Vintage Parts of Arizona
Hot rod components in the desert.
This article originally appeared in the January 2023 issue of THE SHOP magazine.
“Change is the only constant in life,” said the Greek philosopher Heraclitus. I doubt he was even aware of the performance aftermarket 500 years before Christ, but he was right on the money.
Change is constant in our business and staying on your toes as the world about you shifts takes balance, vision and a willingness to do it a little differently than you might have done it last year.
Take, for example, Vintage Parts of Arizona (VPA) located in Phoenix, which is coming up on its 50th anniversary and has consequently seen five decades of change.
The business was started in 1974 when friends Wally Lassila and Frank Pittenger were on a weekend trip to the city of Show Low looking for old Ford Model A components. With $300 between them they bought parts and just as quickly turned around and sold them for a profit.
The pair continued to flip old tin until their side business turned into, well, a business, prompting them to open Vintage Ford Parts of Arizona.
A GROWING BUSINESS
As Pittenger and Lassila both had day jobs, the store was only open afternoons and weekends. However, as the business grew, they expanded their hours until they realized they needed help.
That help came in the form of 19-year-old Frank Streff. As one door closes another opens, and Streff had been working since he was 15 at Antique Auto, which was about to close its doors.
Pittenger and Lassila recognized their same passion for vintage tin in Streff and with him manning the sales counter the side hustle soon turned into a solid, six-day-a-week, full-time business.
In the 1970s the antique Ford products business was taking off, with a growing demand for replacement and restoration parts for both restored and hot rodded cars. Dennis Carpenter founded his Ford Restoration Parts business in 1970, Bob Drake followed in 1971 and Lynn Williams founded C.W. Moss in 1978 (it was so named because Williams resembled the character C.W. Moss in the 1967 movie “Bonnie and Clyde”).
Each of these companies, and others, are still in the restoration parts business today.
VPA blossomed along with the industry as a whole and Streff, along with his very capable wife Mary, continued to work the counter—but with an eye to the future. Impressed by the company, the Streffs took full ownership in 1990 and upped the ante with the addition of Chevrolet parts and a name change to Vintage Ford and Chevy Parts of Arizona.
Meanwhile, in 1992, Brian Benzing and Dave Sexton joined the company.
“I maintained the used parts in the backyard and kept the store clean, which meant I swept floors and cleaned the bathroom,” Benzing recalls. “Eventually I moved up to shipping and receiving, and then onto the sales counter.”
The more-or-less doubling of inventory meant a new building, and in 1998 Frank and Mary were in the middle of construction when Bob Everts introduced them to Pete Chapouris, who had just a year earlier resurrected the SO-CAL Speed Shop, founded in 1946 by Alex Xydias.
Right time, right place as the Streffs were looking for something—they just weren’t sure what. SO-CAL offered a new identity in an ever-changing market and the association with the famed speed shop gave them a bigger, more visible profile with national advertising and reams of magazine ink.
The license also included one of the famous red and white SO-CAL roadsters and the association grandfathered them in with numerous manufacturers whose products could now be easily and cost-effectively added to the traditional VPA lines.
SO-CAL Arizona was on the map—indeed, it was the flagship store of the SO-CAL chain.
The Streffs fit right in with the hot rod scene that was enjoying a resurgence at the time and embarked on a 1953 Ford F-100 truck project as a tribute to founder Xydias’ original build. The truck eventually graced the cover of the April 2002 issue of “Classic Truck” magazine following a four-part buildup.
The truck was a hit and later immortalized in miniature—first with a 1/64-scale diecast made by SO-CAL and then a whopping 1/18-scale version made by Acme.
And, if that wasn’t enough, in 2010 the original SO-CAL belly tank lakester that Chapouris had restored for current custodian Bruce Meyer was invited to the prestigious Pebble Beach Concours d’Elegance and, because the tank didn’t run, Frank and Mary were asked to push it to the podium—something that’s never happened before or since.
In the eternal search for what works compared to what doesn’t, SO-CAL Arizona was everywhere, from Barrett-Jackson just up the road in Scottsdale to the “Rod & Custom” magazine Americruise.
However, they ultimately decided that staying close to home was more cost-effective and the Streffs began to host Second Saturday events at their store. The parking lot would open at 6 a.m. for a car show, swap meet, and free coffee and donuts for all comers.
The shop also hosted educational seminars and how-to workshops with suppliers such as Vintage Air, Classic Instruments, RideTech and Dakota Digital, to name just a few.
In 2017, the Streffs decided that it was time to step aside, take a less active role and hand the keys to longtime trusted manager Benzing and his wife, Angie.
“Frank and Mary did a great job of preparing us for the role of owner,” says Benzing, “but to know everything was now going to be on our shoulders—the responsibility of continuing and growing this business—gave us some big shoes to fill. It was both easy, because of the groundwork Frank and Mary had done, and scary,”
Around the same time as the sale, market forces were dictating yet another slight shift in focus. To announce the move, the Benzings launched a ’65 Chevy Malibu build using parts that the company now carried. The whole build was documented on social media at #MondayMalibu.
The new owners also continued to host seminars and workshops.
“It’s important to connect with your customers,” Brian Benzing explains, “and add value to product sales with complementary events and seminars. This is just one way that we are more than just a hot rod shop.”
As noted earlier, there’s nothing as constant as change, and in 2021 the Benzings decided to diverge from the SO-CAL umbrella and re-brand the business Vintage Parts of Arizona—much as it had been in the beginning.
With the name change came a new logo, new clothing and yet another makeover for the shop’s exterior, and the emphasis on a brick-and-mortar location is paying off.
“Our customers appreciate one-on-one customer service and knowledge, and we see them moving from the online experience back to one where they can see it before buying it,” Brian notes. “They like to ask questions and have someone to follow up with, face to face.”
That said, online orders have picked up since the company (vintagepartsofarizona.com) revamped its website and committed to keeping popular items in stock.
“We added more inventory and we are working on keeping inventory current,” says Benzing. “We ship daily all over the country through UPS.”
As VPA approaches its 50th anniversary, the desire to get better is stronger than ever.
“We’re continuing to improve on what we already do—stay on top of the trends and treat customers the way we appreciate being treated,” he notes. “Customer service remains our key focus”