Built To Drive

Dec 8, 2009

From racecars to classics, Custom Auto does it all.

It’s one thing to be a hot rod purist, and another thing to make a living building them. The crew at Custom Auto in Loveland, Colo., does a good job of straddling the line between the two.

And what’s purism anyway? As Dave Crouse, Custom Auto’s owner, points out, even back in 1932, Henry Ford knew the market for the ’32 Ford coupe was made up of people who planned to change it.

In other words, it was always a blank canvas. Which means yes, that ’32 Ford out front of his shop has a ’69 Corvette engine in it and some other minor but inconspicuous modifications.

That’s why they call it custom.

Surrounding the shop complex are racks with frames, bumpers and other rare car parts-the raw materials that go into the custom projects that leave the shop. One, the black ’32 Ford three-window that’s almost ready to be delivered to its owner, is parked at the front door.

But the real action is inside, where a broad array of vehicle types meets a crew practiced at doing everything that goes into building a custom car. Only the upholstery and chrome plating are sent out.

“We pretty much set our own place in the market,” Crouse says. “We’re not a household name, but we’re in there. We’re known among collectors at the top end, which is the most stable part of the market. It’s not a hobby for people who are faint of checkbook.”

The shop’s team includes college-educated restoration experts.

The shop’s team includes college-educated restoration experts.

Back East Roots

Crouse spent 20 years working in the restoration market back East before coming to Loveland. He says he built the business around the top-end hot rod market from the beginning.

“It’s not easy to find customers in this market, so you have to treat them right,” he says. “Then they come back and want you to do more.”

And “more” is not limited to slick hot rods. Many clients are not just one-time customers because most own more than one car. So, one of his important services is to find cars and assemble collections for a lot of these customers, too.

Earlier this year, for instance, Crouse headed to Monterey, Calif., where he took a trailer loaded with a racecar and a Jaguar to a bidding auction for a client. He returned with two more project cars. This type of activity is what keeps the shop in work and keeps the owners of the vehicles coming back.

Two big projects currently in the works at the shop include a vintage land speed racing car and a Kurtis 500S. Crouse found the jobs, then drove to California with the trailer to get them.

“A lot of guys buy, sell and trade back and forth. You never know,” Crouse says.

So, what does it take to know enough about all these cars to gain those clients’ trust, and then actually build something for them?

“That’s the challenge,” he says. “I’ve been working on special vehicles my whole life. All kinds of cars. It doesn’t matter; it’s still a car. You have to understand the whole thing. You have to do the research and learn what a car consists of-mechanically and the whole design concept. So when someone brings a car I’ve never done before, I look it up.”

Custom Auto has built a few show cars over the years, but Crouse says it’s not the market he goes after.

“It’s harder to build investment cars that are just show cars; it takes so much to compete at that show level, it drives up the cost,” he explains.

What he does emphasize is drivability and performance.

“It’s an integral part of what we do,” he says from behind the wheel of the ’32 Ford, explaining that the customer had yet to see it. “We’ve had this one for several months. We’ll keep it for the summer, because the only way to figure it out is to drive it. Our cars are built to drive.”

Performance Counts

Crouse believes everyone-even clients who are mainly interested in vintage car restorations-wants the performance improved on their cars. And there are many ways to do that.

“We do it on everything, whether it’s just a really good technical tune-up on a Duesenberg or a Packard or it’s the addition of performance parts to give it more horsepower and make major changes. A lot of the cars you can’t change, you just have to improve the performance with a tune-up and internally.”

And some cars are meant to be built, like the three-window, for instance. It has a ’69 Corvette 427 engine with ’69 Corvette triple carburetors. It’s built to look like an engine somebody yanked out of a Corvette, put into a ’32 Ford and made into a hot rod.

“We do high-tech performance upgrades, too,” Crouse adds. He points to a maroon coupe with a brand-new 385 fast-burn GM crate engine.

“It’s a great thing building street rods and hot rods these days,” says Crouse. “There are so many aftermarket assemblies available. You can mix and match and that makes it really fun.”

However, low-tech or not, Crouse says most of his clients want carburetors rather than electronic fuel injection setups.

“It’s something they can play with; turn screws,” he explains.

Crouse says most clients are fairly experienced in the mechanical end of things-it’s why they’re interested in custom builds at all. Custom Auto (www.realhotrods.com) gets to build the car because it has the facilities with all the fabrication equipment, he notes.

And the team.

The crew all has overlapping talents and are all college-educated to do restoration work.

“It takes a whole team to make nice vehicles,” says Crouse. “It takes good fabricators, mechanics, painters-”and owners.”

He emphasizes vehicle owners because Crouse believes his clients are as much a part of the team as anyone else on the crew and they have to be engaged in the project to make good decisions.

“You also have to be extremely and constantly self-critical,” says Crouse. “You have to know where you’re going with the car to have it judged and be in the loop deep enough to know what they want and then you have to produce it. At the same time, you have to keep the customer happy. People are paying a lot of money to have things right. You can’t give them crappy products. It’s the only thing that has really brought us to this level.”