Ever since he was 2 years old and could name every car on the road or so his mother tells him — Rick Bottom has had a passion for anything that rolls.
Now 49, Bottom has been building project vehicles for the SEMA Show since 1996 — a total of 32 in all. He has established long-running relationships with GM and Ford, and has worked with Toyota on three projects as well.
His creations have been featured in more than 50 magazine articles, several tech articles and TV and radio appearances.
Bottom is the owner of Rick Bottom Designs/Rick Bottom Custom Motorsports in Mendota Ill, (also the hometown of Dave Despain of SPEED channel’s Wind Tunnel program, he notes), where he lives with wife Jody and daughters Elle, 10, and Emme, 7.
He recently took time out from his current projects (a Camaro and a Lincoln) to discuss life as a show car builder, the demands of the SEMA Show and advice he has for new builders entering the market.
How did you first become involved with building project vehicles?
I have a very unlikely story on how I got started doing all of this. I was in the construction industry and did a job for an area Dodge dealer. We decided to do a little bartering — one new foundation for one new Dodge 3500 dually truck!
I got that truck and thought I could make it better for my purposes, so we did lots of body mods, air suspension, supercharged the V-10 engine, added aftermarket leather, installed a huge stereo system, added custom paint and graphics, etc.
I got it finished in time for the 1996 Sport Truck Nationals. We got there the night before and I got to preview some of the other trucks and kind of thought I was out of my league — some of them were art on wheels. I told my wife we should just pack up and go back home, but she assured me that ours was that good.
To my surprise, when we went out the next morning, there was a crowd around our truck and guys from two different magazines were waiting to talk to me. We ended up with several awards at that show and eight feature stories about that truck.
That led to me being asked by Alcoa wheel company to display it at the SEMA Show, and we did. It was a hit there and we began getting a lot of calls from companies wanting to place products on my new projects.
A couple of years later, I was approached by the OEs to work directly with them and have never looked back. It’s an exciting job, to say the least.
So, you’ve created a successful business doing this full time?
My business is unique in that I do very little customer work. I’m more of a project vehicle specialist.
My expertise lies in working with aftermarket companies and OEMs in developing products and accessories for current-model cars and trucks. Once the products are developed, then a project vehicle is designed around those products, along with custom paint, wheels, performance upgrades and other styling cues, to use in displays at automotive trade and consumer shows.
This generates interest in the products and the vehicle brands. People say, “Hey, look at all the cool parts available for the new Camaro — ARH headers, Vortech supercharger, Axiom forged wheels, a Pedders suspension that pulls over 1.05g! I think I’m going to buy one and hot rod it myself.”
This really works to sell more cars for the OEs. With all the great parts out there, an enthusiast can truly personalize his car to make it one of a kind. We also provide R&D feedback that is invaluable to many companies we work with.
What’s your shop like?
My business facility is about 6,800 square feet of shop space in an industrial area of town. We take pride in doing as much as possible in-house, and have a well-equipped shop that includes a paint booth, lifts, a drive-over pit, machining equipment, etc. Our new Lincoln welders really make life in the shop enjoyable.
I have several coworkers who help with the project builds. Cory Stuart has been there since Day One. This guy can do anything auto-related and is a big reason for our success. I also have a lifelong friend, Tim Bias, who was an automotive engineer for over 20 years (now a college professor) has been a great problem-solver for us.
I also rely on many of the local shops to help out during builds. Lots of talented craftsmen help with these projects. My interior guy is Trent Van Arsdalen of Trent’s Trick Upholstery in the Columbus, Ohio area. He’s one of the best there is.
What does it take to create a successful project?
To develop a successful project it takes a good vehicle to start with, first and foremost. Then decide what your target market is and go from there.
A vehicle that will have good aftermarket support will naturally have a bigger draw to your display. I have also tried to work with the very best products that are offered for each vehicle.
Also, work with vendors that you know you can count on to get you what you need when you need it. There’s nothing more frustrating than promoting a company’s product through press releases prior to the show and than having them fail to deliver for you. Work with people you can count on.
On the PR side, it is most important to work with a professional publicist to get the word on the street. They are your best bet to promote your project properly. They work with editors, TV and radio hosts, etc., on a daily basis and this leads to great opportunities for (publicizing) your project.
What projects are you working on for this year’s SEMA Show?
This year, we are proud to be working with GM and Ford on very high-profile projects.
Sophisticated performance is the theme for my Project Camaro “2GO,” and it will have 1,000 hp with a Mast Motorsports engine, Vortech V-7 supercharger and Labonte Motorsports water/methanol injection system that allows it to run on pump gas.
The Ford project is a Lincoln MKT crossover vehicle. This thing seats six and is offered with an EcoBoost turbocharged V-6 that is direct-injected. It offers the power of a V-8 but with V-6 economy. It is a very high-tech, high-feature vehicle. The theme for this one is luxury performance with high style.
Can you outline the process involved in taking a project from concept to show floor?
Here is the process I follow:
- Pick your goals.
- Pick your vehicle.
- Decide on your new products or ones you would like to see developed or promoted.
- Get a rendering done and a PR plan, and stick to it. Only work with the best.
- Send out the rendering through press releases to announce the project and invite people to your display.
- Set a build schedule.
- Publicize to enthusiast websites too.
- You can also send out postcards to show attendees to invite them to your booth, and use the overrun to give out at the show with pictures of the vehicle and a list of all of the sponsors involved.
- Promote the vehicle for the next 12 months through other show appearances and editorial-the year will go by really fast!
If you do it all properly, all your sponsors will want to work with you again and you will be planning your next one.
What’s your favorite or most memorable build?
I’m always asked what’s my favorite or best build and I answer, “The next one.”Ha-ha!
What do you hope to express/convey in a project vehicle build?
What I try to express or convey with these projects is to inspire the uninspired to buy a car and personalize it and make it their own.
I strive to show people how to use the products in the right way and tastefully.
I try to set trends, not just follow.
I like to take a mature approach to a build and make the car better, more usable and still practical. I like a balanced package that the show-goer can still relate to. Maybe they won’t do all the modifications that we do, but they will do some and that sells parts and cars.
I also try to do projects with broad appeal that are liked by young people of all ages! A well-accepted and reviewed project is very satisfying and fulfilling to me. It’s a great creative outlet, too.
What’s the toughest thing about SEMA project builds?
The toughest thing about a SEMA build has always been timing. Working with new-model cars that are not out until August or September makes things tight for product development and completing the build on time.
Working with companies you can count on cannot be stressed enough.
What advice do you have for other shop owners interested in building a project vehicle?
I might suggest that they consider if the time they spend working on their project is more valuable to them than the time they could be spending on a paying project. Sometimes it’s better for them to help/sponsor a pro builder like myself for the best results.
It takes a big commitment of time and dollars to do it right and you should not disrupt your day-to-day operations to do it. And at the least work with a designer to get the right look.
Sounds like you’re pretty happy your dealership construction project led to all this?
I absolutely love my job and can’t imagine doing anything else. I have gotten to do and see things I didn’t know were possible.
Out of all my experiences, I think the people I have worked with and have become lifelong friends with are the biggest rewards. The SEMA members and the performance industry in general are the greatest people in the world.