Newcomer to the scene Custom Rods has created a huge stir in the car industry; join us as Todd sits down with Jan, Garth and Ben to find out what they are all about.
We first saw Custom Rods’ vehicles on display at the Hot Rod Nationals in Auckland last year. With their super-low airbag stance and fantastic body shape, the cars were a standout. Over the last few months we’ve seen the new company construct three vehicles, all of which are unique and available for sale. The coupe, hard-top and slam-back are all superbly finished, yet so different it was impossible for the NZV8 team to pick a favourite. This trio features Edelbrock crate motors rated at 239kW, although the cars can be built to order with almost any engine package. As the vehicles are built predominantly in-house at Custom Rods’ Onehunga base, every aspect can be tailored to the customer’s requirements. Read on to hear what the Custom Rods team of Jan Ubels, Garth Nielsen and Ben Ubels have to say about the cars, business and fishing trips.
NZV8: So who is Custom Rods, and what is it all about?
Jan: Custom rods is an idea Garth and I had on a fishing trip, ’cause we always talked about cars. We would talk about which hot rods we would build, what’s our favourite one, and every trip it would change slightly, but we’d always say, ’32, ’34 high-boy or something like that. So on one trip we’d gone away and Garth said, “Why don’t we build some hot rods?”. After I called him a tosser and everything else under the sun, we said, well, let’s do it! So we decided it wouldn’t be a hobby; we would build up-market, quality cars as a business. We decided the target market is guys our age (50s). They’ve been in business a bit, got a bit of money, want a nice toy, and a quality toy their partners would use with them.
I started looking and I thought, well, there are already a couple of firms that are doing ’32s and ’34s and doing them well, and there’s no point doing what they’re doing. So I kept looking and I came across this ’37 shape, and I thought I could do something with it. Being a former art teacher, I’m always looking at shapes and making sculptures, that’s what I’m really looking at, shapes. I tracked down these guys in Quebec we could get these bodies from and we started from there. So that’s who we are. Basically it’s Garth, myself and [Jan’s Nephew] Ben, our engineer, and we’ve got another guy who’s got some money in but we’re paying him out soon.
Do you come from a hot rodding background yourself?
Garth: I played around with hot rods when I was a teenager, used to hang around with Harbour City Hot Rod Club for many years, did all the shows et cetera. Before I left school I remember I used to go and work at Hot Rod magazine with Rob Campbell in the school holidays. So I’ve been in the hot rod scene for many years. Then I built a few cars and basically just drifted away from it really; I never lost interest in them, and eventually got back into it.
Jan: No, no, I wasn’t a hot rodder at all. I’ve had a big block Chev Blazer with a 454 in it, and I’ve got a Harley, but I’m not a hot rodder. Even now I look at these cars and think they’re fantastic, but I look at them as shapes rather than a necessity to own one.
Who do you see as your target market?
Garth: It varies, because you’ve got young guys with some serious money who are into their toys. But what we want to provide is an experience. You can spend $150,000 on a mid-range BMW which is going to lose half its value over five years, or you can buy something that is totally unique and has got a bit of style to it from us. What we’ve tried to do with these cars is build something which transcends old-school hot rods and modern cars, so they have quite modern lines to them. Predominantly though the market would be guys around our age group who have worked hard, made a few bucks and want to enjoy themselves.
So you’re not necessarily aiming at the hot rod market?
Jan: No, because I see an element with hot rodders, and with no disrespect to them but there is a Westy element to a hot rod, which is a bit of a counter culture. And I didn’t want to do that with this. As much as I love that, and ultimately I’d like to get around in a rat rod myself because they are so anti-aesthetic, but we didn’t see this as a hot rod. We’ve taken all the elements of a hot rod but tried to institute a bit of glamour and status, so it becomes a status vehicle whereas a hot rod isn’t a status vehicle, it is an interesting car. It’s a unique approach to cars, but they’re never considered as a status car. We see these as getting into that sort of range as well.
What is the range of body styles Custom Rods has available?
Garth: We’ve got the ’37 range, and we are also doing the ’39 Lincoln Zephyr in both a coupe and a sedan delivery. The body is being built in Indiana right at the moment. It will be a front-wheel-drive V8; you’ll be able to ride your Harley in the back of it!
Jan: The idea is a totally flat floor with no diff underneath it, so you can drop it to the ground and ride your bike straight in the back.
What is the long-term goal for the company?
Garth: To come up with something new every year and hopefully sell some cars [laughs]! Continually evolving the company, the style of the cars, getting better all the way through.
Jan: We see a range of cars we could do, and whether they are ’50s or ’60s cars or earlier 1930s cars, they will not be mainstream but a bit more exotic, like the Auburns and Chords and stuff; we’ve been looking at those. Then Ben and I have got to build some bikes [choppers].
Garth: In a certain sense it’s a lifestyle thing for Jan and I. We are both in our 50s and we’ve had a bit of life experience, and if we just wanted to go off and make money we could do other things. But it’s about having a bit of a lifestyle as well.
Ben: It probably also raises the profile of this type of car in the country as well, rather than being your typical old hot rod.
How many hours are involved in building the cars?
Jan: Dunno, no idea [laughs]!
Garth: The first three have taken us about five months, but we’ve been ironing out a lot of problems as we’ve been going through them, so we suspect probably about three months per car
Ben: These ones have almost been our learning cars, as none of us had built a hot rod before, so things have been figured out as we go. Now we’ve got a few standards in place and we know what we are working with.
Are the ideas behind the cars yours or do they come from customers?
Jan: It’s basically our ideas I think, really, and so the look of the car is determined by me. Except the colours, I’ve got an artist friend, Michael Sheppard; it’s always a debate between him and me about the colours. I defer to him in the end and he selected the colours on these cars. I said I wanted a green car and he said you can’t have any yellow in the green, it’s got to be this kind of green, so we settled on this kind of green [points to the slam-back] and black with a red highlight. I think it’s fantastic what he’s done, and the same with the blue and silver and so forth. But the details, like the taillights and console, the way we’ve done the dash to keep it all simple, all that kind of stuff, they’re our ideas.
We recently saw two of the cars in an art gallery. What was the idea behind that
Garth: Jane Sanders, who owns the 40 George Street [Mt Eden, Auckland] gallery, is an agent for Michael Sheppard ” that’s Jan’s friend, our artist. Jane suggested something unique: why don’t we launch the cars at the art gallery as something different?
Jan: So we did a bit of a ring around, made up a bit of an invitation and got Dave Griffith, a musician, to sing opera at the opening and it was a huge success. It was all up-market stuff, hard case. Not something you’d usually associate hot rodding with! It was a good space and it was good for us. We wanted to do it in style, rather than to launch the cars in the workshop.
Garth: To match the style of the cars.
So what sort of feedback have you received?
Jan: Extraordinary! Positive feedback from everybody, from Joe Bloggs on the street to enthusiasts to hot rodders, they think it’s just fantastic. If it is just our beginning they think it’s just extraordinary! TV and magazines ” it’s been very good for our egos [laughs].
The cars are constructed here, are there any legality issues?
Garth: No, we’ve been working with Mark Stokes from MS Vehicle Certification right the way through from the beginning. Mark’s basically been ticking everything off as we go, so there’s no problem whatsoever. They’ll all be road legal and registered on the road.
What do you think are the best features of the cars?
Garth: Style, without a doubt. I mean modern cars underneath are all much of a muchness. I drive a Monaro, it’s got a V8, it’s got air, power windows, but everything else does as well. The uniqueness of these cars is [that] you’re incorporating the latest technologies and the comfort that people demand these days, but they’ve still got a classic style. The ’30s was probably the epitome of vehicle styling. We have incorporated it into these cars. Flowing guards and the running boards, yet they drive like a late-model car, it’s pretty cool
Some of the traditional hot rodders will be upset about them being fibreglass. What do you say about that?
Jan: Well yes and no. That’s cool; you’ll find that most of the cars made in the States are fibreglass. Corvettes were glass from the very start; the very first Corvette ever constructed in 1953 was fibreglass. So it’s part of the American cool car scene anyway, I’ve got no issue with it. In fact, as a greeny, you can argue that it is far better in terms of ‘green’ because it’s not going to rust. The carbon dioxide on a rusting car is phenomenal; these things won’t break down at all.
How big do you think the market is for this type of vehicle?
Garth: We would probably be aiming for about 10 to 15 a year. It’s an attainable level, and we don’t want to build mass-market cars, every car has to be unique.
Jan: We will guarantee each car is unique and has its own personality. That’s the total look, the colour, the wheels, the interior we use, just the feel of it. You can start with the same body shell but end up with a totally different car. And that’s quite deliberate. I think when we start repeating ourselves, that’s when it’s time to call it a day.
What state are the cars in when they arrive to you?
Garth: Just a gel coat body basically, with a very basic chassis, and we build it from there. The bodies are very good quality. The guy in Canada who designed them has a fantastic eye. The quality is superb. Even when they are painted, people can’t believe they are fibreglass, not steel. We have toyed with the idea of making our own chassis from scratch, as we heavily modify them for New Zealand laws anyway, so that’s something we may do in the future.
One advantage you have is the finance setup.
Garth: A lot of guys buy a $150,000 car and don’t pay outright, they finance. We are working with finance brokers to put packages together partially for that reason, to make it as easy as it possibly can be to own something unique.
There must be a huge list of people you would like to say thanks to.
Jan: Yes there is. We’ve had some fantastic contractors who have worked on our cars. Jason from Auto Colour Matrix has done the paintwork. Dalton at Marsden Auto Trimmers has done a fantastic job of the leather work. Ron Hodson has done all our rubbers. Tony at Street Low Customs has sorted out all the air suspension for us. Garry at Enzed hoses is a legend who was a huge help getting the cars ready for Big Boys Toys. Colin from Beale Electrical is a fantastic thinker with the wiring, so it’s not just running a wire from here to here, it’s all so well thought out. He’s a brilliant auto electrician.
Garth: We’ve come across some awesome guys. So many guys who are as passionate about what they are doing as we are. It’s been fantastic to see, and a fantastic help.
Thanks for your time guys, we wish you all the best with the cars, the business and the future.
To get in touch with Custom Rods, check out www.custom-rods.com, dial 09 636 3252 or pop into the showroom at 59 Onehunga Mall, Onehunga, Auckland. The vehicles will also be on display at Kumeu Car Show and Beach Hop.
2007 replica 1937/1936 Fords
Engine: Edelbrock 5735cc (350ci) crate motor, Weber 4BBl carburettor (coupe only), Billet injection and ECU (slam-back and hard-top), block hugger headers, alloy radiator
Drivetrain: GM four-speed automatic transmission, Ford nine-inch diff, custom driveshaft
Suspension: Front air struts, Firestone rear airbags, Actuair self-levelling control, Viar compressors, 22.7-litre air tank, four-link rear end, custom front arms
Brakes: GM discs all round (future cars to have Wilwood discs and callipers)
Wheels/tyres: 17×8 and 20×10-inch Billett Specialties wheels, Falken tyres
Exterior: Fibreglass bodies ex-Canada, custom grilles, paint by Auto Colour Matrix, custom chassis
Interior: Custom seats, imported Italian leather, retrim by Marsden Auto Trimmers, Billet steering wheel, B&M Quickshifter, custom gauges, custom centre consoles, Pioneer head unit, Pioneer amplifier, Pioneer speakers, Vintage Air air conditioning
Performance: 239kW (320hp, crate motor rating)
Custom Rods Thanks: Tony at Street Low Customs, Dalton and Ross at Marsden Auto Trimmers, Jason and Laurie at Auto Colour Matrix, Colin at Beale Auto Electrix, Garry at ENZED, Bob at Robinsons Instruments, Michael Sheppard for his encouragement and colour selections, Mark Stokes at MS Vehicle Certification