Mark Houlahan
Brand Manager, Mustang Monthly
February 22, 2012

As you walk along a row of cars at a show, oftentimes a specific ride will stop you cold. There's just something about the stance, wheel and tire package, flawless paint, or perhaps even the interior that just takes your breath away. The car in question will often have a crowd around it, cell phones out taking pictures, and people just talking to each other about the build and what they find so interesting on it. While there's no doubt that we've seen some quality work come from an owner's own garage over the years, in most cases, the car being ogled by said crowd is a completely custom-built car from a professional shop. Seeing cars like this in person (as well as on the pages of your favorite magazines) is an inspiration to those building their own projects. Sure, we may not have the resources, tools, or the finances to build a similar car, but we can certainly take away certain aspects of the build to use on our own projects.

While it's great to see a pro-built car, especially in person where you can take your own photos and see details up close, wouldn't it be great to be able to talk to these builders directly and get tips and advice on your own build? Money-saving, and frustration-preventing build tips that could not only save you time, but prevent you from wasting your hard earned cash. Not to mention possibly infusing some personal and custom touches into your build to make it more original. As car guys, the last thing most of us want to see is the same car pulling up next to us at a stoplight or parking next to us at a show, right? Well, in an unprecedented series of interviews with pro builders, we sat down and pried these builders for tips and ideas to help you build your project into something you'll be proud of. Read on to see what secrets these pro builders shared with us to help you build a better ride.

Rick Bacon
Host of Spike's Musclecar TV

Spike's PowerBlock TV shows are some of the most highly watched automotive programs on television today. Rick Bacon, host of Musclecar TV (along with co-host Tommy Boshers) is not only a renowned customer painter, but has owned his own custom shop for more than a decade. Every week, we get to see Rick and Tommy build some killer cars, all of which are carefully planned out and given Rick's amazing paint and body skills.

"The biggest piece of advice I can give is to have a clear, realistic goal in mind when you start! Lay out a plan before you even purchase a car. Know your skills and your limitations and find a project that fits," Rick stated. "Don't know how to weld? Then don't buy a rusted car! You may save $1,000 by buying a car in need of floorpans, but it's going to cost you more than that to have them repaired!" Further comments from Rick include his favorite topic—paint and body. "If you don't know bodywork/paint, then find a project with a paintjob you can live with." Rick remembers seeing a "Top 10" list of things guys regretted tackling themselves—wiring, engine building, setting up rear gears all made the list. But the number one, by a long shot, was doing their own paint and bodywork.

"If you plan on having a lot of your work done at shops, ask the shops for references. If they're good enough to work on your ride, they'd better be good enough to have some happy customers and good references. If they give you their mom's phone number for a reference, find another shop."

Rick stressed the importance of having a working knowledge of the various restoration and build processes. "You don't necessarily need to have hands-on experience, but being knowledgeable on the subject at hand will help you understand why something will cost as much as it does, why it takes so long to have it done, and why the shop really isn't making as much as you think they are." A perfect example of this is airbag suspensions versus a static drop using traditional spring suspension. Research both types of modifications and understand the concepts of them both. This way, when you talk to a shop about an installation, you can speak intelligently on the subject without forcing the owner to waste time explaining every nut and bolt of the various systems. And you'll understand the cost differences between the two that much better.

"Remember that if you tackle a project yourself, your version of ‘done correctly' may not match the shop owner's version. Let's say a shop quotes you $700 to hang a quarter that you purchased. To save a few bucks, you weld it yourself in your garage. You decide to lap the joint and tack-weld it in place rather than trim and butt-weld it all around with a solid seam. When you return to the shop to have it bodyworked and painted, the shop may refuse to touch it because to them it wasn't done ‘right.' Your options are now A) find another shop that will hopefully do what you ask, or B) pay more to have the shop fix the work you just did. In which case, you probably would've been money ahead to just pay them from the start," Rick summarized.

Erich Bollman
Owner of Christiana Muscle Cars

Erich's shop produces not only top notch restorations, but is a growing force in custom and restomod builds, as evidenced by its recently completed '69 Mustang "Nasty", which was recently featured on these pages and was our 2011 Car of the Year first runner up.

Erich's first words of advice—plan ahead, way ahead. Identify exactly what you are building. Are you building something for show use only, or will it be for street/show use? Perhaps you want an autocross and open track car, or even a full-on race machine.

"There is no need for killer paint on an autocross/open track car. It is going to get beat up. If you are building a show-only car, then it must be fully pre-assembled before it's painted to make sure everything is perfect, including—and most importantly—door gaps," Erich stated.

"Step two is to decide on the wheel/tire that you are going to use. You will always have a better looking car when it is built around the ride height and wheels," Erich tells us. If you plan or will need mini-tubs or other quarter-panel adjustments, now is the time to find out. You want these factors known before metal work starts, otherwise that big investment in wheels and tires will be a waste of money when they don't fit, or rub and damage the rolling stock, or worse, your freshly painted body.

"Step three in your planning should be exhaust," Erich went on to explain. "Where is this giant 3-inch exhaust going to go with a low ride height?" Determining the exhaust routing, exit, tube size, and more is very important, even at this early stage. Considerations such as frame reinforcements, suspension parts, and more all can wreak havoc on the exhaust system planning, so it's in your best interest to figure it all out as early in the build as possible.

"Talk with the people who are going to help you build the car. If someone is doing the metal work or paint, decide what they need and don't need in the beginning. As a shop, I really don't like it when someone has the drivetrain detailed and in the car when it still needs bodywork and paint. Overspray happens no matter how careful you are. Also, if you are doing all the work, make sure your left brain talks to your right brain. You can spend hours just thinking and planning on which direction and where to start," Erich adds.

Lastly, tackle all the hard work; do all of the grunt work yourself. No shop enjoys sandblasting and bead blasting parts and scraping seam sealer. There are things you can do to save money. Shop labor can get excessive for such basic labor that is so time consuming.

Joe Brown
Owner of Hot Rod Joe's Rod & Customs

If Joe's name or the name of his shop sounds familiar, you're not crazy. Hot Rod Joe's is responsible for our Car of the Year Mustang. Joe built the Mustang for himself and it has been making the rounds of all the big magazines, and has taken several major awards, including the Mothers Shine award at SEMA 2010.

"The biggest problem we see with customers wasting time and money is not having a good plan up front. They end up doing things two or three times. They really should consult with a pro builder to help them put a plan together if they are planning on doing it themselves," Joe stated. If you're going to use a shop for any of your project's work, you need to do your homework on that shop. "We have worked on many cars that were at other shops for way too long and they got nickel and dimed to death," Joe added. While it might be obvious to those who have been around the toolbox with a few projects under their belts, Joe also suggests picking a project car that is popular. Something like a '65-'68 Mustang, as parts will be cheaper, more parts are available, and there are more alternative/custom parts on the shelf for these popular cars. "By far the biggest money saver is just good planning," Joe said.

Kevin Tetz
Host and producer of Spike's TRUCKS! TV and host of Paintucation DVDS

Kevin's Paintucation videos have been a staple of popular restoration parts catalogs for many years. Having owned his own shop and seeing firsthand how much poor information was out there on DIY paint and body, he decided to show people the best way to tackle the subject with his Paintucation series. The rest is history. Of course, these days, he's super busy as host of Spike's Trucks! TV show (with Ryan Shand) on the PowerBlock, but still tries to fit in a custom project or two of his own, like his '66 Mustang "Project LPGT," which you can read more about on the Paintucation website.

"Having a plan and a solid goal and vision in mind is the most important thing in any project. I always start with a rendering. This can be as expensive as you want it to be, or as inexpensive, even using a coloring book will give you a guide to compare to. Digital artists are quite reasonable now and easy to find on most user group forums. A rendering can give you the freedom of custom designing wheels, body mods, colors, even the degree of window tint you want. Seeing an idea on a rendering and confirming it before you spend hundreds or thousands on the actual car is just plain smart. The rendering also serves as inspiration. I know it has on my '66 coupe. It's a visual reminder that it'll be worth all the time and skinned knuckles once it's finished," stated Kevin.

"Once you've got a clear vision of the car you want to build, and you're to the point of ‘hands-on' work, always start with the stance. Many custom shops literally have the vehicle blocked up at the ride height they want, and then place wheels or tires into the wheel arches to determine ride height, rake, track width, axle dimensions, as well as wheel and tire offset and sizes. This allows you to have the overall ‘vibe' you're looking for engineered into the car and not be an afterthought that ends up in a compromise," Kevin explained. Changing the stance after the car's suspension has been configured and installed can affect steering geometry, ride quality, and especially handling, which is particularly important if you want to play with the Pro Touring crowd.

The rest of the build's design will usually fall into the category (and caliber) of car you're building. "If you plan on auto crossing, eliminating chassis and body flex is a must. If you're hard-core restoration, your time will be spent on date coding components and detailing to period-correctness. Either way, the rendering will be your guide and will let you visualize the ‘spirit' of the project," Kevin elaborated. Every direction has its pitfalls, but choosing a path before you start will help eliminate wasted money and time in wandering along the way.

Steve Strope
Owner of Pure Vision Designs

Pure Vision Designs may not sound familiar to many of our readers, but that's all about to change with its latest build, the Anvil Mustang. While this is only the shop's second Ford-based project, Steve's designs have won accolades at major shows like SEMA and have even been made into die-cast cars and Hot Wheels cars!

If there's one thing Steve stressed to us, it's that the most important thing to consider on a car build is the vehicle's theme. The theme will determine time frame and cost of the project. Steve has seen too many times people have a "pie in the sky" mentality to build some uber-custom Mustang, and then they get in way over their heads and run out of money, ending up with an empty bank account and nothing to show for it. To add further insult to injury, the uncompleted project is often sold off. "This is supposed to be fun and not ruining marriages or preventing you from buying groceries," Steve lamented.

Let's say your build theme is a GT350 clone. Have you looked through a Mustang catalog to price out the key visual parts for the conversion? "That's where you can determine if you can actually afford your project. See if you really can afford your theme; if not, then consider a different theme," Steve added. If you can't afford your initial theme, then change to a theme you can afford, or budget and save until you can afford the original theme. A theme can also solve some of your build problems. For example, one of Steve's early builds had a hole in the hood from a blower and the grille was more or less sandblasted from road use. He opted to put a fiberglass scoop over the hole and blacked out the grille with matte black paint. These items worked with the theme and saved him a lot of money not having to get the grille re-chromed or buy a whole new replacement hood.

"You will pay someone to paint it; you will pay someone to cover custom panels, and so on," Steve said, referring to the small number of people who can truly do everything in their home shop. "A really nice custom-stitched leather interior over stock panels can run you $8,000-$10,000, so know what you want and how much it will cost." Everything else can happen after you have a plan for a theme and know you can afford the major parts and what you can do labor wise. Research your plan/theme on cost and time. Do you have the tools? Do you have the money? "If you're on the road six days a week for work, when will you have time to build the car? Maybe you have to pay to have the main paint and bodywork done," Steve suggested. "We use the exact same thought process here at Pure Vision; it's just different amounts of money. It's all forecasted and bullet pointed to our customers."

Part of the theme process can include design and color work Steve told us, but that doesn't mean you have to spend big bucks on a rendering. In the early days Steve would hang out at a Kinkos photocopying wheels and other parts, then tracing the car's body on paper and glue it all together. Finally he'd use colored pencil or crayons to color in the body. Today you can use the Internet and photo software to create your own images of what your theme will look like. There are ways to do it without having to pay big bucks for a concept drawing at the start. "Find a theme you can afford, be your own designer, and then tack it up in your garage and get to work," Steve explained.

Mike and Jim Ring
Ringbrothers

Mike and Jim Ring have been building award-winning vehicles for nearly two decades. Known for their outrageous classic Mustang builds, they've been known to put their specific style into GM and even Mopar projects (and a late-model Mustang or two). By far, though, their classic Mustang builds are what put the Ringbrothers shop on the map, into countless magazines, and stocked its shelves full of awards.

Like other pros have stated, building the car around the tire and wheel package is a must. Jim Ring told us the first thing they do is work with the owner to determine the wheel and tire package and stance of the project. The chassis and body are then built around that look. This is another reason why a concept drawing or digital rendering is so important.

"Lots of people overlook the exhaust. Many times we've seen builds where the builder must think, ‘Where the hell are we going to put the exhaust?' You need to mock up the exhaust right away," Jim Ring tells us. "Using a fully welded muffler, like a Flowmaster, you can move the inlet and outlet where you want to fit the muffler. Fit the body of the muffler where you need it in the chassis and then put the inlet and outlet where you need to," Jim shared.

The Ringbrothers shop also tries to build things that could have been a factory prototype or concept; even down to custom decals to give it an OE look. Taking away the polished/chrome accents and trim of a classic gives it a warmer and more OE feel. Play with textures for certain things like the floor (instead of carpet) and things like door panels and headliners.

"Make sure they use their trim to fit and bodywork the car, placing the clips where they need to be, test fitting the stainless, bodyworking the car so it fits right. There's nothing worse than a painted car and finding out the stainless fits poorly. Nobody bodyworks the car with door and trunk gaskets installed. We use two sets of gaskets. One set to bodywork and fit the panels, the second set for final assembly," Jim explained on fitting panels and setting gaps. Fit adjoining panels together before fully welding—quarters to trunk lid, quarters to rear valance, and so on. Making your own gaps is something that is often necessary, bodywork the whole side of the car for a better finish, not panel by panel.

"Spherical rod ends offer a much harsher ride, and some people don't like that. Bushings will get you a better feeling car and require less maintenance," Jim stated when we asked about thoughts on suspensions. "Tightening the suspension in place with jackstands is a common problem. Tightening in the air and then the car sits too high. Tighten the suspension with the car on the ground, especially with rubber bushings" Jim added.