Chip Foose interview – talking Overhaulin’, custom cars and Boyd Coddington

Chatting to Chip Foose back in 2013 about all things cars, television and more

Photographers: Simon Davidson

HE’S KNOWN to millions of car enthusiasts worldwide. His show beams into more than 120 countries yet he’s just as nice, humble and polite in person as he appears on your television.

This interview with Chip Foose was originally published in the September 2013 issue of Street Machine

No, not Jeremy Clarkson of Top Gear — Chip Foose, the southern California designer, car stylist and 100 per cent petrolhead who hosts the popular Overhaulin’ series and, prior to that, Rides.

There are no surprises with Foose. No stage-managed interviews or ‘meet and greets’. What you see is what you get and when he hit Sydney’s MotorEx in July on a whirlwind promotional tour for his sponsor, 3M, we — and literally thousands of his fans — had the chance to meet him and talk cars and life in general.

If you only watch the TV show and haven’t drilled down via the internet into Foose’s history, then let me brief you on his rise to not so much stardom — he doesn’t consider himself a star — but rather his popularity and the influence he has on car enthusiasts worldwide.

At 49 years of age, he’s been there, done that. Raised in the coastal city of Santa Barbara in southern California, he spent his single-digit years with his father, Sam, also an acclaimed car builder, in his shop and soon started getting a taste and knowledge of things automotive. He painted his first car at 12.

From there he enrolled in the Art Centre College of Design in Pasadena in 1982 — where many of the world’s top car designers have studied — but dropped out due to lack of funds.

That alone should tell you Chip (real name Samuel or Sam) wasn’t born with a silver spoon in his mouth. He eventually completed his studies in 1990 when his wife Lynne, a lawyer, said she wouldn’t marry him until he graduated.

Unknown to many, he went to work for Ford in ’93 where he had a hand in some design aspects of the ’96 F150. But working in lab rat conditions, in a cubicle where his neighbour once spent a day rebuilding an automatic pencil sharpener in an attempt to achieve the perfect result, was too much for Foose.

“They wouldn’t even let me carry my own art supplies from the store room to my cubicle — that was a job for a union member to do.”

Hasta la vista Ford, hello Boyd Coddington. The late Boyd Coddington had been on Foose’s case to join him full time at Hot Rods by Boyd, and so began a fulfilling working and personal relationship that sadly went pear-shaped when Coddington’s company filed for bankruptcy in ’98.

During his time with Coddington he was the designer of many of Boyd’s creations, including the Boydster I and Boydster II hot rod bodies. When he left Hot Rods by Boyd, he hadn’t been paid in weeks and had just $700 to his name. But asked about his relationship with Boyd in his later years, Chip, who sees good in everyone, wasn’t overly critical.

“A lot of people thought Boyd was rude but the truth is he was shy around people,” he said. When he passed in early 2008 they were back on speaking terms, but only just.

While Overhaulin’ is a feel-good reality show as American as Mom’s apple pie, the same cannot be said of programs such as American Hot Rod, American Chopper or Monster Garage. “A lot of what you hear is scripted,” Foose said. “Boyd’s rant at [painter] Charley Hutton when he left the company had an element of scriptwriting.”

When asked what he thought of those ‘confrontational’ shows, and others like it, Foose was diplomatic but open; it is not the road he would ever go down with Overhaulin’. With no money, his first child on the way and not inclined to be a wage-slave, in 1998 Chip and Lynne decided to hang out the ‘Foose Design’ shingle in Huntington Beach, from where things took off.

Given that he’s got a few runs on the board in this game, I had to ask what is the most common mistake made when building a car.

“The wheels. So many people leave wheel selection ’til last and they should be the first thing chosen. And if you’re able, get a drawing of what you envisage the car will look like when it’s built and stick with it. This should be your blueprint,” he said.

As for cars he’d like to do on Overhaulin’, he’s quick to point out that he doesn’t get a say on what cars will be done. “I sometimes find out a week before we start on a car what it will be,” he said. “It’s not my design, really. We rely on the insider, friends and family to let me know what the car owner would like; I just put it on paper and the team, led by Mark Oja, does the rest.”

There’s been plenty of variety of late with the cars Foose has turned his attention to. He’s had a VW Beetle and a Lotus Europa but when asked what he’d choose if he could build any car for any event, his response was quite surprising.

“I’d love to do an early classic along the lines of a Duesenberg or Bugatti — something from that era — and show it at Pebble Beach.”

When you consider that this is the guy who penned Hemisfear at art school, which became the platform for Chrysler’s Prowler (a car largely attributed to Tom Gale) and who has either designed or built cars that have won the coveted Ridler Award and America’s Most Beautiful Roadster (sometimes both) on a number of occasions, it stands to reason that something out of the classic art deco era would be viewed as his next challenge.

Cars that win those top-flight awards don’t come cheap in time or money and Chip confirmed that to design and build a car worthy of the Ridler would be a million dollars at least and could take up to six years to complete. That should make many readers feel more comfortable about the time they’re taking and the cash they’re spending to complete their projects in the shed at home!

So, what’s next for Chip Foose? He’s hoping there will be another season of Overhaulin’. “Everyone’s for it, we just have to see if we can get the support from sponsors,” he said. In the interim, he’s flat-chat doing promotional tours around the US and the world.

Not a star he says, but does he relish the recognition Overhaulin’ has given him? “It’s nice to be recognised and I always welcome the opportunity to meet the fans of the show wherever I am.”