Dynamic Duo: Mayer & Karlsson team up on American Hot Rods

Aug 4, 2010

With considerable experience and plenty of name recognition, Bernt Karlsson and Duane Mayer have started their own performance customizing shop, American Hot Rods Inc., in Anaheim, Calif.

Both learned from the master, Boyd Coddington, and over the years have had their own shops as well, perfecting their skills along the way by building and working on rods, muscle cars, sport trucks, Astro vans, Caprice wagons, customs, lead sleds, and everything in-between.

Combined, there is over 60 years of hands-on experience between the two, with their tenures at Boyd Coddington’s shop, their own shops, and stints working at Ryan Friedlinghaus’ West Coast Customs shop after Coddington’s death.

They’ve now started American Hot Rods Inc. and have begun designing and building rods for customers that demand high quality and style. Here’s a little information on the two longtime customizers.

Duane Mayer

Mayer grew up in Beloit, Wis., and his first car was a 1967 Chevelle Malibu street machine, a car he bought as a 16-year-old in 1975. He had first begun tinkering with cars as a young teenager and eventually got a job working at a gas station.

His sights were set on getting more involved in the world of high-performance cars, and along the way he bought and sold numerous Chevy street machines and classics, which at the time were somewhat easy to come by and profitable to sell after being restored.

The local car scene for him growing up in the Midwest were the drag strips of Byron Dragway in nearby Rockford, Ill., and Great Lakes Dragway in Union Grove, Wis.-places where Mayer would attend as both a spectator and participant in street drags and car shows.

It was while on a trip to California that he met Coddington at a car show, and soon after Duane had a truck built by the California car builder. When Coddington called to say it was finished, Mayer flew to the West Coast and drove it back home to Wisconsin.

Soon after, he decided to take a chance and relocate to Southern California, and found himself working for Coddington. He started at the bottom and worked his way up, learning through osmosis from Coddington himself and fellow employees.

He later moved on and went to work for Chuck Lombardo at California Street Rods in Huntington Beach, and then about a year later opened his own shop, Hot Cars, in Anaheim.

Along with his regular customizing, Mayer also tackled some muscle car restoration projects, plus sport truck and Astro van work, which was the rage at the time.

After running his own shop for about 10 years, he had an opportunity to go back to work at Coddington’s shop, which had grown by leaps and bounds.

These days, Mayer may be best known for his role as shop manager on the American Hot Rod television program that ran from April, 2004, through March, 2008. He appeared somewhat gruff to viewers, and was projected as being unfriendly at times, especially when dealing with the constant struggles of building custom cars under the extremely tight deadlines of the show.

It would be unfair to judge his personality based solely on the TV show, however, as in reality it was part “Hollywood drama” interjected into the plot and part the “facts of reality” a shop manager has to face when high-quality vehicle creation is expected in eight weeks.

Between all the magazine articles and covers that Mayer has been involved with over the years, (his personal vehicles as well as customer cars from Coddington’s shop and Lombardo’s shop) and the exposure from the television series, Mayer in now recognized in automotive circles. There was even a book written about the TLC American Hot Rod program (American Hot Rod by William G. Scheller), and the show lives on in reruns.

Mayer took some of the photos that appear here of Coddington’s shop and projects, as well as of the California Street Rods facility. “I was still in awe of everything when I was working for Boyd’s,” he says. “When I was a kid in Wisconsin I would read about this stuff, and here I was actually working at the shop with all these famous vehicles!”

Bernt Karlsson

The first time Karlsson sanded on a fender was when he was 15-his first job working for an elderly man who ran a private body shop in Furusjö, Sweden. He was taught the “old school” techniques like leading (using lead as opposed to plastic filler) as well as how to properly apply lacquer paint finishes.

From there he was self-taught in the ways of metal fabrication and custom fiberglass work, and perfected his skills of bodywork and paint prep at a young age.

His desire was to get his foot in the door of the custom paint business, the idea of getting noticed in the Swedish car magazines as a major accomplishment. The founder of Wheels magazine, Sture Torngren, gave Karlsson his first magazine coverage at 17-first in Colorod magazine and later in Wheels-and became a friend and mentor to the young painter.

While being interviewed by Lowrider magazine in early 1985, Karlsson told the editor of his plans to come to America. “I am going to show them how things are done,” he said in an article on his creation, the Pink Lady VW Bug.

He arrived in the States in 1989 at the front door of Boyd Coddington’s shop. He knew there were some Swedish workers there, and through them he inquired about getting a job doing paintwork.

He didn’t work for Coddington long, opening up his own paint and body business in Orange County and securing the Ferrari account.

Later in the mid-1990s, Karlsson created his signature colors of Candy Tangerine and Passion Purple. They became his trademark hues and soon graced numerous magazine covers on custom sport trucks and minivans.

In 2005 he went back to work for Coddington as body shop manager in time for the American Hot Rod program.

Now he and Mayer have opened their new shop. See more at www.americanhotrodsinc.com.