Five Minutes With Art Morrison
Art Morrison tells a great story about how a flipping a wheel-standing AMX at the drag strip led to him starting his own business. He was piloting the exhibition car for friend Richard Schroeder in 1971 when it got crossed up and started tumbling near the finish line.
“The harness was so loose, my whole upper body was hanging out of the window and my helmet was dragging on the ground,” Art says. “I was knocked out.”
Art’s wife, Jeanette, witnessed the wreck. “Jeanette said, ‘I’m too young to be a widow,” Art tells us. “I decided at that moment there had to be a better way to make a living.”
Art started doing automotive work out of his home garage. “It was anything and everything to make a dollar,” he says. “Anything from an oil change to rebuilding engines and transmissions. Plus, paint jobs.”
He earned a reputation for quality chassis fabrication, which took off after he built a rear-engine dragster for Bucky Austin. “Ultimately, I wound up doing 135 dragsters,” Art says. “Most of them econorails. That’s kind of the way it all started.”
Today, Art Morrison Enterprises is celebrating 50 years in business and specializes in bolt-on chassis for street rods and classics, in addition to specialized suspension parts and a wide range of components for street vehicles and race cars. We caught up with Morrison to talk chassis, hot rods, and…fly fishing.
Goodguys Gazette: What was the first product you sold?
Art Morrison: As goofy as it may sound, the first products were engine stands and solvent tanks. The first catalog we did was in ’83, and in that we had dragsters you could get as a kit. It had ladder bars, wheel tubs, all the parts you needed to put a door-slammer together. We did as much as we could in kit form.
GG: What is the best business advice you’ve had?
Morrison: When it gets really tough, you’ve just got to be able to muscle through. I think that’s why so many small businesses fail; people give up too quick. Also, if you want to keep really good people, you’ve got to treat really good people right.
GG: The business started out with a focus on drag racing parts. How did the street portion evolve?
Morrison: In the early-’90s I said, “let’s get into street rods – that seems easy.” It was around 1990 or ’91 that we went to our first Goodguys show and we couldn’t pay people to stop and look at us! We were just known as drag racing guys. It wasn’t until the mid-’90s that we added tooling to bend 2×4 steel rails. And all of a sudden that opened the door for the street rod market.
GG: What was the biggest game-changing moment for Art Morrison Enterprises?
Morrison: When Craig [Art’s son] joined the business. The minute he started, he said ‘we’ve got to build a bolt-on frame. No welding.’ He came up with a business plan for a Tri-five Chevy frame. That was the game-changer. The first year we sold, like, 20, and then it was 45, then it was 90. Since then, I think we’ve sold around 1,700 of those frames – just for the Tri-five Chevy. That changed the face of the whole business.
GG: You started out building race parts but have capitalized on two big hot rod trends: pro street in the ’80s and ’90s, and pro-touring in the 2000s. Was that skill or luck?
Morrison: Skill had absolutely nothing to do with it. We had no serious plan. The pro street deal was brought to us by customers because we built drag cars. Being at the right place at the right time is always part of the luck factor. The other thing is doing ball-breaking work. If you work hard enough at anything, you’ll find those are the luckiest people in the world.
GG: What is something people would be surprised to learn about you? Do you have any secret talents or hobbies?
Morrison: I absolutely love woodworking. I did every cabinet piece in the bar area of our house. Another thing I’ve fallen in love with is making knives and doing leatherwork. Fly fishing is huge. I’ve gotten Jeanette into it. She loves it. Her fly casting is absolutely gorgeous.
GG: When you can escape from the shop for a few days, where would we find you?
Morrison: In the winter, I’d be in Argentina fly fishing. If it’s summer, on a river in Idaho or Montana.
GG: Who tells better lies – fishers or racers?
Morrison: Oh, God, that’s a toss-up. I believe racers. Fisher guys are great at telling lies, but they can’t keep up with drag racers.
GG: What’s your go-to car for a Sunday drive?
Morrison: I’ve still got my ’55 Chevy – Mitchell 427c.i. small block, six speed. That’s just a wonderful, fun car to drive.
GG: How has the hobby changed most in the past 50 years?
Morrison: The absolute hands-on do-it-yourselfers – there’s fewer now than ever. That’s just virtually disappeared. The economy of all this has changed so much.
GG: What trends do you see coming in the old car hobby?
Morrison: Trucks are becoming huge. We’re finishing a new frame for C10 pickups. The rest of it, we’re so open to customers and what their wishes are, we let those guys be the driver for what’s next. The capabilities that we have, we can do damn near anything.