The Repro Man: Scott Drake
Scott Drake is a perfectionist. Don’t believe it? Then ask his wife, Suzanne. She can tell you about the times that Scott brought home prototype parts and slept with them right beside him on the bedside table.
“Getting the first part off the tooling has always been one of the most exciting things for me,” Scott says. “I used to bring a new part home much like a father brings home his first-born. I’d look at it, play with it. Even on the way home at a stop light, I’d pick it up and look at it. Later, I would proudly put it on my nightstand so it would be right there in case I wanted to look at it some more to make sure I was making the best part possible. I got a lot of teasing from my wife.”
Scott readily admits that developing and creating reproduction Mustang parts is what motivates him even after more than 30 years in the business. He doesn’t take parts home anymore but still exhibits the same passion for producing quality reproduction parts for vintage Mustangs. From a single trunk weatherstrip as a high school student in 1977, Scott has built a company, Drake Automotive Group, that specializes in reproductions for ’65-’73 Mustangs. However, he’s also expanded into manufacturing parts for the classic Bronco, Jeep, Toyota FJ, and the new Challenger, Camaro, and late-model Mustang. For a couple of years, Drake partnered with Shelby Performance Parts to develop and manufacture parts for new Shelby Mustangs. The company is still a preferred vendor and manufactures many items for SPP.
Walk into any Mustang parts store and you’ll be greeted by racks of red-backed blister packs with the Scott Drake name on them. So who is Scott Drake and what makes him such a perfectionist when it comes to reproducing Mustang parts?
“When Scott goes back into the engineering rooms, he’s literally a kid in a candy store,” says Bob Fisher, who was recently brought in as general manager so Scott can focus on the R&D side of the business. “The glow just comes out of him when he’s working on a new part. One of the big jokes internally is, when Scott lifts his glasses and he really starts to look at a part in detail, look out because he’s about to run off a list of stuff that he can see but no one else can.”
Today, the Drake Automotive Group operation is located in an 86,000 square feet facility in Henderson, Nevada, just south of Las Vegas, where parts are developed, manufactured, assembled, inspected, packaged, and shipped to dealers around the world. The company currently employs 67 people, including three full-time engineers experienced in the latest technology, including modern Solid Works programming with rapid prototype capabilities. We talked with Scott about how he got started and what drives him to perfection.
MM: How did you get started in the Mustang reproduction parts business?
SD: My family has always been involved in cars. I grew up in southern California and was involved in cars there, cruising and all that stuff. My dad was a body and fender man so I would help him out by wet sanding cars and learning a little bit about bodywork. My dad and I would also run up and down California to the swap meets to buy and sell Model A parts. My brother, Bob Drake, specialized in 1932-1948 Fords and I worked with him for a while as well.
When I was about 14, my dad told me to buy some Model A floorboard fender washers, package them in sandwich bags, make a little sign, and sell them at the Reno Swap Meet. I made $40 and thought that was wonderful. A message to all the fathers out there: one never knows the value or impact of lessons. Sometimes these simple lessons turn into major turning points in life’s journey. Sometimes these simple lessons are a lot bigger than they were intended. In my case, I still put things together as kits. What I learned when I was 14 I’m applying today. Of course, at that time, reproductions were far from my mind but it did show me the value and reward of hard work.
MM: Did you have a Mustang interest back then?
SD: I can’t say that I had a Mustang interest at 14. That didn’t come until right before high school. By 16 or so, I certainly had a Mustang interest. I would go to wrecking yards to pull Rally Pacs, styled steel wheels, and other parts because there were no reproductions then. And I would sell that stuff at the Pomona Swap Meet. I eventually realized that it wasn’t efficient because it consumed so much time finding product.
MM: How did you start reproducing Mustang parts?
SD: I decided to make trunk weatherstripping. I made a die and had a rubber company in California extrude 1,000 feet of trunk seal. As soon as I had the part, I went to my high school drafting teacher, Mr. Palagyi, to see if I could test it on his ’65 six-cylinder coupe. I remember gluing it on, then pouring buckets of water over it. And it sealed. So that was my first product. My girlfriend, Suzanne, and I cut it to length in her mother’s living room, rolled it up, and put into bags. I sent samples to some of the earliest Mustang companies, some still in business today. I parlayed the profits into more products.
A few years ago, we restored Mr. Palagyi’s six-cylinder coupe for him. Jerry Choate did a wonderful restoration for us. And I presented the car to Mr. Palagyi at the SEMA Show. He cried, I cried. I remember him saying in class, “If any of you kids make it, I want 10 percent.” I couldn’t give him 10 percent but I did restore his car for him.
MM: Do you remember your second product?
SD: I did more rubber extrusions. The door courtesy light was also very early. Emblems too.
MM: How did things progress from there?
SD: I had moved to Grant’s Pass, Oregon, and worked up there for about seven years. When my first son, Troy, was born with Down’s Syndrome, we came back to southern California. The business stayed there until 2004 when we moved it to Henderson, Nevada, near Las Vegas.
MM: Would you say that you were in the right place at the right time when the Mustang hobby took off?
SD: It’s funny you say that because I refer to that a lot. People ask, “Well, how did all this happen?” It took a lot of hard work, of course. Part of it was knowing how to manufacture product, but also being at the right place and choosing the right car. With Mustangs at a million and half by mid 1966, there’s a tremendous volume out there. It was the right car at the infancy of the industry. We ran ads in Mustang Monthly.
MM: You’re one of Ford’s top licensees. How did the licensing program affect things?
SD: Early on, Ford didn’t have an approval process. Ford actually referred business to us but I was always fearful to disclose that we made emblems because while the right arm helped us, the left arm might shut us down. Ford eventually came out with a licensing program that brought it all into the light and we pay a royalty for using the trademarks. It also allowed licensed suppliers to get original blueprints, which are very helpful. I’m told that we pay them more royalties than any other vendor when it comes to reproduction parts.
As a side note, we’re a direct supplier to Ford Motor Company as their manufacturer of the shift ball for the Shelby GT 500 and Boss 302. We’re Tier One at Ford, and I think that’s really cool because there aren’t many small companies that sell direct to Ford and meet their manufacturing requirements.
MM: You’ve already reproduced so many vintage Mustang parts. How do you decide on new products?
SD: We look at what’s needed, we listen to our dealers, and I talk to people at car shows. We’re still working on Mustangs ourselves, so when we need a part that’s not available, we consider it. The only things left to make are some of the more obscure parts. We just made the little plastic bushing in the upper end of the steering column and the ’69-’70 Shaker hood trim retainer bracket.
We’re also constantly improving parts that we’ve made in the past, sometimes offering two different quality levels. For example, the original ’65 GT emblems were real Cloisonné, a process that’s basically powdered glass put into an oven until it turns into a liquid, then the top surface is polished. The early reproductions were painted and filled with an epoxy type of plastic, which cracked and chipped. Now we’ve done the real Cloisonné reproductions too.
We also just came out with concours windlace. All you used to be able to buy was generic windlace with sierra grain, which was used on some Mustangs but not all. Now we’ve made the original basketweave pattern for ’66-’67 cars and we’re working on the pebble finish for ’70s.
Another example of raising the bar would be our new 289 fender badges. When we did the first ones, we injected them out of zinc die-cast. But if you look at an original 289 fender badge, it’s not zinc at all. It’s aluminum. Zinc die-cast is easier to work with; it’s kind of the standard today when you want something chrome-plated. But if you look closer, the 289 emblem was made from a stamping process. And it’s not chrome-plated either. It’s anodized. So that’s three things different on the reproduction from the original. Currently we offer both the original concours stamped anodized aluminum version and the die cast chrome plated version.
MM: We’ve noticed that you’re now producing parts with a concours look but improved performance.
SD: Yes, you ran an article about our Halogen sealed beam headlight with the FoMoCo script (“How to: Install Halogen Headlights,” April 2012). That’s been a great product. I like it because it’s concours correct but modified a little to turn it into a Halogen. So you’re taking that tungsten product that produces okay light and you make it safer. With older parts, I personally like to upgrade them to the new standard, whether it’s electro-luminescent gauges, or Halogen headlights, or better taillights so people can see them a little better. They look identical to the original but the performance is improved.
MM: How much of your reproduction line do you actually manufacture at your facility in Henderson?
SD: That’s a tough one because there’s so much. With the Halogen headlights, we own the tooling but use an outside vendor to make them because headlights are not our specialty. As far as zinc die-casting and steel stamping, my belief has always been to let the professionals run the equipment. I could do some of that, but I would be a novice at it. So we own the tooling manufactured to our specs and control the engineering and how it fits, but we let the experts run the die-cast and plastic injection operations. After it goes through the die-casting, we send it out for chrome plating.
We’re involved in so many things – cold forging, hot forging, aluminum die-casting, plastic injection, steel stampings, deep draw stampings. We also do a lot of machining with billet aluminum. Of course, that’s more for the restomod market but we do a lot of that type of product as well.
MM: You manufacture the ’65-’67 styled steel wheels, right?
SD: Yes, we have automated robotic welding equipment for our styled steel wheel line. That’s a huge stamping. It takes about 10 dies, half the size of an office desk, just to make that wheel. We machine the inserts and send them to California for chrome plating. Then we align, weld, and paint them in-house. We have a pretty sophisticated clear-lens department where we paint the hub cap lenses, along with gas cap and other lenses.
MM: Is it difficult to compete against the reproductions made in Asia?
SD: Many times, they come in at a cheaper price. But there’s a difference in the fit and finish. Does the product fit the original Ford part that you’re trying to fit it to? Will it last? It costs a little more to get it right. I like referring to the ’68 steering wheel emblem. For years, the Asian importer made a blue, white, and red tri-bar logo. And I would talk to them about it but they would never fix it. I mean, how easy is that to change? I finally got fed up and made it the right way.
MM: How complex is the process of coming up with a new reproduction part. Does it depend on the part?
SD: It really does. Some things are simple, like my first rubber extrusion. That was like the Play-Doh machine you had as a little kid and you pressed the Play-Doh through the little die. I think die-cast and plastic injection are the most difficult. Probably thin-walled die-cast is the hardest.
When I look at a part and see how it’s made, it’s fun to dissect it and understand what processes were done to make it.
MM: Has new technology helped?
SD: Very much so. That has been one of the coolest things since I’ve been in the parts business. Our engineers can take a Ford blueprint or original samples and recreate them three dimensionally in a Solid Works program. With an actual part, we can do that with a variety of measuring and scanning equipment to create the part on the screen. Prior to sending the 3D data to a mold shop, we produce a rapid prototype piece. For example, if we’re doing an outside door handle, we’ll produce an exact plastic version. Depending on the complexity, it might take six to 12 hours. Then you can bolt it on to see if it fits. You can even put threads inside a hole. We’ve done our job when you can’t tell the difference between our product and an original Ford product. We rapid prototype everything that we do before giving the go-ahead to cut tooling.
MM: You obviously have a lot of pride in the products with your name on them.
SD: It’s not just a sales thing; it’s how I feel. It’s the pride in the product we make. There have been many times when I’ve been beaten to the marketplace because I wasn’t happy with the third or fourth sample. I held off and let somebody else come to the market first because I wasn’t satisfied. And we still run it that way today. We don’t run production until we’re happy with the prototypes.
MM: Is there any particular part that you’re proudest of?
SD: Wow. There are literally thousands. I think the product that I am most proud of was my first, the extruded trunk seal. That showed me that I had the ability to create something that the Mustang market needed and would support. It led to a second, then a third product which has now snowballed into thousands of parts for the Mustang community. As they say, the first step is always the hardest one to take and I’m happy that I have been able to take many.
MM: In the last few years, you’ve made the move into the late-model Mustang arena. What’s that been like?
SD: We really like the late-model market but there are so many people doing it. It’s different, in some cases I think because technology was more advanced, so the parts are more difficult to manufacture than with the 1960s cars. But we’re good with that. It’s certainly an area we’re expanding into. Of course, our little stint with Shelby Performance Parts got us very much involved with the newest Mustangs. We’re still a supplier to Shelby.
Scott Drake was 16 years-old when he spent $300 for his first car, a ’65 Mustang fastback, in 1975.
“I had saved $1,200 but paid $300 for the Mustang thinking I’d bring it back to life,” Scott recalls. “I remember it had baby moon hubcaps painted green, about 12 shades of paint, and shag green carpet for the headliner. It was just a disaster, but my Dad and I worked on it, repainting it in our garage in Canoga Park, California.”
Scott still owns the Mustang, which was repainted again, in red, when it was restored as a Shelby clone in 1995. Over the years, the fastback has served as a test-bed for many Scott Drake restoration parts. “We’ve tested all kinds of products on that vehicle,” Scott says. “Whenever you see it, there’s usually a part or two off of it. Right now, it’s missing the radiator because we’re working on some cool radiator coolant tanks.”
Like all first cars, Scott has plenty of stories to tell, like his first date with his future wife. “The Mustang didn’t have a heater motor so cold air was blowing through the firewall onto Suzanne,” Scott remembers. “She must have thought I was a real loser. She married me anyway, so I lucked out.”