Steve Frisbie built his reputation as a restorer of concours-quality antiques and classics. Today, however, 80 to 90 percent of his business consists of building new street rods and customs.
“I was climbing the antique and classic food chain for probably 15 years,” laughs Frisbie. “We were at the level where we were doing one-only cars, and there’s a lot of gratification and satisfaction in that. You feel like you’re working on a piece of history. We were getting Best of Shows at Forest Grove and competing at Pebble Beach, all this really, really fun stuff. Then the bottom just dropped out of the antique and collector car market around 1993-94. Recognizing that, and having people working for me who had street rod and custom car experience, we basically just took the train and switched tracks.”
What ensued was a two-to three-year crossover process that required some major reprogramming on Frisbie’s part. “It was difficult to change the thought process from having to repair virtually everything in order to keep an antique or classic car authentic, to picking up a magazine and ordering new parts,” he says. In addition to building rods, Steve’s Auto Restorations, in Portland, OR, also includes Real Steel. This division manufactures steel ’33 and ’34 Ford roadster bodies, replacement panels, and other parts.
STEVE'S EARLY START--Like most automotive artists, Frisbie started at a young age, helping out at this dad’s service station. “I had cars in the backyard that I worked on even before I had a driver’s license—mainly because my dad didn’t want me working on anything he had to depend on,” quips Frisbie.
Though he continued to work on antique and collector cars in his free time, he went to work for Boeing Aircraft, doing stints in the painting, plating, machining and inspection departments. “I learned a ton of skills that were applicable to cars,” says Frisbee. Finally, at the age of 30, “I decided I needed to pursue car restoration as a profession, since it seemed to consume me,” he recalls. So, 25 years ago he quit Boeing to work on cars out of his own garage with a single employee.
After five years, he moved to a business complex near the Portland airport, and then bought his own building in a small industrial park in the southeast part of the city eight years ago. The 13,666 square foot building houses four offices, a design room, a paint booth, and a closed-off “clean” room for upholstery and final assembly. The rest of the shop is fairly open with a few walls separating things. “I can see what’s going on from pretty much any location in the shop,” explains Frisbie. “I have a very hands-on attitude about the cars being built here because, obviously, I’m putting my name on them.”
The shop generally does five to eight builds a year—most of them fairly complex and sophisticated projects. “The rest of our work is building bodies and doing portions of work for people who don’t have the capabilities or facilities. We’ll build a chassis for somebody or take their car in for bodywork and paint or upholstery.”
Frisbee got involved in building the bodies a little over four years ago. He owns the dies, which are kept in Detroit, and he phones in his manufacturing orders for the raw stampings. They’re shipped to Portland, where his crew does the trimming and other necessary finishing to turn them into parts that can be pulled ‘off the shelf.’
While Frisbee concedes that fiberglass is an inexpensive solution to the dwindling supply of original bodies, he says, “I’m a steel guy, and there are a lot of guys who want a steel car. Although a steel body is expensive, it’s less than buying an original car that’s either in a field or already done, and doing all of the cosmetic surgery to get the baby back to the condition the present owner wants it to be.”
HOT RODS ARE HOT--Frisbie says his business has been growing at the rate of about 15-20 percent annually over the past five years, and describes the hot rod market as “an absolute firecracker.” But he also sees it evolving away from the mid-‘30s cars favored by older enthusiasts (and the projects he likes best), and toward the tri-five Chevys and other later cars preferred by newcomers with some discretionary dollars to spend.
“The industry will never die, it will just evolve,” says Frisbie, who put 15,000 man-hours into the ’55 Chevy Newmad. Frisbee said the Nomad, “has got to be one of the ultimates in our repertoire. ”Other favorites include a 1933 5 Window Ford that was a full build based on a “one off” custom-bodied car and a just completed 1937 “one-off” German coachbuilt Ford that was totally redesigned and re-sheetmetaled into a new concept creation.
“From concept to reality” is the slogan used in ads for Steve’s Auto Restorations, and those really are Frisbie’s favorite kind of project. “Whether it’s a ‘30s or a ‘50s car, the ones that we have participation in from the design stage are really the most interesting to me,” he says. “Those kinds of cars are usually more complex and more thought out, and we follow a theme and a pattern. A lot of times someone will bring in a car that’s about 20 percent done, and in those cases, the theme has already been dictated. I don’t get too much of an adrenaline rush off of doing those cars.”
While a car will occasionally go to 10,000 or more man-hours, Frisbee said that is certainly not the norm. “Those come along about every four or five years. I would say that somewhere between 1200 and 3000 man-hours is pretty normal.”
TIME AND MATERIALS--The open-endedness of most projects makes it imperative that they be handled on a time and materials basis. “If you start bidding stuff, you’re going to die on the vine,” Frisbie warns. “There are just so many little hidden monsters in a project that you can’t really predict. And projects also change as they go. Some people start out to build a driver, and by the time it’s 60 percent done, they’re talking about the shows they want to take it to. If they want to show it, that car has to be competitive or you’re going to let somebody down, so the intensity of the work scope changes.”
We asked if most people are comfortable going into a project with little idea of what it will ultimately cost. “No, a lot of people aren’t,” says Frisbie. “And I’m the same way. If I have somebody fixing up my bathroom, I want to know what it’s going to cost –but I’m in there making changes all the time, too.”
Frisbee says that one of the ongoing challenges of this kind of business is maintaining a trust level with customers, and one of the keys to that is close communication. As a result, he sends his customers weekly progress reports on their projects. “A progress report is also a billing, and it forces me and the customer to be in close contact on what’s going on with his car. If I take a direction that he’s not wanting to go, he can stop me before I get four months down the road. And it also helps with our cash flow, because I don’t demand big upfront deposits.I just want to have progress payments match work reports.”
Frisbee now uses a digital camera to take progress photos, which he e-mails to his clients two or three times a week. “It takes just minutes to get a photo on their computer, and that has proven to be a real good tool for communication,” he says.
NEW AND OLD TECHNOLOGY--Reluctant to get involved with computers because he couldn’t see their value in a hands-on business like his, Frisbie just added them to his operation in 1999. But he’s come a long way in a short time.“The computer amazes me everyday,” he says. “It’s just a phenomenal tool as far as record-keeping and parts searching.”
Frisbie also maintains two very impressive web sites:www.realsteel.com and www.stevesautorestorations.com. With little computer experience under his belt, he wasn’t sure what to expect from them, but now characterizes them as “phenomenal,” because they’re able to answer most of the questions potential customers might have. “Another thing the computer does is make things seem larger than life, so if you’ve got a good, thorough website that you can navigate in, it adds a lot of credibility to your business.”
While Frisbie’s full-service shop is well-stocked with state-of-the-art equipment, he’s also found that old equipment is invaluable in working on old-style cars. Among the devices he uses are an English wheel, a panel flanger, and a Yoder power hammer, which was a popular machine in the ‘20s and ‘30s. “There are even fewer people who know how to run them than actual machines in existence,” laughs Frisbie, “but it’s amazing what the correct operator can do. It’s used to make fenders, roofs, and hoods, but we can virtually make an entire body by hand with the aid of this machine.” Not surprisingly, he’s looking to purchase a second one.
In terms of new equipment purchases, “I basically try to satisfy our growth needs, and if I feel there’s something we need, I’ll spend the necessary time on the phone and doing homework to see who manufacturers the best.”
TALENTED TEAM--Frisbie employs a staff of 17 to do virtually every operation—fabrication, painting, upholstery, woodwork, etc.—in-house. “About the only thing we don’t do is the chemical dipping of the chrome-plated parts and the actual machine work on engine blocks,” he told us. “I have a pet phrase that if it’s out of the shop, it’s out of our control.”
While Frisbie puts in about 80 hours a week, his employees normally work a 40 hour week. They include a full-time designer (he also sub-contracts with several others), two full-time and one part-time office workers, one painter and two painter’s helpers, four builders and assemblers, four metal shapers and fabricators, and one upholsterer.
Frisbie believes it’s important to rule with a certain amount of control but he also says, “I really try not to stifle their creativity too much, and I try to make them all feel part of a project. I try to give them recognition, and encourage them to communicate with the customers. If somebody wants to come in and look in on his project, I like to have him talk to whoever’s working on it so they feel involved rather than just being a name on a time card.”
While, like the boss, they’re all enthusiasts and have cars under construction, Frisbie quietly mentions that few of those have reached a drivable state. “We’re like the shoemaker; we’ve got holes in our shoes,” he laughs. “Whenever I’d get a car 60 or 70 percent done, somebody would come along and just have to have it more than I did, and it would get sold. I’d end up finishing it but, it wasn’t my name on the title anymore.”
(Hod Rod & Performance, Spring 2000; updated 10/18/02)
Some of Steve’s cool creations and latest builds:
These lights are currently in the prototype stage and entering the production stage. Distribution is expected around the middle of this fall. The lenses are made of glass, not plastic, and a small “SAR” insignia is etched in the bottom edge. The interior of the lamp has a modern high intensity parabolic design. There are two 12-volt halogen bulbs, an H-9 and an H-11, for low and high beams. It will be hard to out run the light that these lamps put out. The front glass face sits at a 20 degree angle. The lights measure 9" from front to rear, 6 1/4" wide, and 6 1/4" tall. The bucket itself is made of steel and is chrome plated to a “show” finish. Plain steel lights will also be available for the person who wants to paint their headlights to match their car. The base is designed to fit a bulb socket type of mounting surface like a King Bee or a '28 through '34 Ford, which is common on the '20s and '30s Fords and other '20s and '30s cars. Pricing will be available as soon as production costs are analyzed.
Call to have your name placed on the order list, (503) 665 2222.
2.“THE DOUBLE DOZEN”
Steve Frisbie, of Steve’s Auto Restorations, Inc., and Chris Ito are jointly setting out on a venture to hand fabricate 12 custom designed ’33 “Hi-boy” roadsters and 12 custom designed ’33 fendered roadsters out of steel. Steve and Chris worked closely together on their last creation, the blue and white ’55 Nomad “NewMad.”
The limited production creations will be consecutively numbered and sold as a bare steel, rolling art form. The philosophy behind the project is to be able to offer a near “one-off” automotive sculpture for less than a “one-off” price. By offering 12 works of art of each version, the design work, buck construction, and fabrication can be amortized over the 24 units manufactured.
One Hi-boy and one fendered version will go to Steve and the remaining 11 Hi-boys and 11 fendered vehicles will be available for purchase by private individuals. Features will include a wedge section in the body, 2” in width added at the shoulder, extended wheelbase, custom grille, Chris Ito designed front suspension, Budnik or Boyd designed wheels, quick change rear axle assemblies, custom Duval styled windshield, and more.
- Unique steel reinforcements
- New hidden hinge tech for rodding
- Safety bear claw type door latches
- Safety door intrusion bars
- Smooth door jambs
- Solid mounts for windshield
- Hinged trunk
- Trunk latch with inside release
- Trunk gas shocks
- Unique smooth firewall
- Smooth flat floor
- Rolled rear pan on Hi-boy
- Door garnish Moulding
- Custom designed hood 3 or 4 pieces
- Hood latching mechanism and release
- Hand-fabricated grille shell
- Mounted grille
- Custom designed grille insert
- Windshield frame limited production casting in brass, hood center strip in brass
- Unique custom fabricated frame
- 10 gauge 1/8” cold rolled or steel rails
- High strength cross or x member
- Exceptional tensional rigidity
- Steering box or rack
- Radius rods or hairpin
- Baer brakes
- Rear axle assembly including gear housing, differential assembly, axles and cv or ½ shafts, coilovers or torsion bar, Baer brakes, outboard, and radius rods.
The actual cost of the ’33 Hi-boy roadsters is yet to be determined because all of our “research and development” figures and tooling costs have not been calculated yet. It is expected that the rolling bare steel sculpture, appointed as described, will cost in the neighborhood of $125,000. For the sake of being fair, I am offering the first two units for sale at the figure of $125,000 with a down payment of $25,000. If after all costs are taken into consideration, the actual sales price is to be less than that figure, a credit will be issued on those purchases. If the cost is over $125,000 for a unit, then the cost on the first two units will remain at the figure of $125,000.All deposits are totally refundable.
Each will be numbered with a signed and engraved firewall ID plate and a certificate of authenticity signed by Steve Frisbie and Chris Ito.
These rolling sculptures are sure to increase in value, and be sought after as rodding artifacts gain popularity with collectors and investors. Events such as Pebble Beach, Essen, New Car auto shows and Concours across the country are looking to hot rods and custom cars to boost interest and attendance. The superior techniques and craftsmanship, along with design and materials, elevate these hand-fashioned forms even more.
While these cars are not for everyone, the cost is not that of a “one of a kind. ”World-class cars by award winning builders are seldom offered for sale, they stay within an elite circle. Only 12 Hi-boy and 12 full fendered cars that can be finished to your own personal taste will allow you to be part of the higher echelon or make a mark of your own by creating a new standard.
For those that need to have their projects completed, Steve’s Auto Restorations will be able to supply one stop shopping as it does everything in house. We offer interior design, paint concepts, wheel and tire combinations, chrome, upholstery, engine transmission combinations, electronics, wiring, metal shaping, everything to make your life easier or help put your own ideas to work.
If you are seriously interested in one of these rolling sculptures, please contact Steve's Auto Restorations at (503) 665-2222 or email (email@example.com).
You'll be able to follow your progress on our website and have confidence in your results. Steve’s Auto Restorations knows how to make things happen. We have done what others say is impossible.We have not yet found our limitations.
Northwest Nerfs are $275 a pair for the fronts, and $275 for a pair of the rears, plus shipping. The photos enclosed show a front crossbar. This item is not available yet, but the front Nerfs can be installed without the crossbar, and it can be added later, if desired. A price for the crossbar is not known at this time as it is still in the development stages. We do have a prototype crossbar made, and we are in the process of refining the tooling for production. The Nerfs are 304 stainless steel investment cast, so are very high quality and would never need to be replated, only polished if they become damaged or scratched.
Call to order (503) 665 2222 or email firstname.lastname@example.org