Classic Instruments was well represented at this year’s Grand National Roadster Show (GNRS) in Pomona, California. We stopped by to talk to Company President John McLeod, who recognizes that the gauges manufactured by the company impact the hot rod community is a big way. “I love the hot rod business and am blessed to be a part of this industry,” he said. “If you really want to know what we are about, you need to talk to our customers like Bobby Alloway.” Sure, twist our arm behind our back.
Knowing that our opportunities and reasons to talk to the modern hot rod legend were going to be scarce, we made a beeline to Alloway’s booth. Known as the second “man in black” to come out of Nashville, Alloway put his stamp on the hot rod world by winning every award known to the industry. Among the many accolades Alloway has collected over the years, he took home the Ridler award in 1985, was honored as the Detroit Autorama Builder of the Year in 2011, won the America’s Most Beautiful Roadster (AMBR) award in 2003 and 2015, and was selected as the winner of SEMA’s Battle of the Builder competition last year.
We started by asking Alloway how it felt to be on the top of the game. This lead to an impromptu interview that we knew would be a great story. What follows is the conversation we had with the legend on the floor of building four at the GNRS.
Dance with the people that brought you to the dance. – Bobby Alloway
Bobby Alloway: I don’t know that I have made it. A lot of it has to do with my employees. My newest employee has been with me for 17 years. Everyone thinks that it happened overnight, but I got my first car in a magazine back in the mid-’70s. I won the Ridler in ’85. God knows how long that’s been. Everybody thinks that it just happened but we’ve designed a bunch of cars. We’ve just stayed at it and been consistent with it.
Being consistent with it and always remembering the people that took you to the dance. Doing what you feel like is right in your gut. Whether its that you could have gone another way that might have made you a little bit more money, but not worked out in the long run. You’re asking me how I made it, and I don’t think I have made it. I’m still trying.
What makes you different than other builders?
BA: A lot of builders are trying to find themselves, and trying to find a style or a theme, or something like that. I’m fortunate. I only know how to build a certain style of car. Whether its a Corvette or a ’33 Ford … my wife says I am in a rut, she probably thinks it’s a ditch and not a rut. A lot of people say that I do the same thing over and over, and yes, I do the same thing over and over, but I do it a little different on every car — if that makes any sense.
What are these signature things that you do over and over?
BA: I paint ‘em black. I put big tires on the back and little tires on the front, and big motors in ‘em. I only use a couple of different wheel styles. I mean, it works on the car. You can put this on and it works on the car. Each car will look a little different with that particular deal on it. I’m trying to build a car that when you look at it, nothing stands out on it. You see the whole car. That is where I think a lot of ’em go wrong. I don’t change things for the sake of change. These cars are beautiful to start out with so why screw with it. That is the reason we are building them, because they were cool cars.
I was telling my wife about that and she says, “you flame a car and you don’t think that stands out?” If a car like the roadster, that we won with last year, when you look at it, I don’t think you see the flames right off the bat. I mean, you see the flames but your eye isn’t drawn right to the flame. It’s drawn to the whole car so that the car flows.
Pick your friends carefully because you are no better than them. – Bobby Alloway
BA: If you look at an interior, you don’t want an interior to be any better than your car — or any worse. Everything needs to be on an even scale. That is what I have tried to do. Keep it simple and keep it to where everybody can relate to it, and know that when they look at this Corvette, that it’s a Corvette.
You have to keep it simple, but you still want it to be your design. For instance, I wanted some custom gauges made with my emblems on it and subtle changes. John McLeod, the guy who owns Classic Instruments, was the first guy that started doing that. It lets me personalize my car. They will work with you to the Nth degree. He’ll send me drawings and I’ll call him back and say, that’s not exactly what I was looking for. I guess what I am trying to say is that they won’t try to talk you into something.
I’m doing an El Camino for myself right now, and we are struggling with the gauges on it. There is a real simple way of doing them that works out real well and real cheap but, there is a little issue with them that I don’t like. Then there is a real hard way of doing it that I like. I was telling him that. John said “if you don’t like the other way, then there is no sense in us doing that, we might as well do it the way that you like.” That is where I am at with them. There is never a problem. They will do what you want them to do. They’ll tell you if it will work or if it won’t work.
How does that play into custom building?
BA: I am a creature of habit. If it works, I’ll use it and I’ll stick with it. If it ain’t broke, you don’t fix it. Just because somebody has come out with something new, doesn’t mean that I am going to use it. You can give it to me and if I don’t like it, I’m not going to use it. It doesn’t matter. I value my integrity more than that. I’m not going to be a whore. I’m not going to stand up and look you in the eye and say it’s a great product, it’s this or it’s that.
In this business a lot of it is monkey-see, monkey-do. Like the AMBR car. If people see it and the product is on there, and we are using it, then they think oh, it must be great. If it is on my car, and I am using it, it is great or I wouldn’t be using it. Just because Classic Instruments or Vintage Air gave me something, or if Art Morrison gave me a chassis, or PPG gave me the paint — it doesn’t matter.
What does matter?
BA: The people behind the product are as important as the product. You can have the best product in the world, but if you have a bunch of jerks handling it, then it ain’t worth the hassle of dealing with it.
I was using a paint company that a good friend of mine got me started with. My friend retired. At that time I was doing a project and I couldn’t get any donated product that I had to have for this give-away car. I kept calling and calling, and I couldn’t get it. I contacted the magazine that was handling this give-away car to let them know what was going on.
I ended up calling PPG and let them know the problem I was having, and they were down the next day with product. I told everyone at PPG, all the way up to the corporate level, that I didn’t want to quit working with who I was already with. Circumstances forced me into change. Now, since I’ve made that change, its the best change that I’ve ever made in my life. They’ve been wonderful to work with and their product is great.
It’s like Classic Instruments. I didn’t use their products until I went to John and he got me started with this. I was using another brand but I needed a custom gauge. That goes back to dance with the people that brought you to the dance. He’s worked with me and I’ve got to remember that. It hasn’t always been this way. Years ago you had to have people to help you open doors and help you along the way.
We do some open mic stuff and round table stuff with Classic Instruments and Vintage Air, and that is what we are trying to tell some of the younger builders. I hate to keep saying this but you dance with the people that brought you to the dance, and stay true. If you say you’re going to do this, then you do it. There maybe a better deal out there but you have already committed to this. You do it and you finish it out. You do that and it will get you places in the long run. It may take you longer to get there but the longevity of it will be much better than the quick fast way.
What is the bottom line?
BA: You are no better that the company that you keep. I tell my daughter that all the time. Pick your friends carefully because you are no better than them.