Hot Rod and Custom Builder Tim Strange – It’s in the Blood.
Hot Rods and Customs With a Twist of Strange
I took the opportunity to sit down for a while with Tim Strange of Strange Motion Rod & Custom Construction, and threw the book at him, question-wise. I’ve been a fan of his for years and have enjoyed the good fortune of not only creating design work for him at Problem Child Kustoms Studio, but also becoming fast friends.
Tim’s created some of the most memorable cars in recent history and has won a number of accolades, including the Goodguys Trendsetter, numerous ISCA and KKOA top finishes and best in class picks, not to mention hundreds of magazine features. Tim’s no doubt one of the elite hot rod and custom car builders out there and is a down-to-Earth, talented guy who “gets it”… It not the sort of career where you take everything seriously. You need to be able to laugh at the goofy stuff, and make the most of every situation, and Tim is definitely able to do both, and with a style that’s unmatched.
To understand Tim’s secrets and have a little fun, we sat down to discuss his roots, his inspirations, and more…
In Tim’s words:
“I grew up around anything mechanical… being a broke-ass farm kid we worked on everything ourselves, but we had tools, so it was natural for me to tear stuff apart and try to figure out how it worked… from a little grommet I spent my little allowance of 50-cents on Hot Wheels, not Matchbox, Hot Wheels… they were cooler.
My Dad worked on custom Harley’s, so I was around that, loading up and going to bike shows in the Econoline van. Dad was into bikes in a big way ’til he kinda got a bad back from riding rigid’s for too many years… and the family was growing so we needing something easier to all go in. That’s when the car transition started.
Dad got a rusted out ’57 hardtop that he fixed up, in the awesome 70’s way: straight axle, Cragar SS wheels, tilt front end, chain steering wheel, four buckets with diamond tuck, shag carpet on dash, fender well headers, tunnel ram, the whole deal! He had that for a few years, then traded for a ’69 ‘Vette convertible. I learned to drive (kinda) a four speed in that car.
He then went on the build a little more modern ’55 Chev hardtop, tilt front end, wicked motor, tunnel ram, and some cool stuff like hand built and chromed radiator support and Nomad rear fender lips.
He let me spray the firewall bright yellow and he even left the big run I put in it! With this ’55 Chevy, we attended our first big car show out of town and even stayed in a hotel for the first time… It was a first for Dad, too. This was back in ’81 when we all loaded up Moms ’78 Dodge Magnum as a tow vehicle with about all the tools we owned and the ’55 in tow… I think we drove about 45mph all the way to Dearborn, Michigan… note to self, Dodge Magnums, not good tow vehicles…
We got there and WOW! This was an eye opener for me… around 1,000 cars all Tri Fives and all the “cool” guys from the tri-five world I had read about and memorized in the Classic Chevy magazine each month… I even got to meet Roger Gustin and my tri five drag race hero, Bob Dahl.
This was when it really hit me… man, I want to do this forever. Dads ’55 even got a few pics in some magazine event coverage… wow was that cool! I was 10 and have been hooked-hard ever since.
Through the years Dad had a ton of different tri fives. I bought my first car… a ’55 series 150 from my great, great grandpa for $100 from selling my 4-H pigs! We drove it around the farm and had fun, but realized when I got a little older that it was a little too rusty for me to fix up for my first car. I sold it and later a local guy fixed it up and it ended up in Super Chevy. Around this time me and Dad started painting local farmers trucks for money and good father-son time as I was learning how to sand and fix more things.
Then I bought a ’64 LeMans, tinkered with that some, then sold it by age 14 and bought a nice ’64 Chevelle SS I saw for sale on the way to the drag races in Cordova. Around this time, my uncle started taking me to big shows nearby like Street Machine Nats when it was in St. Louis and a few KKOA custom shows. I loved the big motors at the Street Machine shows, but the customs with all the mods and chopped tops really got me excited. I fixed up the Chevelle at home with Dad and buddies, painted it myself and got it done a little after my 16th birthday.
At this time, I also started after school at the local body shop doing sanding and paint prep… the owner was big into custom ‘Vettes so we worked on a ton of them. I worked there learning skills from the boss and another worker, Dave. At the same time, I went to a local trade college for body, welding and frame work. I got in good with the teachers and stayed late a bunch and they taught me extra stuff, like how to use all the HVAC metal working tools how to lead and do stuff not in the normal school class. I’m lucky to have good teachers that cared and could see I was eager to learn.
My class project was to redo the body and floors in my Dads new project, a ’56 Chevy sedan pro-streeter. At home I was also re-doing my ’64 Chevelle, again, after learning better things to do. At 19 I took the Chevelle to the Street Machine Nats where it got “runner up best GM” at a time where most all the winners were tubbed pro-streeters. I also got runner up best modified Chevelle at Super Chevy.
Working on old cars and hot rod stuff on the side, I knew someday I wanted to work on hot rods full time. I worked at a couple Chevy dealerships, making good money to help finance my next project, a ’54 Chevy, but hating the boring crap-boxes I worked on. I got the next one for myself done and started hitting the big shows.
The ’54 Chevy was doing decent at shows and hit some magazines. I also started dating Carrie, my future wife, and she helped me do the interior in the ’54. As the ’54 got more press and awards, the phone started ringing until finally, I left the dealership and started my own shop. For a few years, I worked out of my Dads machine shed and did everything in one little room. Then we built a small pole barn by my house and I’ve been working in there ever since… its been 18 year full time. Its been a tough road, but in the long run I love it, and it’d be hard to do anything else.
I love to create and build and see the end product. I never had money behind me like some shops. I started with a small corner in my Dads tractor building and built my DeSoto chassis in the back, with no heat, in the middle of midwest winter, with a salamander heater blowing on me… dedication or stupidity?
As you can see, I’m not some Johnny-come-lately in the hot rod world… I grew up around it… It’s in the blood.
We had to know more about Tim Strange, so we asked and he answered:
MRiM: With such a diverse car background, what are your all-time favorite cars (customs, hot rods, rentals, whatever), and what makes them stand out?
TS: I love Cadzilla, the Jimmy Vaughn ’60 Impala by Gary Howard, Scott Sullivan’s Cheeze Whiz ’55 Chevy… For newer projects I love the green ’32 sedan Pinkees built a year or so ago. I got a ton of stuff I like…I like this because they were totally over the top at the time, yet still remain timeless in a way, Cadzilla for well, just look at it! The Vaughn ’60, its soooo killer, looks mild till you realize its a chopped hartop and it still flows perfectly… and the paint in person is insane.
For Sullivan’s ’55, I remember when it first hit the Street Machine Nats… the first year, hardly anyone was even looking at it. That was the era of over the top pro streeters with three blowers, polished everything and dual funny car cages but Sullivan’s ’55 stepped away and did tweed, bench seat and a painted engine… the next year, they did the Hot Rod spread of him driving across country and it had such a big crowd at Nats that you could hardly get a picture! Its like the magazines had to tell you it was cool for people to know. Its still like that today I think… kinda goes along with music…
Pinkees ’32 is just full of killer details. I also love ’32 sedans so that helps; the colors, the use of different paint coatings and finishes and all the slicing done, but it still looks spot on. You can cut too much on a ’32 and mess it up, but this one’s so right in my mind.
MRiM: As a small business owner, what are some of the challenges you face each day?
TS: Just making it! Ya get rolling along good, then either there’s a hickup in getting parts, supplies, or the client needs to pause the build for some reason or another. I try to keep about three in here rolling at all times, that way if you are waiting on either parts or the client to pay a bill, I can just jump over to the next one. I would love to work on just one client project from start to finish, but that hasn’t happened yet. Being capable to do the work is just a percentage of it… the parts that sucks is the paper work, billing and calling clients to get paid. Finding employees that can do it all like we do is also tough. When you find the skill, they have an attitude from hell and you don’t want to work everyday with them in a small shop.
MRiM: As an artist and designer, I see tastes changing almost daily… whether it’s a certain look or feel that a client is after, or emerging trends where people seek out the “next big thing.” For designers, it means switching up a style, or maybe working outside the comfort zone. How does changing trends affect a business like yours?
TS: I like to work outside the comfort zone. You try harder and it makes a better product… I get tired of looking at red ’32′s with small blocks in them. I always look at the new products but you don’t want to just add something because its the “new thin.” You might end up with a car that was built to be all new, then a few year down the road, you’re not happy with it…
MRiM: Your shop cranks out great work with a truly unique feel… How did your particular style develop?
TS: I don’t really know, I never really set out to have a style or what not. Even from a little grommet, when I’d go to shows with my Dad and Uncle, I’d see something that was cool. It just was… sometime ya can’t explain it, but it makes the hair stand up on your neck, and you get a warm and fuzzy feeling. I try to do that with my projects. Sometimes its hard when a client comes in and changes things midstream and deviates from the plan… at those times, you just get this queasy feeling… its not going to be right. The build process is a two way street but it’s so important on a big project to use an artist and designer guy to get it on paper so the customers can see what it’ll look like, good or bad, before the work is done and money’s spent. No worse thing to hear when building a hot rod is “look, I got this real cool drink holder I wanna incorporate…” Yup, had that happen…
MRiM: Over the past decade, the hot rod industry has really taken an interest in the builders and designers, elevating some to almost rock star status. Do you see clients selecting your shop based solely on your media coverage or those “hit projects” that everyone seems to recognize?
TS: I’ve never had some one come up and say I wanna build something because I saw your last car or I saw such and such in a magazine… I think it just all adds up over time. People think just because I get some magazine ink and some TV stuff that I got this huge shop with a bunch of guys… no, I got about 3200 square feet of shop and I’m all by myself, ’til I need some help then I got about 3-4 guys I can bring in. So its real hard for me to do all the marketing and PR. I try to do some between coats of paint or letting welds cool, but when I get in the zone, I like to keep working… I don’t really see the rockstar thing I guess… no groupies, buses, in-ground pools around here…
MRiM: Adding to that, is there a particular project that’s burning a hole in your brain?
TS: WOW, that’s a big questions… I always have 10-20 projects rolling through my head at anytime… things I wanna do someday. Its hard to talk clients into stuff that’s a little off from what every body else is doing, but that’s how most of my own cars come about, not being able to convince a client that it will look right, most are too scared. That’s how my Rivi came about… I had a guy talk to me for over a year about doing one, we threw out a bunch of ideas, and when it came to going, he ran off. I took a third of those ideas and built the Rivi for us and it did very well in my eyes. I have projects I wanna do real bad, from another ’54 Chevy, to a ’32 roadster with a new/old slant, a ’57 Ford, a ’55 Chrysler convert… Like this one!
and some fat fender rods. I got a lot of ideas…you should hear the the ideas the penguins in my head say to music while riding tricycles… I just need some clients to step up… I had another guy, that also bugged me whenever we got some magazine ink… I finally threw some ideas that would have been killer to freshen up his 15 year old build, and he loved them, but just looked at me and said “but I don’t think my buddys will like it”… WTF?! Are they writing the check?
MRiM: If they made a movie about your shop, what would it be titled?
TS: Would be called..”Sex on Wheels” or ”Holy Crap..it worked” Or “Wow, That hurt” or just simply “WTF” Staring Micheal Madsen as me and Carmen Electra as Carrie…
MRiM: You’ve been a major player in the hot rod world.. Did you picture yourself being a recognized “name” in the hot rod world when starting? Has it changed your outlook on the hobby?
TS: I always wanted to build cool projects for cool people. I always even knew what the shop name would be… funny when my high school guidance counselor asked me what I wanted to do. I told him I wanna be a hot rod builder and he just laughed at me. My outlook now is probably a little jaded I am sad to say. It takes a lot to make me go “Oh did ya see that?” Then again it also makes me look for something cool on each car I see, whether it be a cool hand made bracket, or different color or a killer stance.
MRiM: With all the TV and media saturation, do you see your walk-in clients having more knowledge regarding a build these days?
TS: I’ve seen the “new to the car scene” guy that has only watched the TV shows as being misguided and clueless… they watch all those shows and actually think it takes a week to build a car and have no idea how long or how much money is involved. They also think everything must be Ridler Award quality. They don’t have any idea on quality versus budget! They think a $30k budget should be just as nice if not better than a car with a $300k budget…
MRiM: As hot rods and custom cars became more collectible, we saw a huge jump in value (especially at events like the Barrett-Jackson Auction), and suddenly, the cars we built for fun were investment-grade material. As the bar raises each year do you see this market becoming more lucrative as an investment?
TS: In a perfect world I would like to think so, but we all know its not a perfect world. I always thought to leave the “make money off it when I sell it” out of your mind, cause you will take shortcuts in the car and won’t be what it could have if you just look at it for the art of it. I get customers that even bring in a resto (which I do more of those than people think… it’s better than late model collision stuff!) and they get worried about getting too much into it, to be able to get any money out of later on down the road. Do you marry that girl because you think she’ll be worth something someday? No (?!) no you marry her for the love and feeling you get when with her… its the same with a hot rod project… well kinda…
MRiM: Any tips on starting a project for newcomers?
TS: Save up and buy the best rust free car you can afford… it will save so much in the long run.
MRiM: Any advice for younger guys looking to break into custom fabrication as a career?
TS:Do it for the love of the art… don’t do it if you think you will make a ton of money, if you don’t love the creativity of it, you will have a hard time getting out of bed in the morning. Oh… and its not a 9-5 job!
MRiM: What’s your least favorite attempt to write “car guy” dialogue into a movie?
TS: “I live my life 8 seconds at a time” or something goofy like that, from Fast & Furious… the rest of that actually isn’t too bad… You know for a cheezy Hollywood movie about imports…
MRiM: And finally, I like to tie up interviews with what has become a favorite to ask: The MacGyver Question. I’ll list five random objects, and simply ask you to come up with a way to use these to escape a MacGyver/A-Team situation.
- A mellon baller
- Two and a half Viagra tablets
- An Atari 2600 joystick (may substitute for paddle controllers)
- Five lbs, of confectioner’s sugar
- A 1976 Renault LeCar wiring harness
TS: WOW another hard one! (I do take half a Viagra a day just so I don’t pee on my shoes.) OK, here we go… so I assume MacGyver would be trapped behind a big wall with bad guys on the outside. I could simply take the Viagra, then… ummmm use myself to pole vault over the wall and find the ruthless leader to shove the joystick up his bum (cause then the minions would be scared of ya… ya don’t mess with a guy that just shoved a joystick up the bum of your leader. (advice: write that down) You could then run into the woods with the wire harness, sugar and melon baller to make booby traps for anyone that might try to follow ya. You know, take the wires loose make those thingys that grab ya using the trees then would pull them in the air as they hang from their feet… The sugar could be used as bait for the starving minions… then as they hang upside down you could take their eyes out with the melon baller. I got more but thats enough for today… I might want to sell the screen play.