Photography: Scott Killeen, Bob Carpenter and Randy Clark.
Text: Bob Carpenter.
Chris Williams was born in San Diego, California, but soon after (in 1949) moved to Washington State. He returned to San Diego just about every summer to visit and formed a strong bond with his grandfather, Frank H. Cooper, Sr. The two toured the greater San Diego area in Grandpa's '49 Chevy Business Coupe delivering bottles of whiskey to customers out of the trunk of the car.
Before you start thinking grandpa was a moonshiner, let's clear up any misconceptions. Cooper worked for San Diego Ice and Cold Storage, and part of his duties included promoting the products that SD Ice handled, including whiskey. These summers left an indelible mark on Williams. When he retired about five years ago, he and his wife, Barbara, decided the warmer climate of San Diego would be perfect. Driving around the area brought the memories of Grandpa Frank to the forefront of William's mind.
After a lifetime that included military service, marraige, children, a career with a bait company and a hobby of flying, super rods were something out of his distant past. When the opportunity arose to trade an old airplane for a '55 Bel Air convertible, Williams sealed the deal. As a stocker, the car was a little slow, so Williams started searching for a shop to do some work on the vehicle. Through the Yellow Pages, he noticed Hot Rods & Custom Stuff in Escondido. Since it was close, he visited the shop. What he saw convinced him that this was the place to work with, and few months later Williams was flying down the freeways of San Diego in his '55. While he loved his Bel Air, cruising around town got him to thinking about doing something "interesting," and then he came up with the idea of melding the memories of Grandpa's '49 Chevy with a tricked-out car. Since his previous experience with HR&CS was so positive, and their ideas seemingly out of this world, there was no doubt where he'd have his own '49 Chevy Business Coupe built (see the accompanying sidebar "Where Have You Guys Been?").
The early discussions of the car centered on Williams' specs: fast but mild engine, no keys at all (based on his airplane experience), color and name (Golden Calf), and minor body changes. Randy Clark, owner of Hot Rods & Custom Stuff, suggested a concept drawing to refine their thougths. Rohan Day of Australia (amazing what you can do with e-mail!) produced a drawing that got the team rolling.
After the car was dismantled and the work progressed, the mild concept began to change, evolving instead into the striking, re-proportioned car that graces these pages. "It seems the more we did to the car, the more it took on a life of its own," Williams said. "It became obvious several months ago that my color choice and name had to be changed. It was decided to paint the car Viper Red, and it was to be called the 'M-80' (large firecracker). Randy was the first to see the need to change the color. We never argued about it, but I was very slow to realize this fact. The bottom line is the car. It is far more than I ever intended it to be, and Randy says the same. Needless to say, I am very pleased with the result. It's flawless throughout," Williams added.
William's wife, Barbara, was a concept source of inspiration during the building process. "No complaining," is the way Clark put it. Building a car of this level can often cause additional strain at home, but not with the Williams family. "This," Barbara said, "is the gorgeous brainchild created by a group of extremely talented artists. I've watched Chris work with cars for many years, but the M-80 goes beyond anything I have imagined him doing. Chris, Randy and the crew at Hot Rods & Custom Stuff took this concept from a nostalgic piece of junk to the sweetest little Chevy you ever saw. It is the ultimate cover girl in bright red dress."
Clark says the key to the radical changes was the top chop. Once the top was modified, the rest of the car needed to be designed and fabricated to work with the top. Jordan Quital of HR&CS should be certified as a genius when it comes to automotive craftsmanship. He was given a lot of free reign when it came to decisions about the car. In fact, when he decided the fenders needed to be sliced and diced and the doors lengthened, he just went and did it. The next time Williams visited the shop, his comments went something like this: "Okay,...sooo...where did the rest of the car go? Well...hmmm...I like it."
Williams did have significant input as to the look of the car. While the crew pondered what to do with the front bumper, it was Willimas who suggested ditching it and using the remaining parts of the grille. The result is a distinctive appearance that's well balanced with the rest of the car.
Of course, like any project, this was the result of a team effort. Mike Saffiote designed the wiring for the M-80 and went to great lengths to hide everything the crew didn't want you see. He kept the entire wiring system on a computer and was able to make updates easily. Now the car owner has a color printout of the complete wiring diagram. How's that for service?
David Wright, working closely with Clark, was responsible for all of the exterior body mods. Wright also was the man in charge of door fitment. These aren't just ordinary doors. They were lengthened and allowed to flow all the way to the bottom of the bodyline. The doorjambs and sills were completely refabricated to accommodate the new opening the shop created. Wright made it all look proportional and then made it all fit precisely. He even welded the doors to the car during one stage so that he could create perfect gaps.
The car actually was designed around the owner, Williams. His previous aircraft experience led to the use of toggle switches. All of the controls (save the A/C) are hidden under a pop-up cover in the center consol. There's no key, just and ignition switch and starter button.
Williams came in many times for "fittings," and the result is a perfect match. The bottoms of the seats were mocked up using blankets until the crew had the exact height that worked for Williams. The cockpit floor fits completely inside the framerails to keep everything low and obstruction-free. The clutch, brake and throttle arms were custom fabricated for perfect placement. With all the attention given to the driver's position, the result is lots of legroom (and wiggle room) for a big man.
While appearances are always important with a super rod of this magnitude, the crew at Hot Rods & Custom Stuff had another master to serve during this project: driveability. Yes, as hard a concept as it may be to accept, this Chevy was built to be driven. That's why trailer-queen aficionados might think the wheels are offset too far under the fenders. Clark counters, "You've got to be able to turn the wheels to drive the car. And if you get a flat on the rear, you can get the wheel off without removing the rearend."
Yes, many show cars are built with no thought toward usability. Combining extreme fashion with complete practicality is an art form that is probably under-appreciated in the super rod world.
They don't make a lot of noise at Hot Rods & Custom Stuff. They just make unbelievable cars and trucks. Consistently with variety. Maybe that's why HR&CS isn't as well known as some of the super rod shops that have become household names. It hasn't developed a particular style (like the smooth look, the California look, the classic 32 look and so on), but instead has tackled a wide variety of vehicles.
The shop's 56 Ford pickup won Best Truck at the Grand National Roadster Show and then won Truck of the Year at the F-100 Super Nationalss in Pigeon Forge, Tennessee. No truck built west of the Mississippi River had ever won this prestigious award until HR&CS took on the project. Last year, the shop's '59 Corvette won a Pros Pick at the Goodguys Spring Nationals and was on the cover of the August 2000 issue of Super Rod Magazine. Many other vehicles built at Hot Rods & Custom Stuff have been on the covers of prestigious magazines. Still, most of the movers and shakers in the industry are still learning about HR&CS.
Rodding's Most recognizable figure, Boyd Coddington, sat in the Hot Rods & Custom Stuff shop recently for the first time, admiring the M-80, when he uttered the line many before have said, "Where have you guys been?" Clark and the crew don't mind that they aren't famous, because that often gets in the way of building outstanding cars. When the next unbelievable vehicle is unveiled, there will be more people who will shake their heads in disbelief and wonder where these guys have been. And speaking of unbelievable vehicles, it would be a good idea to keep an eye out for the '40 woody they're working on at the shop.
...Of course, no matter to what degree we desire to provide you with something special, without something special to present, it would be like pushing a rope uphill. But, thanks to Randy Clark, we had that something special completely under wraps for some time now. It was our plan for more than ten months to present Chris Willaims' unique M-80 in some outstanding way. Aside from his website... and our preview of this super rod in our July 2000 flames issue, no one knew much about this car, and Clark kept it under wraps for this special introduction. The car is, after all, the result of an effort that deserves more than traditional magazine coverage. We think our presentation is anything but traditional, and we hope that you feel this double issue was worth the effort and the time span of two issues. It was an expensive and major undertaking for us, but it is our way of creating a celebration of sorts and having all of you involved in it with us. Considering this special presentation and our Anniversary issue, we are pleased to offer for your enjoyment Chris Williams' M-80, built by Randy Clark and his team at Hot Rods & Custom Stuff, located in Escondido, California.
Randy Clark is my hero. Not because of Williams' '49 Chevy, but that in itself does qualify him. No, as the owner of a prosperous custom shop, Clark is a hot rod guy who got too big. His expansive shop typifies everything I imagine an owner-built super shop to be. It is a facility built and expanded upon out of necessity--through imagination and creativity. Although Clark owns all five of his buildings and the acres of yard he stores his to-be-built creations, it is by no means what you would consider a state-of-the-art, flashy complex or speed emporium, but it is large and productive. Clark's my hero because he built his facility by purchasing one building at a time, creating a working pathway between them, and making it work without having to relocate or build anew. And because he can do all of the work himself, and now that he has a sales manager, he'll move his personal front office back into the shop so that he can be more hands-on.
Considering the complexity of a build such as Williams' M-80, there's no doubt that Clark's Customers will benefit all the more with him spending his time on the shop floor, project to project. Clark began personalizing super rods and street rods some 25 years ago, first, not by working on cars, but by building custom Harley frames and complete choppers. He then spent considerable time painting cars, then starting a collision repair shop, and all this, of course, led to building hot rods. Fast forward and you find Clark and his lovely wife, Peaches, running the whole deal--employees, parts ordering, project sales, facility manager and parts counter. Luckily for us, the sell a ton of SUPER ROD and STREET ROD BUILDER magazines each month....
The Clarks have been together for 18 years, and like so many successful men in business, particularly in our industry, there usually is a woman behind the success. Debbie and Skip Walls, Ginney and Barry Lobeck, Joyce and Bill Smith, Judy and Bill Mullins, Winnie and Ray Flugger, Alyse and Alex Borla, Mary and Carl Wescott, and Vic Edelbrock and his daughter Camee, are a few of the teams whose partnerships work well in building for tomorrow. Peaches has organized the front office, the payables and receivables, while Randy turns out partial jobs and complete turnkey cars and trucks. You may remember the '59 Corvette SUPER ROD cover car of Jeff and Lisa Gold's that Clark basically scratch-built from parts hangning off a barroom ceiling. Another creation of his was the black '56 Ford pickup, "Flame Out," that featured under-the-hood and under-the-bed flames as the truck tilted open front to rear. "Flame Out" won the Oakland Roadster Show, and still gathers crowds wherever it goes.
Clark can build anything and does. He is the type of guy who works for wages. You pay him for the time and materials he uses. If it takes 10 hours or 10 months, one person or three, that's what it costs. M-80 is not a rebuild, but a ground-up, tube frame-constructed super rod that has been 16 months in the building. There's not a stock unattended panel on the car, and on the inside, the unique interior was created completely from sheetmetal, billet aluminum, tubing and plastic and leather, and is as slick and smooth as the outside.
How fitting it is to feature this 52-year-old super rod on the cover of our one-year-old magazine. After all, it was about the time this car was new that the hot rod-type magazines were originally launched. I created the 50th Anniversary party for Hot Rod, and recognized the Top 100 Individuals who made a difference. So it's only fitting that we now write a new chapter in the annals of high-performance publications. In doing so, however, we owe a lot to our staff and contributors, and to friends like Randy Clark and to all of you devoted readers....