“After you have owned a V8 and raced a V8 you just can’t go back, everything is boring. It is the grunt, the pull, the torque of a V8 that will get you every time”
New Zealand is growing up, evolving, becoming professional. Gone are the days of DIY and ‘she’ll be right’. People want quality and have the cash to pay for it. Not that long ago I used to read American Muscle Car mags and marvel at the craftsmanship within, and be totally blown away by the vast amounts of money being spent by clients in the chase for perfection. But now, here in little ol’ NZ, we have not only caught up, our craftsmanship has surpassed the Yanks, and we now have the clientele with enough cash to back it and demand it.
If you are wondering where these super machines are hiding, look no further than the likes of Andy Culpin and Race FX, which specialises in complete custom builds and conversions. If Henderson is too far away head to your local dairy or service station, and grab a copy of NZ Classic Car or NZV8 and check out the Ferrari F40s (NZCC 159) and Holden Monaro Targa car (NZV8 03), both hand sculpted by Andy and his team. They are both sterling examples of the level of quality that is being achieved here in NZ. What is even more staggering is that these are not just one-off specials – the F40 has two supercharged brothers in the wings, and the Monaro is just one example of the numerous Targa cars Andy has built over the years. Although the Kiwi DIY days are numbered they have left their imprint in our DNA, and it is that ‘can do’ attitude that has driven us to excel and take on the big boys at their own game. Well it must be contagious, because after 30¯years here Andy Culpin is taking American muscle, sculpting it, tweaking it, and taking it back to them in forms they could never imagine.
I visited Race FX and talked shop with Andy, and learned about the market and where we are heading.
From Butcher to Surgeon
Since the age of 15 Andy has been chopping up cars and modifying them, and it wasn’t his fault, it is in his genes, he was born with it. His father was an engineer with his own shop, and his brothers were both panel beaters and auto electricians. He was surrounded by cars being repaired, prepped and modified, and it obviously had a lasting effect. After serving his time in the forces he came to New Zealand as a butcher, and set up a chain of shops successfully until a personal tragedy saw him sell up and return to England. When he returned a friend of his asked if he could restore his E-Type Jag, and before he knew it he was working out of a barn with no less than two Ferraris, four E-Types and two Aston Martins in his possession, and so Heritage Restorations was formed.
Andy Culpin has now been in the industry for 30¯years, 12 of which were with Race FX, and he’s been involved in possibly more race cars than any other person I know. At a race meeting at Whenuapai at which there were 280 entrants he noted he had either built or been involved in the construction of 238 of the cars there. He has built up, restored and modified every car imaginable, from Ferraris to Porsches, Bentleys, Ford Escorts, Jags, Holden Monaros, Datsuns, Lamborghinis, Pre ’65s , Targa cars, muscle cars, rods, and the list goes on.
I asked him for personal favourites or preferences and he said that there weren’t really any, however, after all the different cars he has owned in his life, Andy says, “After you have owned a V8 and raced a V8 you just can’t go back, everything else is boring. It is the grunt, the pull, the torque of a V8 that will get you every time.” And I couldn’t agree more.
Talking Shop with the Doc
If you are looking for a description of what it is Race FX does and what it can do for you, it is much quicker to explain that the only things it doesn’t do is bogging and painting, and that’s simply because it is too messy. Everything else needed to completely build your automotive dream is done under the one roof; from chassis construction to suspension configuration and installation; from drivetrain set-ups to brake conversions; from both metal and fibre panel fabrication to full custom exhausts; from road to race to custom rod builds; and everything in between. Not only does FX create and modify customers’ projects they convert American muscle to right hand drive, so they can grace our roads, be it a brand-new Viper V10 or a 2005 ’Stang or a Chev pick-up truck.
Although these high-end conversions, at the moment, make up about 35¯per cent of the company’s workload, Andy reassures me that his heart is firmly set on the creation of one-offs and custom builds and, to prove it, he introduced me to his latest project; a 24-hour Le Mans Bentley eight-speed.
He is so dedicated that this car isn’t being built to order, but is coming out of his pocket and his own time because, quite simply, he always wanted one, and someone made the mistake of telling him it couldn’t be done. Telling Andy a car cannot be built is like telling Sir Edmund Hillary Everest couldn’t be climbed, the statement just set the bar.
He was also told he couldn’t build the fastest road-registered car in New Zealand and he did; the Ferrari F40s, and there are two more on the way. It’s not just his drive to push the bar higher that sets him apart, but also his attention to the details along the way. He doesn’t just put function over form and he made a point of it; You can weld a strap of steel to a car and it will look like a strap of steel. Take that same piece of steel and spend 15¯minutes on a lathe or drill, polish it up, weld it back on and it looks like a piece of art, but it’s the same piece of steel doing the same job.”
His passion is not only reflected in his work, but also in his attention and preparation of his workspace. Blown away by the quality and thoroughness of the workshop, I asked him about the set-up and organisation of Race FX.
I will remember the first time I walked in to Race FX for a very long time. It was like stepping into a small slice of heaven. And it wasn’t just because of the impressive array of power housed there, but the perfect, clean purposefulness of the place. It was cleaner than an operating room, and contained every machine and tool needed to compete any task imaginable. To his advantage the building was brand new, but I have been back since and it is always the same.
Andy is very clear on how important it is to run a workshop as cleanly and professionally as possible, because the cars he works on are not just cars, they are someone’s pride and joy or someone’s $300,000 piece of machinery, and need to be treated with the respect they deserve. And it is about efficiency. Race FX has the ability to create turn-key projects from scratch in house, which means it has total control of the project from start to finish. There is no waiting for parts to return from fabricators or parts to arrive from engineer firms, time is money, and if the guys at FX need a part they make it themselves, to their standards and their deadlines.
It is this efficiency that is attracting clients who want high performance, turn-key muscle cars that are still a pleasure to drive thanks to the mod-cons like power steering, A/C, ABS, and modern sound systems. This is a quickly expanding market of baby boomers who have always wanted their dream car or matchbox toy Camaro, and finally have the money to get it.
The custom car market has exploded the world over in the last five to 10 years (despite steadily increasing fuel prices!), and because of New Zealand’s petrol-head population we have surged ahead, and the older American muscle cars are coming back with a vengeance. Despite people’s love of American muscle and retro looks today’s businessmen don’t have time for a car that leaks and needs continuous tuning, they want a car that drives like new with all the mod cons.
The resto-mod (a mix between restoring and modifying) market is one of the quickest growing at the moment, with firms like Race FX doing complete kit-outs of old cars with all modern running gear, leather interiors, cruise control and other mod cons. It is this sort of work that Andy says excites him the most. There are no rules or limits, it is up to clients to specify how far they want to go.
Just before our interview he had been approached by someone inspired by Josh Grogan’s (Fear Factor) Camaro, and wanted something of the same calibre, which is more than achievable here and for much less than it cost to have done in the States. As our economy strengthens and the resto-mod market continues to grow, and craftsmen like Andy continue to produce superb work, I for one, cannot help but look forward to all the awesome custom rides that are heading our way.