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Peek inside the shop of America’s foremost hot rodder

Motoramic

Peek inside the shop of America’s foremost hot rodderSouth San Francisco is an industrial stepchild to its glittering bay-side relative to the north. So you'll forgive most drivers for zipping along Railroad Avenue without giving the squat bunker of a building at number 505 a second thought. Too bad, though. For hot rod enthusiasts, this place is the White House, Disneyland and Mecca all rolled into one.

Push open the door to Roy Brizio Street Rods and the chrome is blinding. And that's just in the small parts department. What awaits beyond the shop's main doors is a feast of retro chic.

"Come on back," says Brizio, 55, who got his passion for American machines from the '30s, '40s and '50s from his father, Andy "The Rodfather" Brizio. For the past 35 years, Roy has carried the family hot rod torch, turning out some of the most revered examples of American automotive art. Beyond making cars for the nation's foremost collectors, the soft-spoken craftsman has become a trusted confidant of car guy-celebrities such as Reggie Jackson, Jimmie Vaughan, Neil Young, Eric Clapton and, perhaps his closest famous friend, Jeff Beck, who on his 2000 album You Had It Coming included the original tune, "Roy's Toy."

Today the shop is humming with activity as Brizio and his close-knit staff put the final touches on half a dozen cars destined for the Grand National Roadster Show, the ne plus ultra rodder gathering slated for Jan. 27 in Pomona, Calif. Typical of Brizio projects, most of these cars have been in his shop for the better part of two years; while price tags vary based on the level of detail, Brizio says final bills range from $175,000 to $350,000. Although each car looks like it would be at home in museum, Brizio says winning awards isn't really what his customers are about.

"For most of the people I work with, they want to be at the Roadster show not to win but because it's like a coming out party for the car, where friends and relatives can ooh and aah about it," he says with a chuckle. "Then the cars usually come back to me, and we put around 300 miles on each one to make sure every kink is ironed out. Because my customers drive their cars."

So for the moment, all the work is about making each car sparkle. Brizio strolls up to the first car in the line-up and runs a weathered hand over its smooth green fender. It's a 1933 Ford Five-Window Coupe and, of course, it has a story. The current owner, who is in his 60s, fell in love with the car as a 16-year-old growing up in Oregon. As the decades passed, he kept an eye on the low-slung machine. When its owner passed away, he asked Brizio to approach the family to make an offer.

Once at Brizio's, the neglected beauty was stripped to bare metal and slowly brought back to life. What makes this particular five-window coupe unique, says Brizio, is that typically when a hot rod is "chopped," four or five inches are taken out of the window area, leaving a slit-eyed look. With this car, four inches were taken out of its mid-section, a process that is as difficult as it is unusual. Under its sparkling Goodwood Green hood lies a rebuilt 1962 Chevy 327; inside is a sea of pristine leather and stunning aluminum gauges mated to a faux wood dash that is the result of a painstaking painting process.

"This guy's really perfected the art and can make metal look like wood," says Brizio, clearly in awe of the craftsmanship. "We used it over on this car as well."

Brizio turns to face a one-off machine that embodies the resto-rod ethos. Its owner -- none other than guitar god Clapton, for whom Brizio has made many cars -- decided he wanted a car that never existed, and with all modern running gear to make everyday use a breeze.

"Eric is a very, very detail oriented guy when it comes to how the car looks," says Brizio. "But he really doesn't care much about the mechanicals so long as the car runs great."

On the detail front, Clapton spared little expense on the creation of his right-hand-drive 1932 Ford Victoria, which boasts a unique rear end that bows out as compared to standard Victorias which curved in toward the rear wheels. The engine is a Ford 402 that's now capable of 400 horsepower, "or about 100 horsepower more than you need for this sort of car," says Brizio. Normally a two-door, this version features rear doors in a suicide configuration. Clapton also asked that the top be chopped - though only by one inch - and had two requests that speak squarely toward his other automotive passion: Ferraris.

"He wanted hand-made Borrani wire wheel knock-offs, which are about the most expensive wheels I've ever put on a customer's car," says Brizio, shaking his head. The production of those Italian wheels, famous for having shod all manner of '60s Ferrari coupes, are so labor-intensive that only two have arrived from Italy so far. And Clapton's other Maranello-focused demand? That the Ford's interior be swathed in tan Connolly hides typically reserved for new Prancing Horse cars.

"I asked Eric how I should go about getting the leather, and he just said, 'Don't worry, I'll make a call,'" says Brizio. "Next thing I know, they're at my shop."

This Vicky is coated with a familiar brown metallic hue, in fact, the same brown currently trotting around on a few new Porsche Cayennes and Panameras. "I didn't think it would work, but what do you know, it does," says Brizio, who is not afraid to tell customers what he thinks, sometimes to the point of refusing to work on a car that he feels isn't worth the attention and money someone is about to spend.

Clapton himself seems to have a thing about modern paint schemes on old cars. Not far from the Ford sits his 1950 Chevy Pickup, also right-hand drive, painted in a light green that comes from Aston Martin's current paint roster.

"Honestly, when Jeff (Beck) first steered Eric to me, I thought he'd want one car and that'd be it, but that was seven cars and 11 years ago," says Brizio. It's Beck, however, who has Brizio's ultimate admiration because he works on his own cars. "He does almost everything on them, including welding. Of course, if you think of what his hands are worth, he shouldn't do any of it."

A few bays down from Clapton's pickup sits a wonderfully menacing 1956 Chevy 210 Two-Door Post, also destined for the Roadster show. Its unique features -- and indeed it doesn't seem like anything out of Brizio's shop is routine -- include a two-tone paint job featuring a black bottom and red top. Peek inside the car and it's impossible not to notice how the leather and steering wheel both match the red paint. "We had the steering wheel cast out of a plastic resin dyed the same color as the car," says Brizio nonchalantly.

Up front, the car is missing its hood, revealing an unusual engine. "Most people go with a V-8 in cars like this, but our customer wanted a turbocharged six-cylinder," says Brizio. "Unless we feel something just wouldn't be right for the car, we do what we're asked to do. Everything we build are guys' dreams."

Brizio hopes it stays that way. "The good news is that so far the current economic downturn hasn't hit us that hard simply because people who can afford to do these sorts of projects still have what it takes to do so," he says, noting that three-quarters of his build orders come from repeat business. He cites longtime customer and slugger Jackson, who first connected with Brizio in 1979. "Reggie's got lots of cars, and he'll typically go sell five or six at auction but come back home with two or three that he'll then send here," he says.

But Brizio he has real concerns about the future of high-end hot rodding as Baby Boomers continue to age and today's thirty-and fortysomethings show little interest in restoring and preserving cars that made America's automotive name. Jackson is 65. Most of Brizio's customers are retirement age or older. "Today's 50-year-olds mostly can't afford these sorts of projects, while guys younger than that aren't interested in hot rods," he says. "Maybe it'll just mean we're working on fewer cars from the '30s and more from the '60s. But yeah, I'm concerned."

Mostly, though, Brizio is just busy. The Roadster Show deadline looms and his still very-much-alive and well-heeled customers are eager to send their babies to the hot rodder's ball. Although concerns about his business loom, one thing's certain. Roy Brizio's future will always be in the past.