Jason Graham Hot Rods – Rising From The Ashes
Photos by John Jackson
Jason Graham hasn’t let hardships get him down. After a devastating fire nearly ruined his Portland, Tennessee-based shop, Graham used the tragedy as fuel to come back better than ever.
Six years ago, Jason Graham faced every shop owner’s nightmare: his shop was completely destroyed by a fire. Although no one was hurt in the blaze, his business was essentially ruined — with customers’ cars, as well as countless vintage speed parts and equipment, left charred inside the shop. While Graham’s friends and other members of the industry rallied to help, it seemed unlikely that the promising builder would be able to recover from the loss. Despite the tragedy, Graham was determined to rebuild his business and come back better than ever.
Flash forward six years and Graham has done just that. The Portland, Tennessee shop is not only back in business, but thriving. Graham’s shop – Jason Graham Hot Rods – has churned out a series of award-winning traditional (and not so traditional) hot rods and classic trucks in recent years, many of which have landed his customers in the winner’s circle at events.
Now celebrating his 10th year in business, Graham and his wife Tasha are grateful for their long list of loyal customers, and the ability to continue doing what they love — building cool cars.
While Graham specializes in traditional hot rods, his most recent build — a 1961 Ford unibody truck — is already collecting accolades. It was recently named a finalist for Goodguys 2016 LMC Truck of the Year-Late. Graham hopes the truck will show the industry and his customers that he can do more than just the old-style rods he’s become known for.
BUILDING A BUSINESS
While Graham has been running his shop for 10 years, he’s been building hot rods all his life. Like so many other builders, his passion for cars began at an early age.
“My granddaddy gave me an old car to play with, and I fell in love,” Graham said.
As a teen, Graham says he was eager to learn everything he could about old cars.
“My granddad’s neighbor built cars, so I’d go hang out with him after school and I learned a lot by helping him.”
When Graham turned 13, his grandfather gave him an offer that no future gearhead would refuse.
“He gave me a ’42 Plymouth coupe and offered to put in all the money to build the car, but I had to do all the work myself and learn how to do it,” Graham said. “I would read articles in Street Rodder for tips and tricks, and learn from my neighbor.
“A friend told me many years ago, ‘You’re not going to mess up something that someone else can’t fix. Jump in and try it, and if you make a mess, so what? Someone can help you fix it.’ And, boy, did I make a lot of messes along the way!”
By the time he was (almost) old enough to drive the car legally, Graham had it up and running. He used it to get to class during high school, even though he got some funny looks from classmates that didn’t appreciate the coolness of the old car.
“Some of them thought it was goofy,” Graham remembers. “It wasn’t the modern kind of cars that everyone else had. But I didn’t care.”
“My customers want something that’s show-worthy but not so showy that they’re scared to drive it down the road.” – Jason Graham
While Graham always had a passion for hot rods, he didn’t expect to make building cars his career. After high school, he took a full-time job as a CAD technician for a steel support building company but maintained a small shop on the side. Graham was getting a steady stream of hot rod jobs when he was unexpectedly laid off from his full-time gig. He didn’t let the setback ruin him, however.
“Out of the blue, I was laid off, and I just decided that I wasn’t going back [to that line of work],” he said. “I decided that I was going to go ahead and [build hot rods] full time.”
TRADITIONAL WITH A TWIST
Jason officially opened his shop in 2006 and quickly became known for his ability to build really cool old-school hot rods.
“People know me as a guy who does traditional stuff,” Graham said. “That’s kind of the rep I’ve gotten over the years.”
While most of Graham’s builds can be described as traditional — they’re certainly not basic.
“I like to do what I call ‘traditional with a twist,’” he said. “I take a traditional hot rod and make it over the top — really low, really chopped, and a really wild engine. I keep it traditional to a point, but I try to blend modern elements into it. I don’t want to do a basic original restoration; I want to build everything custom. Doing basic restorations would bore me.”
Graham’s Model A’s had been turning heads at car shows for years, and most had a style that was becoming synonymous with the name “Jason Graham”: chopped and channeled bodies, Strombergs and radical rakes, to name just a few characteristics.
“People come to me for a reason, I think. They’ve seen what I’ve done in the past and they like my style,” he said.
While Graham had been building these cars for his customers for years, he finally got the chance to build himself his own dream car several years ago. The 1931 Ford Tudor he now cherishes had been in the works for years—even though it was only being built in Graham’s mind.
“Every time I built a car, I always thought, ‘If this were for my own car, I’d want to do this or that,’” he said. “I had it all planned and designed in my head for a while. We got the opportunity to go to the SEMA Show in 2014 and got sponsorship, so that allowed me to finally build that car.”
Chopped, dropped and customized, the car took eight months to build, with the help of Graham’s wife, Tasha, and other experts in their fields. After making its debut in the Coker Tire booth at the 2014 SEMA Show, the car hit the road, was driven tens of thousands of miles and ended up becoming a finalist for Goodguys 2015 Tank’s Hot Rod of the Year.
“Everyone loves that car,” he said, adding that he’s had several people ask to buy it from him. “I’ve been offered pretty good money for it but I don’t want to sell it. I don’t have time to build myself another one!”
Graham attributes his shop’s success—especially after overcoming the devastating fire—to several things, but first and foremost his wife Tasha.
“Having the support of my wife is probably what I’m most proud of,” he said.
The Grahams often work side-by-side in their 4,000-square-foot shop, with Tasha doing much of the test-driving of cars.
“That tells [our customers] how I feel about the builds because I’m not scared to put my wife in it first and have her go around in the car,” he said.
Like her husband, Tasha has a passion for cars. In fact, she does a lot of the welding and block sanding on the vehicles in the shop, in additional to handling ordering parts and other tasks.
“She enjoys it and she pushes me,” Graham said. “When it comes to going to a car show, she’s motivating me to go. She wants to go. Working with her is probably the best part of it all.”
In addition to Tasha, Graham employs several part-time employees who specialize in certain aspects of the build. As for their typical customer, Graham says most of the people he builds cars for want something they can enjoy.
“My customers want something that’s show-worthy but not so showy that they’re scared to drive it down the road,” he said.
Graham also has a lot of repeat customers, one of which recently allowed him to branch out a bit and show the industry that he’s not just a traditional hot rod guy.
“We built a Model A pickup for a customer a few years back, and later he came to me and told me that he’s always dreamt of having a ’61 Ford Unibody truck,” Graham said. “That’s what he’s always wanted.”
While some builders may have hesitated to stray so far from their typical build, Graham welcomed the challenge.
“I wanted to do it because I wanted to show my customers that we can do anything that the customer dreams up,” he said. “I kind of did it to show everyone that I can build more than just a cool Model A with a nostalgic engine.”
The Unibody truck is unlike any vehicle that Graham has ever built, although it does have some of the “Jason Graham” characteristics.
“It’s way beyond traditional; it’s very high tech,” he said of the slammed truck with the 5.0 Coyote motor.
The truck made its debut at the 2016 Detroit Autorama, and definitely surprised a lot of people, in part because of whose name was on it.
“I think some people were surprised to see me standing next to it,” he said. “I think they were expecting a different builder, not the guy known for his traditional hot rods. But that’s one of the reasons I did it.”
The truck would go on to ‘wow’ in Columbus, becoming a finalist for Goodguys 2016 LMC Truck of the Year-Late award. Graham says that the honor has helped him feel even more confident about his decision to go “way outside the box” of his typical build.
After overcoming the tragic fire that nearly ruined his shop, Graham has more than accomplished his goal of coming back better than ever—but he has no plans to stop now.
“I hope that, within the next five years, we can do a really high-end build, maybe something that is considered for the Ridler award,” he said. “I would love to have that goal, to see how great I can build something.”
The man who has already accomplished so much says he has one more goal he hopes to take care of in the near future…
“I’d really like to get some air conditioning in this shop!”
Jason Graham Hot Rods
5857 Hwy 31 W
Portland, TN 37148