Leno, the host of "The Tonight Show With Jay Leno" and an avid car collector, knew Nethercutt and expressed great admiration for the breadth and quality of his collection.
"He was more than a car collector, he was a historian," Leno told The Times on Wednesday.
"He has done a Smithsonian-style effort on the history of transportation in America right here in the San Fernando Valley. It's the equivalent of Cooperstown in baseball or the rock 'n' roll museum in Cleveland. It's the hall of fame for cars," Leno said.
Jack Boison Nethercutt was born in South Bend, Ind., on Oct. 11, 1913. He moved to Southern California when he was 9, after his mother's death, to live with his aunt, Merle Nethercutt Norman. After graduating from Santa Monica High School, he studied chemistry at Caltech.
Working out of a house in the Ocean Park section of Santa Monica, Nethercutt's aunt had started a small business producing cosmetics for sale locally in 1931. Nethercutt dropped out of college and joined the venture, helping establish Merle Norman Cosmetics.
Their first cosmetics studio was opened on Main Street and Ocean Park Boulevard in Santa Monica.
Nethercutt subsequently bought out his aunt, her husband and the other shareholders in the company and eventually created a firm with $100 million in sales. There are now about 2,000 Merle Norman franchises across the country.
Nethercutt loved the cosmetics business, his son said, and was active in the firm's management until his health began to decline in August.
Nethercutt's other passion was the automobile.
He once said that his interest in cars developed during the early part of his marriage to his wife, Dorothy. The Nethercutts loved to take drives, and along the way they would study many of the cars that became classics and are in his museum.
"We got to the point where we could identify a car two blocks away and pretty well quote the specifications on it," he recalled.
"Years later [when] we were affluent enough to afford those gleaming monsters we had remembered so well, we found that most of them were in dreadful condition," Nethercutt said.
This was the beginning of his lifelong passion for buying and restoring cars.
Nethercutt started his collection in 1956, purchasing a 1936 Duesenberg convertible roadster for $5,000 and a 1930 DuPont town car for $500. Both needed total refurbishing, however.
Nethercutt estimated that the DuPont restoration would take just a few weeks, but it took 18 months and cost more than $65,000.
Two years later, the DuPont was shown at the Pebble Beach Concours d'Elegance, one of the world's leading classic car contests.
It won "best in show" that year and established Nethercutt as a force in the classic car world. Nethercutt went on to win five more best in show awards at the Pebble Beach competition, more than any other individual.
Nethercutt's desire to make his collection as authentic as possible fostered an intense concern about restoration.
The Sylmar facility houses a 15,000-square-foot restoration shop that employs 24 experts on automobile engines, woodwork, metal work, upholstery and leather.
Nethercutt's attention to detail was emulated and admired by other collectors.
"J.B. brought the standards of automobile restoration to an unchallenged mark," said Bruce Meyer, a Beverly Hills developer, car collector and member of the Nethercutt collection's board of directors. "He raised the bar, and he did it with his automobiles, with his fabulous museum and with life in general."
Nethercutt played an active role in the restoration process and in the museum, said Skip Marketti, the collection's curator and archivist.
"He often said that he had a different favorite car every day of the year, based on style, performance and engineering," Marketti told The Times on Wednesday.