For Bill Utley, the intention wasn’t ever to get actively involved in the business of building custom cars, and it certainly wasn’t to start a shop of his own.
To be honest, his side business of buying, selling and trading NOS and used muscle car parts was more of a source of cash to fund his own hobby, which at the time was wrenching daily on cars of his own.
But around 2006, that trajectory and purpose changed considerably when Bill and his son, Billy, attended their first major Pro Touring event, called Run Through the Hills in Pigeon Forge, Tenn. There, the Utleys marveled at the classic muscle cars-most upgraded and updated with modern suspension components, brake systems, drive trains and aesthetics.
Back then the trend that came to be known alternately as either Pro Touring or resto-mod was just emerging, bringing those and other creature comforts common in late-model vehicles to the interiors and undercarriages of the finest classic muscle cars.
In this growing resto-mod community, the purpose of building a car was to drive it. With that in mind, most builders were trying to equal-or best-the performance and driving experience of even the sharpest of today’s performance vehicles, while maintaining a classic appearance.
The Utleys quickly gravitated toward the new movement, which was fast replacing restoration as the hottest thing to do with an aging piece of American motoring history.
Within the next few years, the father and son team turned that passion into their first Pro Touring build near Detroit. With that first project under their belt, they hit the Pro Touring circuit themselves, and it didn’t take long for other fans of the genre to notice that something special was happening.
“After attending a few Pro Touring events, we built our first car, and things took off pretty rapidly from there,” says Billy, who got his first few years of professional experience in the industry working in-house for Detroit Speed Inc., another well-known player in the resto-mod movement at the time.
When Detroit Speed made its leap from the Motor City to North Carolina, Billy went along for the ride. It wasn’t long until he was back in Michigan, however, and back wrenching on the classic vehicles he loved.
In the years since, Billy says he’s marveled at how he and his father’s business, B&B Classics Inc., was born and has grown in the years since.
“The response from the community was great, with people asking if we could do projects ranging from fabrication jobs to pretty substantial upgrades to even a couple of full vehicle builds,” he adds. “It wasn’t too long until it became too overwhelming to just do as a side job anymore.”
So much so, he says, that early in 2011 he and his father took B&B Classics Inc. fulltime. The company secured a space in Ortonville, Mich., a sleepy village nestled in the rolling hills of north Oakland County, about 50 miles northwest of Detroit.
The shop includes 2,400 square feet of fabrication space as well as an additional 1,800-square-foot teardown area and tool/machine shop, says Billy.
A Certain Customer
Billy says that B&B Classics generally tailors its work to a fairly specific client, which is common for shops working in the Pro Touring business. Primarily, buyers of B&B’s projects are middle-aged, and have the resources to reconnect with the cars of their youth.
“Our main customer is the car guy who is looking for the car they once had in high school and had to get rid of, but has dreamt about,” says Billy. “Now that they’re all grown up, they want their toy back, but instead of a restored original car they want a car that has all the modern driveline, handling, brakes and reliability of a modern sports car.
“That work is definitely a big trend in our area,” he adds. “We get customers coming in with a completely restored original, and they tell us they love the car, but just don’t care for how it drives. It handles poorly and it’s not a comfortable ride. That’s where the resto-mod really rises above a restored original.”
To provide that level of comfort and ease of driving for their customers, B&B begins by disassembling the vehicle and sending body and sheet metal media off to be blasted. Billy then performs any required rust repair and sheet metal fabrication. Up next is typically a Detroit Speed suspension, and the driveline is mocked up and wheels installed.
When it comes time to plumb fluid lines and realign body panels, the elder Utley steps back in, pitching in on body work and paint. A little wiring work-”along with a ridiculous amount of detail work-”and B&B has a killer vehicle ready for the road. Next is Billy’s favorite part: the test drive.
“Currently, my Dad and I perform all the work,” he says. “I do all the fab work, and my dad does the body and paint. With the exception of things like media blasting and powder-coating, we’re able to do almost everything here in-house between the two of us.”
While turnkey builds garner a lot of the glory, B&B Classics (www.bbclassicsinc.com) currently offers a range of one-off services as well, including body panel repair and replacement, brake upgrades and custom systems, complete car wiring, suspension overhauls and upgrades, custom stainless hardline plumbing, custom exhaust systems, sheet metal and aluminum fabrication.
And the Utleys are quickly ramping up their product offerings as well, acting as a dealer for Detroit Speed, Forgeline wheels, Recaro seats and Allstar Performance Parts, among others.
Through it all, Billy has learned one very important lesson: Build a solid relationship with your distributor.
“We have formed a good relationship working with Motor State Distributing,” he says. “Their customer service and (the) products that they carry really helped us expand by allowing us to offer products for almost any automotive need. Beyond products, it’s important to have their staff as a resource, especially as a small shop. If you’re working alone, it’s great to have someone to call with questions.”
Highs & Lows
While he’s as passionate as ever about the work of building great vehicles, Billy admits that owning a business is a lot different than just turning a wrench. Some of the aspects of being a business owner he loves-some, not so much.
“I could certainly do without the paperwork and bookkeeping,” he jokes. “But you obviously can’t be successful without doing that and doing it well. It’s part of doing business.”
Other than the paperwork, he insists everything else is all good. And one part of business is especially rewarding:
“For me, the best of part of doing what we do is the close connection we have with the customer, being a small shop like we are,” he adds. “We get to be involved with working one-on-one with a customer from the start to the finish of a project and be involved with all aspects of the build.
“When we first started out, I really just wanted to turn the wrench, but as we started growing I found I enjoyed working with the customers to guide their direction. When you complete a project and see their reaction and see their appreciation, that might be the best part.”
Billy says one major challenge (a great one to have, but a challenge nonetheless) is keeping up with increasing demand.
“The biggest challenge we face at the moment is producing the amount of quality work we would like to in a timely manner for the customer with just the two of us working,” he says. “The near future will most likely require expanding the workforce. We’re just waiting and trying to find the right person. With only two of us here, that person has to be right.”
In the meantime, Billy says B&B Classics will continue to do what it has always done: work like heck to deliver great vehicles and keep trying to get the word out.
He says he hopes coming years will see the company launch an online store, but will focus in the meantime on more organic marketing.
“Most of our business and advertising comes from going to different track events around the country, primarily racing events, and we hope to get involved with sponsorship at some point too,” he says.
“Overall,” he adds, “we just hope for a slow and steady growth resulting in a successful business with a great reputation with the automotive enthusiast.”
Judging by the company’s trajectory thus far, it appears that future goal is all but assured.