This article originally appeared in the December 2023 issue of THE SHOP magazine.
As I travel around the world, I constantly meet people from other nations that have had cars built for them in the good ol’ USA.
The more I thought about it, the more I wondered why people would have a car built thousands of miles from home when, quite often, there are excellent shops in their own countries, particularly in Australia, Europe, New Zealand and elsewhere.
This phenomenon first popped up when I was at the Rømø Beach Festival in Denmark and was introduced to Mia Strandgaard Fluck, who was driving a stunning belly tank Lakester built in California by Marc Nelson.
“I actually built the tank for myself,” Nelson later explained, “but circumstances changed, and I put it up for sale. Mia’s husband Frank called from Denmark and after the third call a deal was struck. I took the car down to Kiwi Shipping in Gardena, California, and they forwarded it to Copenhagen. It was a simple deal with no headaches.”
However, the next shipment did not go quite so well.
“Frank ordered a roadster for himself, and we sold two other cars to friends of his. I delivered all three cars to a shipper in Fremont, California, assuming all three would go together in the same container. Frank’s car arrived safely in 14 weeks, which is two- to three-times the normal shipping time,” Nelson recalls. “The second car arrived six months after the first. Not good, but it arrived, which is more than I can say for the third car. It didn’t arrive for two years and (when it was found) was obviously forklifted, because the underside was badly damaged, as was the paint and the body, which was actually wrinkled.”
Somewhere along the way, the car also got re-titled in Texas.
“The shipping company really had no explanation for the re-titling, which is very concerning—where the car was for two years or how the damage occurred,” says Nelson. “It was a disaster, but thankfully the Danish customer was very understanding that none of it was my fault.”
Thankfully, the experience hasn’t deterred him from taking on overseas projects.
“Would I do it again, though? Yes. I know a lot more now than I did when I started and I’ve made some great international friends and the event at Rømø Beach Festival is just fantastic to attend,” Nelson says.
Also spotted at Rømø were roadsters owned by Pete Fontana and his son Sergio from Switzerland. Their cars were built by Andrew Kohler, owner of Kohler Kustom in Williamsport, Pennsylvania.
“I met Peter at Bonneville when I was crew chief on the Rolling Bones 532 roadster,” Kohler reports. “We’ve now built several cars for Peter and his friends, and because it is so very difficult to get anything registered in Switzerland we work very closely with Marcus and Thomas at T&M Schilter Speed Shop GmbH of Steinen, Switzerland. We’ll do the heavy chassis work and they’ll do the final push and finishing to meet Swiss regulations.”
How strict are the Swiss rules?
“For example, if the chassis was hot riveted from the factory, it has to be hot riveted, not welded, and if it came with a 4-cylinder engine it can’t have a V-8,” Kohler says. “Nevertheless, it makes sense to build them here in the U.S., where the raw materials, parts and skills are readily available.”
And his seas, so far, have been calm, if not always relaxed.
“Thankfully, we’ve had no shipping issues. I have shipped cars all over the world to Germany, Japan, Switzerland and the UK. I personally load all the cars and parts in the container and know they are secure and properly packed. However, the waiting game is frustrating for the customer. For fun I used to send Peter images of cars damaged in shipping, but finally realized that while that might be funny to me, it might not be funny to him, so I stopped.”
Someone else building for an international clientele is Jay Dean of Nostalgia Ranch in Fallbrook, California. Dean grew up in England, where he completed a traditional automotive apprenticeship in the family’s chain of dealerships. It gave him the best possible grounding for the career that followed and, in 1988 at age 19, he moved to California, where he was soon immersed in the SoCal scene.
In 2004, Dean felt the time was right to open Nostalgia Ranch, building and racing traditional-style hot rods. In 2019, he met Germans Stefan and Katrin Immke at a friend’s tiki party.
“Stefan and Immke were in the U.S. working on a coffee table book and movie, ‘Squeezed Up,’” Dean says, “and we hit it off immediately because of our mutual love of hot rods and Americarna.”
Instead of sending cars to them, the two travel regularly from their home in Cologne to enjoy their passion in sunny California. Dean began by rebuilding a vintage rail-style dragster for Stefan, saying, “It belonged to Justin Baas, one of the organizers of the RPM Nationals. I rebuilt the car entirely including the 286-ci flathead Ford V-8.”
Stefan reports there are few opportunities to race this kind of car in Europe.
“But we can fly to LA and enjoy events such as the RPM Nationals without having to worry, because Jay takes care of the cars and the logistics.”
Katrin was also bitten by the racing bug and for her Dean tracked down an original barn find race car from the 1940s.
“We traced its history,” says Dean, “and you can see from the decklid that Jack Truesdale ran 113.63 mph at El Mirage in 1949 in it. Then, as guys got into drag racing, Dick Hogan raced it at Paradise Mesa, won at Pomona in ’55 and won at Riverside in ’58. There’s a lot of history with this car.”
It took plenty of work to resurrect it, though.
“I’ll admit it was rough,” Dean says. “However, it was 90% complete—the block was missing but the heads, tach, seat, steering wheel and everything else is original. I even scratched down the paint and what you see is exactly how it was painted back in the day. I matched it as closely as I could.”
Again, it would be very difficult to enjoy a car like this in Germany.
“There are not many events like the RPM Nationals Barona or the TROG Airport Drags and it suits us to fly in to enjoy our hobby,” says Katrin.
OLD WORLD MEETS NEW
“We have one British customer, Geoff Stilwell,” says Mick Jenkins, owner of Mick’s Paint in Pomona, California, “and after he set a land speed record at 258.569 mph in 2018, we built him a new race car with a 300-mph target. Obviously, building a car of this caliber is very demanding in terms of time and money and, unlike our domestic customers, Geoff is unable to enjoy the build process in person, so we constantly send him photos and communicate—something you have to do with any customer, but it’s especially important when your customer is 6,000 miles away.”
The car was finished in 2019, but the weather at Bonneville that year was unfavorable. The pandemic followed, followed by a Bonneville washout in 2022.
“It hasn’t been easy,” says Jenkins. “However, we did some licensing passes at El Mirage twice and that was very successful. Overall, working with Geoff has been a great experience, even down to the transference of funds, which has not been a problem at all.”
For the final word we spoke to Stilwell, who says, “We don’t have much land speed racing in the UK, so if you want to race, this is the place. Racing in the U.S. and working with Mick and his team has been a real pleasure and, despite the weather, we’ve had a lot of fun and, of course, it is so much more cost-effective to do this in the U.S. where all the parts and the skills are located.”
Certainly, building cars for overseas clients adds another dimension to doing business, but with a seemingly endless cache of old cars available as well as a plentiful supply of parts and the necessary skills to build them—not to mention a strong interest from overseas gearheads—it appears that this market segment will continue to grow.