Gas From the Past

Nov 3, 2011

Business 101 says to find a niche, be the very best at it and you’ll be successful. That is exactly what John Shelton had in mind when he formed American Gasser in 2008.

Today, building almost exclusively Gassers in many shapes and varieties, he is an example of how that lesson can work.

Located  in Litchfield, Ohio, a country town south of Cleveland, American Gasser focuses on classic 1933 and 1940-’41 Willys coupes. The shop builds them as street rods, race cars and those that do both. Included are winning show cars and hardcore Gasser racers such as the 1941 model named “The Tallahassee Lassie” complete with a 472-ci Hemi and full roll cage.

The company’s reputation has grown as Gasser experts to the point that when owners find a barn-fresh Willys just ripe for a straight axle and other nose-up goodies, they bring them straight to American Gasser.

One such example is a pristine 1938 Willys pickup that is 2011 clean. How clean is that? When they started adding Gasser staples such as the straight axle and narrowed rear end on the truck, the shop only needed to modify the original chassis and install the parts. Look for “The Haymaker” at a nostalgic race near you next summer.

Fun by Definition

American Gasser, or AG as some of its branding reads, has tapped into the tremendous love affair car enthusiasts have with a genre that refuses to go away quietly.

Add the fact that Ohio is strong home turf for Gassers and AG is lifting the wheels with some serious momentum.

For those who don’t know, AG says, “a Gasser is the term used in the late 1950s through the 1960s for a vehicle that drag raced simply on gas as fuel (rather than a race fuel) and competed in a heads-up drag race in which classes were separated by engine cubic inches and vehicle weight.”

It goes on to explain the evolution: “As the Gasser developed, modifications to the suspension and wheelbase started to appear-”most notably a straight axle front suspension that became standard in the faster classes. This intimidating stance served a functional purpose during drag racing’s early years-”to provide rear weight transfer as a drag race starting line advantage.”

Reinforced by the demand for such track and street vehicles, Shelton left behind a career as an engineer in the aerospace and automotive industries to form AG.

“Raised on all facets of car performance including drag racing, circle track racing, engine building, car restoration, hot rod building and classic car collecting, it has been a lifelong ambition to spend more than just hobby time in the field,” says Shelton. “My father, also John Shelton, advised me late in his life to pursue my dreams, since his life of maintaining a career in addition to supporting a side hot rod business literally wore his body out. He passed away before reaching the retirement years when he could enjoy the fruits of his labor.”

But he showed the younger Shelton that it is possible to combine a love of fast cars with a successful business.

“I literally observed the grassroots hobby expand my entire life to what it is today: an industry,” he says. “And if it’s an industry, it must be safe to enter as a career.”

AG occupies more than 4,000 square feet of shop space that started with an Amish-built barn and the addition of a newer pole barn. Shelton says the look and feel of the shop is important to its overall presentation.

“Nostalgia doesn’t get any better than when customers walk into a shop with a rack of steel, a welder, a frame jig and an exposed barn ceiling.”

He points out a nationwide map on the wall with 40 pushpins representing each Willys (from Oregon to Florida to Connecticut) created at AG. Shelton says he was surprised the first time a potential out-of-town client called to inform him he was flying into Cleveland to visit the shop and discuss a build.

Gassers Your Way

While AG may deal in vintage automobiles, its marketing methods are as modern as they come.

Shelton says the AG website is designed to “capture the imagination and excite customers who take their cars to shows and bring home trophies. Like any business, word of mouth is very powerful.”

AG offers four stages of completion, allowing owners to decide just how much they want to do themselves.

Stage I is a complete four-layer, hand-laid fiberglass body package for those with their own chassis. All bodies are produced with the choice of a single-piece, tilt front end or as a four-piece front end with opening hood. Stage I has options ranging from power windows to a six-point roll cage.

Stage II is AG’s basic body and frame package and includes one of its in-house frames with fully boxed main rails, tubular cross-members tied together with a tubular driveshaft loop and complete with brackets.

Stage III is its body and rolling chassis package and goes a little further by including full Gasser suspension. The list of options is bigger and ranges from headlights to fully plumbed brakes.

Finally, Stage IV cars are Pro Street body, rolling chassis Gassers with options including using a rear four-link and Mustang II IFS with rack steering.

As far as what sells the best, Shelton says, “Stage III is the clear leader, but growing rapidly are our turnkey cars,” which he proudly notes have even won awards at some of the bigger shows.

Gassers winning car shows? It may not be what the early racers had in mind, but still not bad for a guy who just wanted to keep Gassers alive.

At the very least, offering the Willys gives rodders a choice of something different.

So how can a business stay afloat with such a small product line? American Gasser does almost everything in-house. It owns the molds it uses, and has ScottRods make the fiberglass body pieces that are fit and bonded to each body, often with steel reinforcing.

AG’s chassis are made in-house as well with a clever jig that is actually two jigs. On one side, the 4-by-2-inch tubing frame rails for the ’40-’41 Willys are fabricated. Turn the jig over and it is ready to fabricate the narrower, ’33 Willys 2-by-3-inch tubing frame rails.

And as any drag or street/strip car needs a beefy rear end, those, too, are fabricated in-house on a jig for the Ford 9-inch rear. Not far from the rear end jig is one used for fabricating the distinctive Gasser straight axles offered in 4- and 6-inch drop configurations.

Shelton points out that the “Stick” front axles are now a far cry from the ill-handling systems used so many years ago. And building its own front- and rear-ends reinforces the shop’s expert credentials to customers as well as increasing profit margins.

The in-house list goes on to include the big, also-distinctive push bar rear bumper that often acted as ballast on classic Gassers. Today, they are polished aluminum with good-looking engine-turned brackets.

Even the fabricated radiator mounts, fully revealed when a tilt front end is opened, are AG exclusives that often find their way onto other types of cars via the company’s parts business.

Market Leader

Recently, AG made a simple-yet-effective move to increase its branding. The company’s parts line now includes custom AG 1960s-style dash gauges that would look good not only on Gassers, but any vintage car or truck. The gauges are the first step for Shelton in expanding the AG brand to reach beyond Gassers without losing its core identity.

In another move to increase visibility, SEMA member AG hosted a Friday night open house for entrants in the nearby Ohio Nationals street rod show this year. The first-time event, sanctioned by the Vintage Street Rodders of America (VSRA), was held just down the road in Medina, Ohio.

It was a natural fit for AG to invite everyone over for burgers and dogs and an open house tour. Shelton says, “For what it cost to feed a bunch of street rodders who were in town anyway, we got the American Gasser name out there pretty good and made a lot of new friends.”

AG was also very active at the show all weekend and plans to expand its involvement next year when the event returns. There may even be a “Gasser Gang” area of the VSRA show sponsored by AG to bring all the likeminded fans together.

Ask Shelton about the popularity of the nosebleed race car and he’ll smile and tell you at times he is amazed, but not surprised.

“I am a hardcore Gasser fan and as much as I love these cars and always believed they would be a viable business, it still makes me happy to watch another one take shape in the shop. It’s even better in the hands of an equally proud new owner as they roll out of the driveway.”

Between building them with his staff of three, he is looking for new ways to keep Gassers alive and take advantage of today’s hot buzz level interest in such a historically pivotal car.

Don’t tell Shelton it’s a niche market unless you’re prepared to be corrected. He’ll gladly tell you that, for passionate Gasser owners and fans, it’s a lifestyle.