Johnson’s Hot Rod Shop – award winners Built to Last
The Alabama-based Johnson’s Hot Rod Shop has been an industry leader for over two decades, but owners Alan and Angie Johnson continue to surprise the industry with their latest and greatest creations.
A lot has changed for hot rod builder Alan Johnson since that day in 1993 where he debuted his first car—a yellow ’37 Ford Cabriolet—at the Street Rod Nationals and caught the eye of the industry. In the 24 years since that day, Johnson has become one of the top builders in the industry, opened a successful shop with his wife, Angie, that has churned out countless award-winning cars, and started a product line that continues to grow.
His build style has also changed in that time. One only has to look at the 1953 Studebaker, recently built at Johnson’s for Paul & Betty Gilliam, to see the difference. The Studebaker was named Goodguys 2016 Vintage Air Custom Rod of the Year this past November.
“Today our focus is more on traditional, timeless cars, but when I first built that street rod, I knew I had to build something that would get attention so that I could get my foot in the door in the industry,” Johnson said. “It was a trendy color with a trendy design, and it did really well for us, but our style of car has definitely changed since then.”
Johnson’s Hot Rod Shop is known for building traditional cars with an aggressive stance. While they tend to focus on cars of the 1930s, Johnson doesn’t restrict himself to building only one type of car.
“We try our best not to do the same thing over and over,” Johnson said of his builds. “We still build a lot of ‘32s, but we also do a lot of innovative things—land speed cars, trucks, muscle cars.”
One thing that all of the cars that come out of Johnsons’ Hot Rod Shop have in common is that they are built to look timeless.
“I want something that’s not going to look dated,” said Johnson. “In the time that I’ve been building cars, there have been certain styles that you see and just know when it was built. You can postmark the car by certain features on it and I don’t like that. I want our cars to have a timeless and everlasting look.”
Growing Up a Gearhead
Johnson opened up his hot rod shop in 1993, but his love of cars began much earlier.
“From as long as I can remember, I was playing with Hot Wheels and building model cars,” Johnson said. “That was pretty much all I studied, and all I wanted to do. My parents had a collision shop when I was growing up, so I grew up around that. I knew I didn’t want to build new cars, but I did that as a teen working there.”
He built his first car at the age of 13 with the help of his dad. (“It was a VW bug,” he remembers, “only because I couldn’t afford to buy a ’32 Ford!”) By high school, he built his first customer car, a ’57 Chevy, for a guy in town.
“I think that’s really what the whole car hobby is all about. It’s more about the people than the cars.” –Alan Johnson
At the ripe age of 23, Johnson branched out and decided to open his own shop.
“I had been working out of my dad’s shop for four years before that,” he said. “I was building three cars at a time in a three-stall section of the collision shop. I had just married my wife, Angie, and with the support from her and my parents, I moved into my own building. We had a decent backlog of work right from the beginning, and I already had four employees by that time.”
The first car out of Johnson’s shop—the ’37 Cabriolet—is the one that really put him on the map. When Johnson debuted the car at the ’93 Street Rod Nationals, the industry began to wonder who this young kid from Alabama was. Soon, magazines were calling Johnson, and the car appeared on the cover of numerous publications. “We got a lot of attention from that car and more customers followed because of it,” he remembers.
In the years since, Johnson has not only developed a reputation for building award-winning, drivable cars but also a network of repeat customers, something that he says he’s extremely grateful for.
“We have been doing work for a lot of the same people for 20 years,” Johnson said. “I guess the way they look at it is that they know they’re getting quality cars and they know they can trust me, so I guess that’s what keeps them coming back.
“If you keep your customers happy, they’ll come back and they’ll bring their friends,” he added. “Now we don’t look at our customers as customers. They’re good friends and I think that’s really what the whole car hobby is all about. It’s more about the people than the cars.”
The Next Big Thing
Johnson saw his shop’s build-style evolve over the years, and in 2005, his shop debuted the “G-Force Cuda” at SEMA, which was considered a revolutionary car. Popular Hot Rodding Magazine put it on the cover calling it “The Baddest Muscle Car Ever.” The build was a collaboration between Johnson and the car’s owner, Bob Johnson.
“Bob had a lot of influence on that car,” he said. “The whole goal with that was when it was finished, we didn’t want to have a Mopar gearhead look at the car and ask us why we destroyed the Cuda. We wanted them to look at it like it was a new concept car that was stepping out on a limb, and I think that’s what we did there.”
“When we finished Bob’s Cuda, that was my favorite car because it was the most challenging build I had done at the time,” Johnson said. “But then we did the next build, and the next, and those became my favorites. I like the challenge.”
Johnson and his team have continued to challenge themselves to build better, more innovative cars each time they begin a project. That means branching out from the 1930s cars they’re known for and tackling the cars and trucks of the 1950s-1970s.
“We still build a lot of ’32 Fords, but we have a lot of other stuff going on here,” Johnson said.
Johnson said he’s excited about a ’71 Plymouth Duster that’s currently in the works at his shop.
“That’s one of the newer projects, year-wise, that we’ve had in the shop,” Johnson said. “We’ve done muscle cars, late-sixties, and the Cuda but this is something totally different for us. We don’t blackball anything at the shop. If it’s an interesting project that will excite me and the guys in the shop and we feel that we can do a good job for the customer, we’ll do it.”
The most recent landmark car Johnson’s Hot Rod Shop built is also outside of their box. The black 1953 Studebaker, which the shop built for long-time customers Paul and Betty Gilliam, recently took home the 2016 Goodguys Custom Rod of the Year award. The style of the Studebaker is very different from that of Johnson’s previous big winners.
“To build the Studebaker in the same style as, say, the Cuda would be totally wrong,” he said. “You can’t use the same thought process. You have to let the car tell you what it wants to be, and then you basically refine what is there. The original style of that car in 1953 was 15 to 20 years ahead of its time. We didn’t make any major changes to that car. There are tons of changes, but they are all subtle.”
Johnson believes that the Studebaker’s understated style is what made it a hit.
“A lot of builders try to do stuff that’s so over-the-top that it takes away from the rest of the car,” he said. “If it’s an attractive body style to start with, it doesn’t need to be changed. You have to know when to leave good enough alone. I think our stuff is not overdone and not in-your-face, even though it’s been changed. I think people appreciate that.”
Bonneville and Beyond
Johnson continues to challenge himself with every build, no matter what he’s creating. That’s why when he had the opportunity to start building cars for Bonneville, Johnson jumped at the chance.
“Everything we’ve done in the past has been a drivable car, but doing Bonneville racing stuff is a different deal than building a street car,” he said. “It’s something I’ve always wanted to do and Bob Johnson let us build a car for Bonneville for him for the first time 10 years ago. Without our great customers, we wouldn’t be able to do these amazing things.”
When he’s not focusing on his builds, Johnson is working to grow his line of signature products. His wife Angie, who also runs the shop’s office, works alongside him on the parts line. Originally started to teach Angie and their parts manager about the products being used on the builds, the parts line has grown to include suspension and decorative parts for early traditional hot rods. “The product line grew from a ‘32 roadster project that I had Angie and Shane working on to become more familiar with the components that make up a 32 ford,” Johnson said. “When I got involved more in the ‘32 project I started seeing different parts we could produce.
“We now have around 50 or so parts that we offer,” Johnson said, adding that he plans to really focus on growing the line within the next few years.
“Making our own parts helps me to keep the quality level up, and also stay on track [with deadlines],” Johnson said. “I enjoy seeing our stuff out there at events.”
Seeing his customers out on the road, enjoying their cars and their line of components and parts is what keeps Johnson’s Hot Rod Shop motivated to keep up what can often be an excruciating pace.
“It’s difficult sometimes, we’re gone so much during show season, and when we’re home we usually end up back at work,” Johnson said. “But, when you have a passion for something — like I do for these cars — it makes working the 18-hour days that you sometimes have to work easier. The passion makes the hard things easier.”
Johnson’s Hot Rod Shop
Owners: Alan and Angie Johnson
Address: 2439 East Meighan Blvd., Gadsden, Alabama 35903
Phone: (256) 492-5989
- Services Offered: Full builds, with everything done in-house except for engine work and chrome plating. Johnson’s offers everything from paint and body to upholstery and interior work, as well as maintenance and upgrade services.
- Current Builds: 1954 Chevy land speed pickup truck for customers David and Debbie Pilgrim; ’32 Ford sedan for George Poteet, a ’32 sedan for Nathan Powell, a ’71 Plymouth Duster and several more ’32 sedans