History tells us the world’s first magician made his debut in ancient Egypt, sometime around 2700 BC, performing a trick whereby he removed and replaced the heads of two birds and an ox. Modern day magicians like Houdini, Copperfield, and Penn & Teller have since revolutionized magic, taking things to a whole new level by impressing millions of people in huge arenas, Las Vegas casinos and on national television.
There’s another group of magicians, practicing their craft not in amphitheaters or arenas, but in body shops and metal fabrication shops – they’re called “fabricators,” “hot rod builders,” and “metalsmiths.” A handful have reached super star status, building cars that grace magazine covers, win awards and dazzle millions of car lovers. California native Chip Foose is one of those designer/fabricators, having designed and built some of the world’s most famous hot rods, show cars and concept cars. He’s also becoming a household name, thanks in part to his incredibly popular television show, OverHaulin’.
Chip Foose, 41, has a surreal knack for design and fabrication. He also happens to have a penchant for racking up awards, having earned his fair share of top industry awards in a relatively short amount of time. For anyone else, winning a single coveted “Ridler Award” or a single America’s Most Beautiful Roadster (AMBR) award is an honor. Foose has won two Ridler awards and has been involved with six AMBR winners – all in a period of less than five years. Copious amounts of mysterious black art aside, it’s hard work and a healthy dose of unparalleled talent that is responsible for Fooses’ rapid ascent to the pinnacle of the hot rod world.
When we caught up with Foose at his Huntington Beach shop, he introduced himself, said hello, and then asked us to bear with him while he tended to a few emergencies. His assistant, Lynne Stout, asked him how much sleep he’d gotten last night, to which he replied, “Last night? None. But I got about 2 hours earlier this morning, so I feel great.” And with that, he ran to his crew of employees and began helping them iron out the details on his forthcoming Ridler-nominee, which is as of this moment unnamed.
The Foose Design shop is situated on a cozy side-street in a small industrial park in Huntington Beach. The shop employs about a dozen people, two of whom you may recognize from another television show: Charley Hutton and Andrew (aka “Beetle Bailey”). The two recently joined Foose after departing Boyd Coddington’s shop.
After spending about thirty minutes at the shop, we followed Chip to his home, where we photographed him with one of his most infamous creations, “The Speedbird.” The Speedbird began life as a 2002 Ford Thunderbird, before undergoing the skillful manipulation of Foose; emerging as the Best of Show award winner for the 2002 Las Vegas SEMA show. As we marveled at the Speedbird’s smooth lines, innovative components and timeless design, we asked Foose what motivated him. We wanted to know what inspired him and to what (or whom) he credits his amazing talent.
“First and foremost, I credit my father, Sam. He’s the inspiration for everything I do. My wife, Lynne is also an unbelievable person. She puts up with me, supports me and inspires me, no matter how busy or crazy things get,” said Foose. “Thirty four years of hard work probably helps as well,” he added with a chuckle.
The Foose family garage hosts several memorable Foose show cars, but Chip Foose’s daily driver is a late-model Ford F150, complete with Foose wheels and a throaty exhaust system. It’s his primary mode of transportation, although he’s not adverse to exercising his works of rolling art. Earlier, while at the shop, we admired his jet-black, 1969 Camaro. Chip told us he had taken it to a burn-out competition a few nights ago, then parked it at the shop when he was done. “I don’t drive it as often as I’d like to,” he says. “But worst of all, it’s filthy right now. I need to get out and wash it.”
Where he’d find the time is beyond us. It was Thursday afternoon when we met with Chip, and he confided that he’d had a total of five hours sleep for the week, including the two he grabbed earlier that morning. Besides the projects he’s currently managing at his own shop, he’s busy with his hit television show, OverHaulin’. “We’re on day five of the build, and we’re a bit behind,” he says candidly. “And to make matters worse, I have to fly to Detroit tonight for a meeting, then fly back tomorrow afternoon to finish the build.” (Top Right: Chip Foose pictured with Overhaulin’ host Courtney Hansen.)
We told you he’s a machine.
As we looked around his garage at the drawings, the paintings, the sketches and the vehicles, we asked about his design preferences. Was there any type of vehicle that he preferred to work with, a specific era, or body style? “As long as it’s got wheels and a motor, I love it,” Foose said with a big smile. “I love the look of a balanced design. Balance comes from getting the stance, the wheels and tires, and the continuity right. Once you can achieve proper proportion, you’ve got a great looking vehicle.”
He continued, “The general shape doesn’t matter if the balance is there. I prefer an elegant design over something ‘hard’ or ‘trendy.’ You know a good design when it’s timeless… If it still looks great in 20 years, you’ve done your job. I try to keep my designs creative and pure, which keeps me (and them) honest.”
Foose’s designs are indeed timeless, elegant and balanced, which may explain why he’s regularly called upon by major auto makers to design concepts and show cars on their behalf. His hands-on, honest, and open approach to tackling a major project is refreshing. He believes in taking an organized approach, one that’s free of “bossiness” or barking orders at people. “I ask people to take responsibility for their projects, and I hold them accountable for their actions,” says Foose. “But I don’t try to boss them around or pressure them. If I can help out, I’ll jump in and help.”
And the efforts of guys like Chip Foose have a trickle-down effect, influencing many segments of the automotive world. We shudder to think what might happen were it not for guys like Foose – odds are we’d still be driving cars that look like the mid-eighties K-Cars.
Jumping in to help is the name of the game over at the OverHaulin’ build. For this particular episode, the OverHaulin’ crew finds themselves at another local shop, Stitchcraft, and the vehicle du jour is a vintage 1950′s GMC pick-up truck. The owner has no idea (yet) what’s happening with his truck, because the magicians at OverHaulin’ have him fooled into thinking his truck has been stolen. Unlike traditional magicians, the OverHaulin’ folks will share the trick at the end of the show, and the owners’ reactions are priceless.
“For me, seeing the look on the owner’s face is the most rewarding part of the show. It’s almost overwhelming to see their response, and it’s the whole reason I do it. We worked hard to make their dream come true,” says Foose.
For those unfamiliar with The Learning Channel’s show, OverHaulin’, the basic premise is simple. Take an unsuspecting vehicle owner and with the help of an insider (usually a close friend of the victim), “steal” their vehicle, dupe them into thinking something terrible has happened to it, then work like crazy for seven days (and nights) to completely overhaul the vehicle into their dream car. The show is a pure rush, as the cameras capture both sides of the story, and give the viewer a real behind-the-scenes look into how an ordinary junker is magically transformed into a show quality work of art.
“Bud [Brutsman] and I came up with the idea to do a show where we’d transform a car in seven days,” says Foose. “And here we are, a year later, making people’s dreams come true.”
The OverHaulin’ crew consists of Chip Foose (lead designer), Courtney Hansen (host) and Chris Jacobsen (host). Courtney and Chris usually have roles in each show that require them to assist with deceiving the owner. Chris usually plays the bad guy, a police officer, or an insurance adjuster, while Courtney has played roles as the tow truck driver, shop owner, and so on. The show is produced by BCCI for TLC, and at any one time, there are as many as sixty people involved with the show’s production.
Jim Holloway, Associate Producer for OverHaulin’ said they assemble a group of seven or eight “A-Team” builders about four to five days before the taping starts. The builders are all volunteers, and are usually masters of their craft. They realize they have to work hard and that they have to work together to accomplish the build in the short seven days. “They work together,” he says. “There’s a sense of camaraderie amongst them.” In the past, builders have left the build, at which point Chip Foose will usually call on a friend or cohort to help finish the build.
“We couldn’t do the show without the builders or our sponsors,” says Holloway. “We bring on six or seven sponsors, and they provide us with incredible support – something that we’re extremely grateful for.” The set is covered with the names and logos of various sponsors, many of whom often assist with the build.
As we watched the A-team work its magic, we were immediately impressed with their precision. A group of three fabricators were working on the front end of the truck, welding, grinding and filling near the same area, at the same time. Another group was fitting wheel wells to the back of the truck, while another builder put the finishing touches on the seat foam. Tucked away in the corner, two more fabricators worked on the truck’s new motor.
During the two hour period that we were on the set, the truck’s body was removed and sent to the paint shop, the frame was final sanded and sent off for powder coating, and the interior was fitted with a new leather upholstery. No bolt, no wire, and no panel is left untouched. The team, led by Chip Foose, completely reworks the vehicle and when they’re finished, Holloway estimates the value of each vehicle to be around $150,000. “But in reality, they’re priceless,” he says. “Chip’s so busy that it’s almost impossible to get a car from the Foose shop, no matter how much money you’ve got.”
With the truck shipped off for paint and powder coating, the build team caught their first chance to take a breather. The catering company had just arrived with dinner, and everyone grabbed a plate and plopped down on the nearest comfortable surface to rest and eat. Well almost everyone. Chip was running again, on his way to Detroit for a 12-hour marathon of meetings. He was scheduled to be back on the build set in less than 24 hours.
“Chip is amazing,” said the show’s script supervisor, Magen Callaghan. “He’s the nicest guy you’ll ever meet, and he’ll drop everything to help you. He talks to everyone, no matter who they are or how busy he is. I think the whole crew admires him not only because of what he’s capable of, but because of who he is.”
Magen summed things up pretty well. Every good magician entrusts his secrets to a select few. Many choose to surround them selves with a dedicated group of assistants, swearing them to secrecy and relying on their loyalty and dedication. Chip Foose surrounds himself with the world’s most talented fabricators, friends and associates. But rather than using a wand, he works his magic with a pen, raw sheet metal, a welding stick, heaps of old world craftsmanship-like talent, and a crew of truly skilled people.
Be sure to catch OverHaulin’ on TLC, Tuesday nights at 9:00pm Eastern and Pacific. The episode that we reported from originally aired on December 22, 2004.