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Wheels: Wonder Wheels

Marco R. della Cava

The city of South San Francisco is an industrial town that lies prostrate between its famous urban neighbor to the north and the tree-studded Santa Cruz Mountains to the south. This mostly unremarkable burg is home to countless strip malls, auto-parts stores, and, refreshingly, a See’s Candies factory. Yet amid all of this mundanity lives the truly exceptional. In fact, for members of a small yet fiercely passionate subculture, the warehouse at 505 Railroad Avenue in South San Francisco is something of a mecca: It is the home of Roy Brizio Street Rods, the preeminent builder of custom hot rods in the United States.

In this cavernous studio, the long-forgotten spawn of Detroit’s assembly lines are reborn as shockingly original automotive art. In one part of the workshop, a 1935 Ford panel delivery truck is well on its way to becoming cooler than any panel truck should be. A few bays down, workers are chopping, channeling, and lowering a sneering 1940 Mercury coupe into a machine that could make Batman drool.

"[My customers] don’t want their cars to look like anyone else’s," says owner Roy Brizio. "I always tell them, there are no rules. Do what you want. Sometimes, though, I get people asking about resale values and all that. I have a simple answer: Build your dream car, not someone else’s."

That is precisely what enthusiast J.J. Barnhardt of Los Angeles is doing with a ’32 Ford five-window coupe, which he bought in original form from a Colorado collector at the annual Los Angeles Roadster Exhibition, Trade Show and Swap Meet in Pomona, Calif. "J.J. wanted a chopped, non-fender high-boy coupe with an incredible color," says Brizio. Nearing completion, the car is transfixing. Its paint job—featuring a custom dark-apricot hue that explodes in sunlight—defies description.

For Barnhardt, who over the years has had a number of hot rods built in various shops, working with Brizio not only has been satisfying, but also has led to a strong friendship between the two men. "Roy’s the real deal," Barnhardt says. "For some guys, after decades in the business a project can become just another car. But somehow Roy has managed to retain a love for this craft that shows through in everything he does."

By way of explanation, Brizio says that he is just following his heart. "My dad had a shop in the 1960s, and he used to drag-race and everything," he recalls wistfully from the South San Francisco warehouse, which is filled with candy-colored machines in various states of undress. "But he couldn’t really make any money working on cars, so he eventually switched over to silk-screening T-shirts." But Brizio’s passion for his father’s hobby is strong; in 1977 he opened his own street-rod shop, not far from his current spacious digs. By 2001, business was strong, and he was able to move into the Railroad Avenue location. "I struggled for a long time," he says. "But I hung in there and it paid off."

Although he is known as "the Rembrandt of the ’32 Ford," Brizio now works on cars from the ’40s, ’50s, and ’60s. "Part of the reason is that it is simply getting harder and harder even to find those 1930s cars anymore," he says. "But I also enjoy playing with these newer cars, finding ways to give them interesting looks that are usually connected back to those earlier cars in one way or another. And they tend to be much more comfortable."

Although Brizio makes a good living—projects cost about $250,000 on average—money is not his principal motivation. "For me, it’s the customers," he says. "Half my business is repeat, so many of these guys become my friends." Brizio is somewhat reticent when discussing these friends, but it is no secret that many of his clients are sports and music stars. His longtime association with baseball slugger and big-league car collector Reggie Jackson led to Mr. October taking Brizio to his first baseball game. And on his 2000 album You Had It Coming, Jeff Beck included—amid crunching guitar solos—a tune called "Roy’s Toy," which literally sang the praises of Brizio and his hot rods. "Jeff’s an old, old friend," Brizio says.

Other friends include guitarslingers Jimmie Vaughan and Neil Young. "I did a ’53 Buick Skylark for Neil, and when I told Jimmie about it he became really interested," Brizio says. "But the thing that’s funny to me is that most of these guys don’t know each other. They share the same passion for cars and, obviously, music, but they often just admire each other from a distance." Vaughan did steer another six-string musician to Brizio. "Now, Eric Clapton really is a guy who knows what he wants," says Brizio, who is building two hot rods to add to the British superstar’s growing collection of American metal. He walks over to a ’49 Ford coupe; the car’s roof has been dropped, the emblems have been stripped off, the steering wheel has been switched to the right-hand side, and the taillights have been "frenched," or melded seamlessly into the car’s bodywork. "Underneath the body, Clapton couldn’t care less, and this will have all modern-running gear, engine, you name it," Brizio says. "But he is totally into the styling of his cars, and we go back and forth all the time on the details."

 

photos and posters of Brizio’s handiwork cover the walls of his studio. But one souvenir stands out: an image—signed by customizer George Barris, who performed the 1929 Ford roadster pickup’s groundbreaking makeover—of the famous 1957 Ala Kart. In its day, this machine epitomized the hot-rod movement (countless miniature models of the Ala Kart were snapped up by wide-eyed boys and girls), but by the dawn of the new millennium, the iconic white pickup had become dilapidated. A few years ago, Brizio convinced collector John Mumford that the hot rod was worth bringing back to life. The finished product, which debuted in 2008, perfectly encapsulates Brizio’s passion for the hot-rod hobby, precisely because the Ala Kart, which teeters on the garish, is not universally loved. Rather, its outrageous curves and almost cartoonish style appeal to true hard-core hot-rodders who share Brizio’s obsession. "I’m so proud of my work on this car," he says, adding that the vehicle currently resides at the National Hot Rod Association Motorsports Museum in Pomona. "It meant so much in its day that it deserved to be lovingly restored."

To Brizio and his fellow enthusiasts, scores of junkers of Ala Kart’s vintage deserve the same loving resurrection. But today he feels uncertain about the future of hot-rodding. "I do have some kids coming to me saying they want to learn how to build cars like these," he says, "but not many. I sense there are too many distractions—too many video games and too much TV. The key, I guess, is exposure. They need to head out to the salt flats to watch guys race hot rods, or visit garages where these cars are built."

Brizio is not just talking. Each year, on the Saturday before Mother’s Day, he invites friends, family, and customers to a blowout party at the company’s headquarters. The gathering has become so popular that Brizio now serves up 1,200 hot dogs and at least 30 gallons of chili. "It’s a fun time, but a lot of work," he says. "But if there’s just one kid who sees all the cars and thinks, ‘Wow, I love this,’ then it’s all worth it."

 

Roy Brizio Street Rods, 650.952.7637, www.roybriziostreetrods.com

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