Alloway’s Hot Rod Shop: Building a Stable of Black Beauties
Photos by John Jackson and Scott Killeen
It’s often said that lightening doesn’t strike twice, and that’s just fine by Bobby Alloway. After all, the renowned hot rod builder watched Alloway’s Hot Rod Shop burn to the ground after lightning struck his shop in 1998. With a shop in ruins, many builders in Alloway’s position would have thrown in the towel, but Alloway was determined to rebuild his business and make it better than ever.
“My wife and I sat there, watching the shop burn and I told her I didn’t even have time to cry,” Alloway said, adding that he called in every favor from everyone he knew to help him rebuild his shop and reopen in 45 days. “It took everything I had to build it back.”
Alloway and his Louisville, Tennessee-based shop, Alloway’s Hot Rod Shop were well known in the hot rod community at the time of the fire. Several years earlier, a ’33 Ford Victoria that he had built at the beginning of his career won the Ridler Award and his line of Speedstar coupes was already quite popular. However, Alloway says it was that lightning strike that jolted something inside of him.
“We had to start over but after that lightning strike, we won the AMBR award twice, Street Rod of the Year three times, and Street Machine of the Year once,” he said. “You could say that the lightning strike sparked everything!”
The awards just kept on coming for Alloway. He recently picked up his third Goodguys Street Rod of the Year win in Columbus for a ‘37 Chevy coupe he built for Chuck Rowe. That win comes on the heels of Larry Olson’s Alloway-built ’33 Ford Roadster winning this year’s AMBR award.
“I am not trying to win an award when I build a car,” Alloway said. “I’m just trying to build the best car I can and if it does win, that’s absolutely great!” I want to be happy with the car and I want the customer to be happy with it. I won’t build anything that doesn’t make me happy.
Alloway says he learned to fix cars out of necessity: He had to feed his addiction to hot rods but he didn’t have a lot of money.
“I always loved cars but I couldn’t afford them,” he said. “My dad would buy me an old car and I’d try to fix it up.”
By the summer of 1972, Alloway was putting his hobby of fixing cars to good use while working as a mechanic at a Chrysler dealership. After graduation, he went to work as a welder but was laid off.
In the meantime, Alloway continued to build cars, read hot rod magazines, and follow the careers of his heroes. Eventually, a ’33 Ford coupe that Alloway built caught the eye of Gray Baskerville of Hot Rod magazine.
“He came out and shot it for the magazine,” Alloway said. “That was the first car I built that was ever featured in a magazine. That really got me started. I wanted that to happen again!”
Soon after, Alloway had a chance meeting with some of those heroes he had been reading about in the magazines. That meeting would help steer the course of his career.
“I was at a car show and Pete [Chapouris] and Jake [Jacobs] of Pete & Jake’s came over and thanked me for using their products on one of my cars. I was star-struck! These were the guys I had seen in magazines.”
Alloway stayed in touch with Chapouris and eventually, went to him when he needed someone to build him some parts. Chapouris suggested he contact a guy who was, at the time, working for Disney and making cool stuff.
“Pete introduced me to Boyd Coddington, and that was the beginning of the end!” Alloway joked. “Boyd and I became friends and we spoke to each other on the phone every day until the day before he died. That’s basically what jump-started my career, meeting those guys and having the relationship with Boyd.”
“If it wasn’t for Pete I would have never met Boyd, so I don’t know whether to hug or kill Pete for that!” Alloway joked. “Love him or hate him, though, Boyd did a lot for our industry and he did a lot for me and my career. I’ll always be grateful for that.”
BOBBY’S FIRST BIG WIN
After striking up a friendship with Coddington, Alloway would often travel to California to see him, and take note of the West Coast trends.
“Then we’d take that stuff back to Tennessee and everyone here would think we were crazy!” he said. “But then about a year later, that stuff would reach Tennessee and no one thought we were crazy anymore.”
In 1985, Alloway used some of those “crazy California ideas” to build a ’33 Ford Victoria street sedan. He took it to Detroit in hopes of getting his name out there. He never expected that the car would actually win the Ridler award.
“I was completely shocked!” he said. “No one knew who I was back then. I think a lot of people were shocked that year.”
“It took years and years before anyone would give me the time of day.”
Alloway didn’t get the usual recognition that comes with winning the prestigious award, however.
“My car beat out (Street Rodder founder) Tom McMullen’s car,” he said. “Every year, Tom put the Ridler winner on the cover of his magazine… except for that year. I wonder why that is…”
During this time, Alloway was still working at a dealership. In the 16 years he had worked there, Alloway said he never missed a day of work until one day when he got fed up with the way the dealership treated their customers.
“One day I got in a squabble with the office manager. It was the last straw and I just got up and walked out and never went back,” he said. “I have never walked out of a job in my life, but I was done. It had gotten to be that they were all about their bottom line and they wouldn’t let me take care of the customers.”
With a big win under his belt, Alloway decided to open his own shop and build cars full-time. In 1991, he opened Alloway’s Hot Rod Shop and, although, he had built a Ridler winner, business wasn’t booming at Alloway’s Hot Rod Shop.
“That first year in business I thought I would starve!” he said. “I worked day and night for a year. Some of the young guys see someone like me and think that [my success] happened overnight but it didn’t! It took years and years before anyone would give me and Alloway’s Hot Rod Shop the time of day. I couldn’t get anyone from the magazines to shoot my cars because they were all black.”
Alloway started painting his creations red in hopes that he would get some much-needed publicity.
“Back then, that was the deal,” he said. “Black cars are harder to photograph and red ones are easy. So I went with red for a while.”
SPEEDING TOWARD SUCCESS
Now that he was on his way, Alloway was able to treat his customers at Alloway’s Hot Rod Shop the way he wanted, unlike how it was when he was working at the dealership.
“I tried to make it fun for my customers, and I still do,” he said. “They can go anywhere to get a car built, so I try to make it enjoyable for not only the customer but their wives and myself as well. I want it to be fun. If you’re just doing this as a job, then my suggestion is for you to get out of the business.
When Alloway debuted his Speedstar fiberglass bodies in 1995, his mentor Coddington, wasn’t thrilled (because they were fiberglass). Customers, however, loved them.
“I didn’t really get much publicity until the Speedstar came along,” he said. “That’s what kind of made me well-known. I hit it at the right time and the majority of the people liked it. We built a ton of those!”
Alloway has since built hundreds of Speedstars, and several of them have won major awards. After rebuilding his shop after the fire of 1998, Alloway has been a regular in the winner’s circle. He attributes this to his unique building style.
“All of my cars have a certain style, whether it’s a ’65 Riviera or a ’32 Ford, it will have certain aspects that are always the same,” Alloway said of his signature style. “our cars have a certain stance. They call it the ‘Alloway-rake.’ Our cars tend to have big wheels on the back, little wheels on the front, and a big old motor that sounds good. Most of the cars are black. I try to keep everything as stock-bodied and clean as possible. I’m not into a lot of modifying.”
In fact, Alloway prefers to keep people guessing as to what modifications his cars have undergone at Alloway’s Hot Rod Shop.
“I want it to be difficult for people to pinpoint exactly what we’ve done to the car,” he said. “I would rather build a car and let people try to figure out how we’ve changed it. I like things understated. I’m not into the new deal of making cars look crazy. My goal is to build a car that’s timeless, a car that can be brought out today or 10 years from now and still work. I think the cars that we built 15 years ago are cars that could still be built today.”
Alloway built a ’72 Corvette for the 2015 SEMA Show that he feels would be a challenge for anyone to figure out what’s been done to it.
“It’s a Corvette that’s a full chassis car,” he explained. “it has a Morrison chassis, ZL1 big block, and a Tremec five-speed transmission. It looks like the typical ‘Alloway’ car but we did away with the T-top and made a one-piece Targa top for it. The car looks like a funny car but we made a hot rod out of it. We changed the top and the hood and did a chassis for it. This is the second one of these we’ve done,” Alloway said.
FUTURE FIRST-PLACE FINISHERS
Alloway estimates that, in addition to the ’72 Corvette for SEMA, he has about 15 cars currently in Alloway’s Hot Rod Shop. This includes a car he plans to take to next year’s Grand National Roadster Show and some that he will take to Goodguys events in 2016. While he’s already won nearly every major award a hot rod builder can win, Alloway says it never gets old.
“The third time is just as good as the first time,” he said. “It’s still nerve-wracking! I never expect that I will win. The cars have gotten so good and the workmanship that guys are doing now is so good. Judging is strictly an opinion. There’s no one keeping score. You hope that you’ve done the right thing and that they’ll like your car, but you never know.”
“The young guys have passed us [older guys] up!” he said. “They build stuff I could never dream of building! They’re so far past me it’s unreal.”
While he’s in awe of what the industry’s young builders are creating, Alloway advises them to stay humble, regardless of how many awards they win at Alloway’s Hot Rod Shop.
“Be appreciative,” he said. “There’s always someone out there that’s better than you and you can’t let your accomplishments go to your head. It takes a lifetime to build a good reputation but about 10 minutes to lose it. And once you’ve lost your good reputation, there’s no way of getting it back.”
Alloway’s Hot Rod Shop
1849 Oakmont Circle
Louisville, Tennessee 37777
Owner: Bobby Alloway