It’s a gratifying phenomenon when I meet someone and immediately hit it off with them. It’s inexplicably satisfying, realizing I share a variety of experiences and interests with another person. I’m prone to converse with them at a rapid-fire pace in my eagerness to commiserate and share ideas in such instances.
Such a moment recently occurred when I had a chance meeting with Shawn Davis. Within ten minutes of being introduced to him through a mutual friend, I came to realize he was as passionate about many of the same things in life than I am – particularly cars, filmmaking, and music. What’s more, he’s a rapidly rising star in the world of automotive-based YouTube videos, and an all-around super-cool cat to boot.
His story is an interesting one.
In addition to his social media efforts, Shawn currently owns and operates Autotopia, a very successful, high-end automotive storage facility in Burbank, California. His life began in a far less lofty manner, however, and his route to success is a roundabout one.
Born in Los Angeles and raised mostly in Orange County to the south of the city, Shawn grew up in typical, middle-class American fashion. His father was involved in carpet sales and his mother was your archetypical hard-working housewife, and rearer of three rambunctious boys.
Childhood was full of school activities, sports, and most notably for Shawn, an early germinating love for cars. His father commuted in a company car, but always had special rides in the garage meant for sunny Sunday adventures.
“I think it’s typical with most of us who are obsessed with cars, that we get into it from somebody in our family. For me, it was my dad,” Shawn posits. “I have all these fantastic memories being a kid, and there being a bunch of motorcycles, and two or three project cars in the garage at any given time. Lucky for me, dad was always into Porsches. Late ’50s Speedsters and stuff.”
Shawn’s first car was a hand-me-down truck – a 1976 Ford Courier pickup. It was about as far as you could get from a Porsche, with only about 50 horsepower in it. But, the little truck changed Shawn’s life. “I still remember the day I got my license on my sixteenth birthday, the feeling of being handed those keys and driving away from the house. I felt like I had it made. Nothing ever made me feel that free again. Life was great.”
Shawn’s next car, the first one he paid into himself with his father matching him dollar for dollar, was a serious one – a 1970 Ford Mustang Fastback. “It had a 351 Cleveland and was already lowered by the previous owner. It was red with a black hood, and had a slap-shifter auto, and Centerline wheels,” Shawn says wistfully. “That car was my first love, man.”
Shawn discovered another great love of his life a few years beforehand. “I picked up my first guitar around thirteen. Not long after, I was fully bitten by the music bug. I knew I wanted to be a pro musician by the time I graduated from high school. Listening to all that Zeppelin, Beatles, and Skynyrd certainly helped.”
A year of college was divided between music classes and a few business courses to please his dad. Both soon realized he wasn’t cut out for a life in finance or business management. He was talented enough to pursue a career as a musician, though.
Shawn quit college and spent several years in the 1980s working odd jobs such as motorcycle messenger by day and playing music on the fabled Sunset Strip at night. These were the halcyon days of rock n’ roll excess and heavy metal hair bands like Mötley Crüe, Warrant, Ratt, and Guns n’ Roses.
“It was an awesome time to be a young musician in LA,” Shawn recalls fondly. “The whole scene was just exploding, and I had some great times back then.”
Shawn was far from just another urchin prowling the Strip, though. Whip-smart and motivated, he studied music theory and technique every spare moment he had. All of which quickly led Shawn to book gigs as a session musician and form a number of his own bands. Some of them opened for the likes of Poison and other big metal bands of the time.
A newfound interest in country music led Shawn to Nashville. It also led to a music publishing deal and steady work writing songs for other artists.
Venturing back to LA after several years, Shawn and a collective of like-minded musician friends formed a band called Stonehoney, and promptly signed a deal with a major record company.
“In spite of extensive recording and touring, management and industry forces led to it becoming a disappointment,” Shawn notes sadly.
So what does a 45-year-old man with no career, no assets, and no leads do?
Turn to family. Shawn’s younger brother, Erik, had become hyper-successful in brokering high-risk insurance. He had amassed a sizable collection of exotic cars that he stored in a rented facility in Burbank.
The place was quite expensive, and so Erik and Shawn came up with a plan to offset the cost by opening the warehouse to friends and clients looking for a place to store their cars. Shawn would manage it.
In 2016, this led to the opening of Autotopia, one of Los Angeles’ highest-end auto storage businesses. Featuring a lounge area with pool and poker tables, Autotopia gives clients a full-service facility to store their precious vehicles, as well as a great place to hang and gab about cars, music, et al.
“From the get-go, I wanted Autotopia to offer a full suite of services in addition to storage,” Shawn professes.
Those amenities soon included DMV services, car transportation to and from shows and racetracks, buying and selling services, auctions, basic vehicle maintenance, clear bra, wrap and graphics application, and wash and detail services.
Nestled in the heart of LA’s custom car fabrication area, Autotopia’s neighbors include Jay Leno’s Garage, and the shop of Dennis McCarthy, builder for the Fast and the Furious franchise and many other films and TV shows.
“From our mutual obsession with cars, I quickly became good friends with a large number of the professionals [restorers] in the area, who spread the word about the facility. I also got to know serious collectors like Bruce Meyer by bringing my brother’s rides to car shows,” Shawn says.
Soon, Shawn was housing cars for movie stars, rock royalty, and captains of finance and industry. At times, a large number of the late Paul Walker’s cars lived in Autotopia. Additionally, many vehicles involved in the production of Hollywood blockbusters, as well as concept cars by various auto manufacturers headed to the LA Auto Show, made their home there.
Shawn’s connections to the custom builders in Burbank led to him offering consultation, advisory, and management services on custom cars for many of his clients. Shawn often interacted with the folks at Speedkore, and Sean Smith, one of the former Speedkore designers, who has now opened his own company, Sean Smith Design.
To help promote Autotopia, Shawn took to social media like Facebook and Instagram. Being an artistic person at heart, though, he itched to not only support the business but parlay the booming success of Autotopia into creative avenues. He didn’t quite know how, however.
“I went to this car event called Autocon in 2017 and met a 20-something guy named Mike Nguyen, who had his own popular YouTube channel, SmurfinWRX, which featured his Subaru STi. We hit it off, and I gave him a tour of Autotopia and the surrounding automotive complex. He convinced me that there was tons of content just in the area begging to be captured for a cool automotive YouTube channel.”
Shawn promptly partnered up with his friend Paul Welsh and began shooting footage of some of the cars in his facility, as well as those being built by the fabricators in the neighborhood for his new channel, AutotpiaLA.
“In short order, we had a lot of footage, and none of my editor friends came through to help me cut it down into neat episodes. In retrospect, it was kind of a blessing because it forced me to learn how to edit myself.”
The first episode was a dramatic one, a review and test drive of the $1 million, 1000 horsepower, “Vicious” 1965 Mustang by Timeless Kustoms, a car that made a massive splash at SEMA the previous year. The response to the video was instantaneous.
“I knew from the number of views on that first one that we had hit a nerve,” Shawn asserts. Two videos a week, every week, followed. Viewership and subscribers went nearly vertical on the graph from the start.
“We began to monetize the channel six months in, and hit 60,000 subscribers in under two years.” Now, AutotopiaLA is among the fastest-growing automotive-based YouTube channels out there.
When asked what his secret is, Shawn is steadfast.
“We follow our passion and shoot the cars we think are cool, period. We filmed an episode recently featuring a stock ’67 Nova that we knew wouldn’t get a lot of views because the Nova community is small, but we didn’t care. We loved the car.”
When asked what his favorite episode is, Shawn is equally resolute.
“The best one for me was the Speedkore Tantrum 1970 Charger. Not only because it was a monster of a car, but because the owner asked me to really get on it for the video. I was doing burnouts in Fourth gear at 100 miles an hour in that thing.”
I was doing burnouts in Fourth gear at 100 miles an hour in that thing. – Shawn Davis, Autotopia
Shawn also fondly remembers that episode as the one in which they established the format to use for all future videos. “First, I introduce the car and do a walk around of the vehicle with me pointing out its features and equipment. Then we test it, with video from inside and outside the car, and then I provide an outro.”
Shawn believes the format makes the videos digestible and familiar to viewers. It also enables Shawn, Paul, and their new full-time editor Kyle Simon, to know what they need to shoot in advance, thereby drastically reducing production time.
AutotopiaLA continues to put out two videos a week, and if you love sports and muscle cars of all kinds, as well as custom builds, it is a fantastic outlet to satisfy your passion.
Shawn hopes to grow the AutotopiaLA YouTube channel and is creating his own media company to produce his videos as well as offer production services to create content for others.
“I really love this part of what I do,” Shawn says in earnest. “I plan to continue running the Autotopia facility but focus more on the future of the channel and other projects. As a ‘failed’ musician, it satisfies my creative needs and my love for cars. Touching hundreds of thousands of people out there with what I do is just so cool.”
And the best part of doing what he’s doing?
“It’s the people, man,” Shawn quickly answers. “I’ve made so many wonderful friends between the storage facility and the videos. Folks I never dreamed I would be close with. For that, I’m most thankful.”
Right on, Shawn.