Hill’s Rod and Custom, Blazing a Path to Success
There’s just something about an early ‘70s Chevy Blazer that makes Curt Hill want to grab a wrench. Hill, the owner of Hill’s Rod and Custom in Pleasant Hill, California, has built all kinds of hot rods and custom cars over the course of his career, but has found a nice niche with the Blazers.
“I like the body style,” he said. “I will work on anything, but it’s more fun to work on a car that has a lot of style and power.”
Hill’s latest Blazer offering, which basically features a complete C5 Corvette underneath it, has become a marvel at the shows it’s appeared at.
“I don’t think you will see another Blazer like this,” Hill said. “It was a challenge for me to make it look like it was simple. The hardest thing to do is make a build look like it was easy. It gets quite the reaction [at shows and events]. People always look at it and say, ‘Why hasn’t anyone else thought to do that?’”
Hill has been coming up with innovative ideas for project cars since he was a teen. His father, Brian, is a lifelong car guy who instilled a love for all things automotive in Curt at a young age. Even their first car—a ’54 Chevy—was no ordinary build.
“My dad got me an original ’54 Chevy and we put the body on top of a Monte Carlo chassis and built it from there,” Hill said. “My dad got me the car but I had to learn how to put it together, and he taught me how to do it. That was the first car that I ever got running.”
It was also Hill’s first award-winner. He received a Goodguys “Young Guys” award for the Chevy when he was 17.
“That one will always be special to me,” he said.
Going Into Business
Hill eventually went to college to study sociology, but he says he wasn’t really interested in using his degree.
“My grandfather wanted me to go to college, so I did sociology because it was the fastest and easiest degree I could get and get out.” Hill said. “A sociology degree doesn’t really get me much in the car hobby, and I wanted to work on cars.”
In between classes, Hill went to work full-time at Bay-area hot rod shop Top of the Hill Race Cars in Livermore, California – builders of the first-ever Goodguys Street Machine of the Year. He eventually landed at Moal Coachbuilders in Oakland, where he worked under noted builder Steve Moal. In between his job and class work, Hill also found time to work on cars for his friends.
“I was doing so many cars on the side that I began to think that maybe I should go off and do my own thing for a while,” Hill said.
The opportunity came to go out on his own when Hill’s father, Brian, needed help completing a ’39 Ford woody project.
“My dad needed to finish the woody by the Grand National Roadster Show, so I decided to quit Moal’s and help my dad finish the car,” Hill said.
The father and son duo were once again working together, and their efforts paid off. The orange woody took home the Al Slonaker Memorial Award at the 2009 Grand National Roadster Show. After that, Hill found himself with the opportunity to start his own shop and he took it. In 2009, he opened Hill’s Rod & Custom. The fanfare he received from the woody build helped Hill gain notoriety around Northern California.
“That first year we were taking the car to shows, and it turned out to be a very busy year for the shop,” Hill said, adding that his pal, Ron Largio, who had helped him back when he was doing side work, came on as his employee to help lessen the load.
Largio later left the industry, but Hill has since brought on Jason Poag to work alongside him at his 1,200-square-foot Hill’s Rod & Custom.
“Jason worked with me a long time ago at Top of the Hill, and we’ve been working together ever since,” Hill said.
Poag is currently Hill’s only employee at Hill’s Rod & Custom, and Hill says he has no immediate plans to change that.
“Being a two-person shop, I can control everything that goes out the door,” he said. “I can enjoy working on cars, rather than doing the managing. Right now, it’s manageable and we can get things done for our customers in a short amount of time, and people are happy. Right where I am right now is good.”
While Hill says he will “work on anything,” he found that he particularly enjoyed working on Chevy Blazers from the early 1970s.
“We did a blue and white ’72 Chevy Blazer from start to finish a few years ago and I think that’s what really got me into them,” Hill said. “We’ve done a lot of Bonneville cars, and I’m involved in a streamliner that’s been pretty successful, and lots of other cars, but the Blazer project was very fun for me.”
That car, owned by customer Brett Alworth, was built from the ground up by the shop.
“We wanted it to be a driver,” Hill said. “People think it is on air bags, but it’s not.
Hill gave the Blazer many modifications, but did his best to make it look somewhat stock. He created custom wheel wells for the Blazer, and raised them up to look stock. The frame-off build ended up being a hit when it was shown at the 2012 SEMA Show, and Hill now manufactures those wheel wells.
Hill had caught the Blazer bug, and for his next project, he looked back to that original ’54 Chevy he and his dad had built years ago for inspiration. Instead of using a Monte Carlo underneath, though, Hill decided to try a Corvette.
“I did a bunch of research on dimensions of a Corvette chassis and measured one. I found that it was very close to [what’s] under a Blazer,” he said. “I bought a Corvette with body damage and cut the body off, then cut the whole floor of my Blazer and dropped it on top. I filled in all the holes, and redid the Corvette dash in the Blazer.”
Hill said that his reasoning for putting the Corvette under his Blazer was simple.
“You can’t beat the strength of that chassis,” he said. “Chevy has done extensive testing and research on their product, so I couldn’t build anything better or lighter or stronger than that. I figured, ‘Why not utilize it?’”
The project was anything but simple at Hill’s Rod & Custom, though.
“Nothing was easy on that car!” he said. “Most people who see that car have no idea how difficult it was. The hardest thing to do is make things look simple. That was the real challenge for me.”
When Hill debuted the car, people were curious as to how he made it work.
“Most people think it’s cool when they see it, and they think it’s air-bagged, but it’s ride height,” he said. “People don’t believe it’s on a Corvette chassis and drive train until they look inside and underneath. People usually see it and say, ‘That is a great idea!’ I think when we take it on the road I’ll be getting phone calls from people asking how I did certain things on it.”
Although everything worked out, Hill admits that even he doubted his wild idea for the Blazer.
“At one point I thought it was a terrible idea, but now that it’s running, I think it was a great idea!” he said. “Sometimes you have to just work through those kinds of ideas, and try to figure out how to get it done. Anything that’s easy usually isn’t worth doing anyway.”
While Hill’s Rod & Custom has become noted as a Blazer builder, Hill says he doesn’t consider himself a specialty car builder.
“We don’t have too many restrictions on what we’ll work on, but being a small shop, you can only put in so many hours, so you have to really enjoy what you’re working on,” he said. “But I definitely wouldn’t say that I only work on Blazers.”
Hill built a 1951 Studebaker Woody Fastback for the 2013 SEMA Show for new client Dennis Varni. The “outside the box” project earned Hill praise from the industry. The Woody was built from the ground up and required Hill to put in up to 103 hours a week in order to finish by show time.
“But I did it!” he said. “I think that’s my proudest accomplishment; I’ve never once missed a deadline.”
In 2014, Hill started work on a 1961 Ford Falcon for customer Dennis Varni. Varni,a longtime Bay Area hot rodder and AMBR award winner, needed a car built for a rally race in South America. Varni’s friends chided him for choosing a Ford Falcon instead of a Jeep but he and Hill got the last laugh. Varni won the race! Hill proved his talent by building something he had never attempted before, or even thought of for that matter. He ditched the wimpy stock Falcon engine for a 400hp Ford 302c.i. V8 and built a custom off road suspension using Maier Racing products. The car performed flawlessly over the three-week, 6,500 mile race. He has since built a nearly identical ’63 rally Falcon for Marco Halter.
Hill says that he has been able to do this because he surrounds himself with great people, and works with quality builders and painters at Hill’s Rod & Custom.
“I use people who are passionate about doing the work, like I am, and strive to do only their best,” he said, adding that his own passion for making deadlines has made him popular with his customers at Hill’s Rod & Custom. “Deadlines aren’t fun but once you commit to someone, you have to come through. You have to do what you say you’re going to do. That’s what people appreciate and that’s what people will remember.”