It’s an overcast January morning here in Southern California as we pull up to United Pacific Industries, Inc. (UPI). The massive off-white building is a short distance down East Conant Street, set against the backdrop of Long Beach airport. Everything about the area screams machinery and industry, and it’s heightened all the more as we step inside the facility.
We’re here to get a sense for what it’s like to work at UPI, one of the biggest restoration parts vendors this side of the Rockies. Its presence in automotive culture can be felt far and wide, from postwar trucks to 1980s Chevy cars to ’32 Fords. The latter of these is a major draw for hot rodders, as the company’s auspicious foray into Deuce Coupe territory marked a turning point for enthusiasts.
Offering builders the opportunity to have an all-steel body and various trim and accessory parts built to exacting specifications, UPI’s catalog for the ’32 Five-Window coupe is the first to use officially licensed Ford designs for a mint-state rebuild on any Model B car. As the program enters its sixth year, it has become the top destination for folks who prefer solid metal over the alternatives, like fiberglass or carbon fiber.
But the ’32 Ford is just one side to the multi-faceted manufacturing that goes on here at UPI, as we learned. Guided by the company’s project manager, David Odegard, our tour of the company’s stronghold was an exciting and eye-opening experience. Join us, will you?
Opening the front doors to the building, we were greeted by a room that immediately established the tone of what was to come. A coupe body, unpainted yet pristine, is the first thing that caught our attention. It’s bordered by a wall of headlamps on one side, and the help desk on the other sporting a massive backlit logo.
Along the back wall, a display shows off a variety of honors that UPI has netted over the years: Street Rod Nationals’ New Product Of The Year, SEMA Global Media Awards Winner, and the 2014 Hotrod & Restoration Trade Show Innovation Award, just to name a few. There’s even a corner dedicated to some classy Chinese artwork pieces.
A door, a hall, and another door are all that separated us from that pleasant appetizer to the beefy main course: the warehouse. Front to back, side to side, this is the space where the magic happened, and we knew we were in for a fantastic treat the further on we walked.
“We’ve been here for a year and a half now,” said Odegard, as we set foot inside the area. “It’s over 135,000 square feet. Over here on the left, you have the assembly stations.”
At the forefront, we found a dozen or so employees at their workstations, assembling various bits and pieces to make the parts that would soon find their way to dealers across the country. Here, a man was typing up an inventory form for some headlights he had just finished. There, a woman was putting together several sidemarkers for universal usage.
An electric conveyer belt ran between each of the workstations, endlessly nudging box upon box down and around to the shipping department, where postage was printed, pasted, and placed onto a pallet. Industrial strength wrap encased each shipment and then got forklifted to its proper bay, where it would await further action once the truck arrived.
To our right, we would be remiss to neglect the tall, imposing aluminum shelves that stacked and organized all that UPI had to offer. Stretching at least 25 feet up and 100 yards across, each of the structures was made accessible by a fleet of electric Raymond Swing-Trucks, any number of which could be found whipping around the warehouse to retrieve or replace items.
“The hand-picked stuff is these first ten or twelve aisles, and then the machine-picked stuff is these last fifteen aisles,” explained Odegard. “The Swing-Trucks follows an electrical signal that’s embedded into the floor, so it drives down the row essentially by itself.
“It’s manned with an operator, but all he has to do is go up and down and hit a switch to load a pallet into the rack. But other than that, it’s all automated. We’ve used them since we first moved here from Carson, where the worker had to offload and load pallets by hand.”
For the sake of safety, a harness wrapping around the torso and groin kept the operator from falling. “The efficiency of having a machine pull a pallet off the rack is fantastic,” said Odegard. And it’s worth noting that the aisle is no wider than the pallet, so to be able to get a pallet off of a rack that size is pretty amazing.”
Before we knew it, we had reached the backside of the warehouse, where we finally got to see the R&D department devoted to vintage Fords. Stacks of Model B bodies rested to the left of the scene, a 1930s Chevy panel truck sat to the right, but front and center was where we were most interested.
An array of tools, parts, and engineering genius was the short version of how we absorbed the space. The long version took us around each and every facet to better understand its purpose and how it played out in the bigger picture, starting with the rotisserie.
“This allows a fixture to be raised, lowered, and rotated 360 degrees to give welders total access to the body,” said Odegard. The water-cooled Pro Spot i4 spot welder, which sat nearby, gave further evidence to the need of the rotisserie, and was an interesting device in and of itself.
Owing to its internal technology, the i4’s ability to detect good or poor welds made it indispensable in the construction of ’32 Ford bodies. It could measure the resistance between two pieces of metal and quickly determine whether or not a subsequent spot weld would benefit or harm overall integrity, and can refuse to work if the latter was the case.
The body that was currently in construction was, according to Odegard, about 50 percent of the way through its build. “We’ve just started giving it fixtures, as you can see,” he said, gesturing at the blue steel pieces that formed a rigid skeleton inside the body. Each and every body undergoes this process to ensure that nothing is shipped off with less-than-exact standards, and maintains uniformity with the original two bodies used to develop the parts.
“In essence, the gaps and everything that goes into one of these bodies aren’t determined by the technician, but by the fixture,” explained Odegard. “There’s no eyeballing or guesswork involved. Every body comes out to the proper specifications.”
The fixture not only stops defective bodies from being delivered to the end user, but also keep UPI compliant with its Ford licensing contract. With everything being repeatable and accurate, it keeps the reputations of both firms clean and trustworthy.
The body itself was covered in a black coating, which Odegard described as a weldable primer. “It’s called Classic Coat, and it’s electrically conductive, so when you you put two panels together, the spot welder can arc-weld the panels very easily,” he said. “[With] every panel on our car, there’s a coating between the spot welds to offer that extra corrosion resistance in the future. After it’s all been assembled, it gets e-coated as well.”
The source material may date back more than 70 years, but United Pacific’s devotion to producing quality pieces for restoration stretches far and wide. For 2015, the company has been gearing up to showcase new parts for the Model B, as well as the Ford pickups from the same era.
We saw this firsthand with a 1932 truck being used as a testbed there in R&D. Being roughly identical to the Deuce Coupe in terms of chassis and accessories, the leap from car to cargo hauler isn’t all that great. Seeing as UPI’s modus operandi is to provide parts that aren’t already on the market, there are three pieces in particular that are highly sought after nowadays: the doors, the rear fenders, and the grille shell.
“The doors are always rusted out or fatigued around the hinges, having been opened and closed millions of times,” explained Odegard. “Other times they’re missing entirely. So we made ours based off of this 1932 model as our tester, and they’re due to arrive in stores around June of this year.”
Meanwhile, the rear fenders have also suffered the wrath of time, oxidation, and extreme rarity. Driving around town or patrolling the farmlands of America took their toll on these parts, as the wire bead lining the edges would give way and the fenders could soon become misshapen and ugly.
UPI’s replacement fenders carry the torch of authenticity too, utilizing a steel bead like the originals while improving its fit and finish. “We’ll have both the 1932 and 1933 to 1934 rear fenders ready by June as well,” said Odegard.
Finally, we looked at the grille shell, which differentiated from the passenger car in that it came as one entire piece, as opposed to a frame and stainless steel grille insert. The truck’s version was more utilitarian and thus was made in a single pressing of steel, which United Pacific has done its best to replicate.
“From a technical standpoint, this is more difficult to make than the passenger grille,” said Odegard. “The grille bar and the surround is one piece, and it takes quite a bit of work to perfect that, but that’s what we did, and once again, this has a June 2015 launch date.”
Much like the genuine steel they have pressed and shaped to make a renewed ’32 Ford, our trip to United Pacific left an impression on us. As we said our goodbyes and wandered back to the car, we took one last look at the building that housed some of the finest and most dedicated people in the restoration business.
UPI has used every bit of momentum from its breakaway success with the Deuce Coupe program, fueling other projects that hot rodders will get to enjoy in the coming months and years. Enthusiasts of other tastes, like muscle cars and classic trucks, have a friend in this company as well, and can look forward to more high-quality components in an ever-evolving catalog.