Hot Rod Builder Roy Brizio Tells Us How to Build For 40 Years
In a Rolling Stone article a few years ago, seminal guitar player Jeff Beck said he almost quit playing guitar to go to work building hot rods at Roy Brizio’s South San Francisco shop. There is almost a cult to the building of cars from Roy Brizio Street Rods. Roy’s been one of the most prolific builders of hot rods ever. In the 40 years he has been in the building business, he’s become the king of the 1932 Ford, but he’s built a lot more than just Deuces. His upbringing with father, Andy, a central figure in the Bay Area’s drag-racing culture, gave young Roy ample time and plenty of examples to educate him in the intricacies of building cars from scratch. With Fremont Drag Strip being where nostalgia drag racing came to be in the early 1980s, it was a perfect time to be Roy and to be building cars in close proximity to the action, which accelerated his prominence and building chops. Since then his output of hot rods has increased, no doubt aided from the publicity around building multiple cars for the likes of Eric Clapton and Neil Young, and he’s had the distinction of winning the Grand National Roadster Show twice. We wanted to find out what the magic was and what it takes to build hot rods for so long, for so many, with such a flourish to each one built.
RB] I didn’t think I could last this long. I really thought that since all of my friends were going to college and getting real jobs that if I could just do this for five years, then I’d go get a real job. But I never would have dreamed I’d be doing this when I was 60.
RB] One that normal people have. I’ve never been normal. I grew up in an abnormal family. We didn’t do what other people did-we went on road trips in hot rods and spent weekends at swap meets, car shows, and drag races. It was all good and fun, and I was a lucky kid to get to do that stuff and am happy I was interested in what my dad was doing. My dad never had to make me do this stuff. I enjoyed doing it and enjoyed his friends, and they spoiled me and stuck me in their Top Fuel dragsters. I’d go to car shows and sit in Ed Roth’s hot rods and George Barris’s cars. I guess because I was a kid that liked cars they took a liking to me.
RB] I wanted to be a Top Fuel driver. Most of my early childhood was at the drag races because my dad was the starter at Half Moon Bay Dragstrip and he was really good friends with Jim McLennan, who owned Champion Speed Shop. He always had a dragster, and we were always around drag racing. He and Ted Gotelli had a Top Fuel dragster, so on the weekends we always went to the drag races—every Sunday was either Fremont or Half Moon Bay for probably 8 to 10 years of my life. I thought I wanted to be Don Garlits, Prudhomme, Ivo, all of those guys. Then I got older and got a chance to really sit in a nostalgia dragster. When Prufer and Burnett started nostalgia drag racing, we got involved in it and we built the Champion Speed Shop replica dragster, and old friend Louie Poole had an old dragster we ran, and it scared the hell out of me. Once I got strapped in and the engine fired up and I couldn’t see around the blower, I knew right then that it was not for me. I was never going to be a dragster guy, but it sounded cool.
RB] We have 10 employees now, and me makes 11. We’ve had as many as 15, but 10 seems to work well for us right now.
RB] We always have at least 20 projects going—always. I’m sure that someday that number will go down, but we’ve had at least 20 for over 20 years.
RB] I’d say 300, but I say that every year, so I don’t know. We are averaging 10 cars a year, and we have been doing that for a long time. September 2017 will be my 40th anniversary in business. Those early years we weren’t cranking out as many cars, but the last 20 years we have been on a roll. Over 200 cars in the last 20 years for sure.
RB] Me loving what I do, but also being blessed with a lot of great people that give me the opportunity to service them. Also a lot of our customers are repeat customers. I’ve done 10 cars for the Edelbrocks, and we’re doing the 11th car for Eric Clapton. We’ve done 10 for John Mumford, too. I always take care of the customers, not because I think they’ll be coming back, but just to make sure they are taken care of for the one I do for them. Our philosophy for building cars has helped—I never want to go too far out. I have a niche market for building the kind of cars these people want. It looks good, sits right, and you can get in it and drive it. For me, this is what works. I didn’t plan on it happening that way, but that’s how it has worked. I’m not the guy to do a Ridler car or go after the Roadster Show every year. We’re the guys you come to if you want a hot rod you can get in and drive and still put on the floor of the Grand National Roadster Show [GNRS] and be proud of. We won the GNRS twice, and the first time was back when I thought it was important for me to do and it was a dream for me to win. We didn’t win the first time. We came to the show and we didn’t deserve to win. We lost in 1986 to Don Thelan. We redid the car and came back in 1987, and I think we deserved to win. We tried a couple more times over the years. These customers wanted to, but I told them I’d do the cars if they promised they wouldn’t have a problem if they lost. If they had a problem with losing, then I was not their guy. We did it for some nice people and didn’t win, but we did win with John Mumford’s track roadster in 2013. That was a lot of fun, and I was really proud of the guys involved in that build. Steve Davis had so much to do with it—that was his project we took over 25 years later and got to finish. I was so happy the car finally got done and that Steve was such a big part of it.
RB] Well, Jeff has been a family friend for a long time. He came into my dad’s shop and bought a T-bucket chassis in 1972, took it home, and then we lost contact with him. When I opened my shop in 1977, he reappeared again and we became really dear friends and I still do stuff for him. I just built him another 1932 chassis. Eric Clapton came along through Jimmy Vaughn, who I have been a friend with for years, and he was a friend with Eric and so Eric…
RB] Eric didn’t know who I was. He came to me because he trusted Jimmy.
RB] No, but we’ve been dear friends, and once we started building them for Eric, he felt comfortable with me and so it continues. Now Neil Young, that was different yet. I was always a fan of his, and my sister and I always listened to his music, and she told me some day he was going to come into my shop. I told her he never would because he doesn’t like hot rods. He’s into original cars. Then one day he broke down about two blocks from my shop. He was doing a video just down the street, and when his car broke down they told him there was an old car shop on the corner. He just walked into my shop with his 1957 Cadillac, and that’s how it started. He had no clue who I was. He never heard of me and didn’t know anything about me. That was nine years ago. We service and take care of cars for him and he’s become a good friend, too. When I called my sister and said she wouldn’t believe who walked into my shop, she said, “Neil Young!” Deb said, “I told you he would some day.”
RB] I’d be begging for a job at HOT ROD Magazine, but I can’t read or write. Honestly, I don’t think I had a chance to do anything other than cars because they were there, so I never thought of doing anything else. I grew up working in a speed shop—Andy’s Instant Ts and then Champion Speed Shop—so when I say I don’t think we were ever normal, we were as normal as you could be if you grew up around a dragstrip and a hot rod shop.
RB] We did that 1937 Cord last year that HOT ROD did a story about, and it was probably the most difficult car we’ve done. The owner was a customer of ours; we had built two other cars for him. He asked me to do the car for him. He was adamant about having a front-wheel-drive, independent-suspension 1937 Cord like they all were, but with a late-model drivetrain. It was such a huge project and I was so busy at the time I told him I couldn’t do it. He was OK with that and took it to another shop. There was a problem and it never got finished. We stayed in touch, and when I asked him once how the Cord was going, he told me he stopped the project. Then he asked me if I would again do it for him. I told him I’d get the car back for him and think about it. It sat in my container for a year. Finally, I went to one of my guys and told him it would be overwhelming for me to run the shop and do this car, but if he would head the project we’ll do it. He was excited about it, and the owner was excited, but it was a huge project and it took us over two years to do it.
RB] Yeah, that was big, but we were not involved in the electronics, which was done at AVL in L.A. They do work for the OEs. The electronics were out of our deal, but yes, this was a big project because it’s hard to see the end. When a guy comes in and says he wants a 1932 Ford roadster, I know the end will be a year from now. We schedule it like we do with each car; we do the chassis and it goes off to the body shop, and when it comes back, we reassemble it and then it is off to Sid Chavers for upholstery, and that’s what we do every day. They are all done on a schedule—all scheduled a year in advance. I make all of my upholstery dates with Sid in November for the following year. I know what I’m building this year, and that’s how we get cars done. When somebody asks me how I get these cars done and how I get shops to work for me, I tell them I pay them, I don’t grind, we all work together. I’m fortunate to have some great body and paint guys to work with; I’ve got a great upholsterer that comes through for me all of the time, but we are on a schedule. They know when they are getting a car, and they do them in the time allotted. We’ve got that formula down, and that’s how we get them done.
RB] When we get a car that’s a Brookville body, we know what we are getting, but if it’s a car that we are not sure about, then it’s not on a schedule. As it get’s closer and I can see what it will take to make it right, then I will schedule it and it goes into our normal scheduling procedure. We strip the original cars early enough that we know where we will be, even if they are a lot worse than we expected.
RB] I was a lucky kid growing up in my dad’s shop and picking up stuff from the guys in his shop. Denny Craig taught me how to tig-weld at my dad’s shop. Partly, I was a pain in the ass because I was asking a lot of questions, so they either loved me or hated me, depending if I was a pain in the ass or not. Lil’ John Buttera was a huge influence in later years and Pete Chapouris helped with business stuff when I would call him. We did a lot of stuff with Pete and Jake’s parts, and still do to this day. I’d go to Dick Magoo and Boyd Coddington, and they would tell me anything because we always got along. I think that Magoo built some of the greatest hot rods ever, and now that I look back at all of the cars he built, I don’t know if he always got credit enough for some of the cool stuff he did. He had a great eye. Those Model A roadsters he did that he dropped the hoods on and the first 1932 Ford he built that I really liked, I’d look at it and couldn’t figure out why it looked so good. Then I found he lowered the hood line, and I borrowed that from then on. I learned to detail my cars from him, too. I’d detail my engines with a spray can or brushing them, and then I looked at Magoo’s engines and the detail. He’d paint the fins on the valve covers, and like the oil pressure sensor—he’d detail those things. He detailed cars so nice, and I knew I needed to make my cars look nicer. I’d never steal from them, but I’d ask questions and they would share with me. I used to spend summers at Dan Woods’ shop in Paramount [California] and he taught me how to arc-weld—he didn’t have a tig-welder, that’s all that he had. This is back when Jake Jacobs and Dan were partners. Grinding things and cutting out parts, that’s what I did. I used to sit in Lil’ John’s garage and just watch him work, and I was so proud to show him stuff I had done, and you didn’t get very many “atta-boys” from John. When I wanted him to see my cars he’d ask, “Did you do the best that you can,” and then I would question myself. He’d always say to do the best that you can and keep doing it. He looked at things differently than everybody else, and he took hot rodding to a different level. Whether you went the billet route or not, everybody stepped up their game and made their cars nicer because of him. No more square edges—they rounded edges off and finessed their cars to be nicer. There was more than one guy, but John, Magoo, and Pete Chapouris were probably the three guys I looked at the most. Pete for simplicity for sure, and that’s how I wanted my cars to be so you could work on them if you broke down—not too sophisticated because, to this day, I want my customers to drive their cars. And hopefully if there is a problem they can fix it or at least get it fixed on the road, instead of having to ship it home in a container because it was too exotic for anyone to fix.
RB] If you have your heart set on it and you’re still young enough, then do what makes you feel good. You’re young enough that if it doesn’t work out you can still get a real job. I look at Billy Ganahl, he started at my shop sweeping the floors, and he’s become one of the most talented guys doing this today. He learned from my guys. I used to tell him to pay attention to what we are all doing. You don’t have to agree with what we are doing, but learn from these guys. I told him not to go into it thinking he knew how to do everything. Go in thinking you love what you are doing and you don’t know how to do anything and you want to learn from them, because all of my guys would show him anything he wanted to know, but if you tell them you know it all, they won’t show you shit. So if you’re a young guy, if you show your enthusiasm, you can go to any of the builders today and ask them for advice and they will tell you to call them, email them, or come back tomorrow when the show’s more quiet and I’ll talk with you. I believe all of the builders out there want to see this continue on and want to help young guys. HOT ROD has gone through many things that have kept people interested, and hot rodding will always be hot rodding because it doesn’t matter what you’re hot rodding—if you’re modifying it, you’re hot rodding it. There’s times I’ve looked at a car and thought it wasn’t a hot rod, but if it’s modified, then it’s a hot rod to the guy that built it. If it’s a Toyota and the guy wants to change the wheels and lower it and put a turbo on it, then it’s a hot rod. What they’re doing with fuel injection and electronics today, the cars are going faster than they’ve ever gone. If you’re a hard worker and can show your employer you are, then you’ll always have a job somewhere building cars. Go for it.