Legens Hot Rod Shop – Turning Out Prize-Winning Cars in Small Town Tennessee
The crew of Legens Hot Rod Shop stands in front of the 2016/2017 Goodguys Grand Prize Giveaway Car, which was built at the shop. From left to right are Josh Pope, Anthony Miller, Randy Brawner, Trent Hailey, owner Steve Legens, David Gallimore, Ed Poyner, Rick Legens, Keenan Hailey and David Dudley. (Not pictured are Jeremy Legens, Will Simmons, and Beth Legens.
Steve Legens’ hot rod shop may be located in a small, rural town, but that hasn’t stopped him from continuing to build award-worthy cars and trucks for the past 25 years.
It’s no easy task to open a hot rod shop and keep it running smoothly for 25 years. It’s even harder to earn the respect of the hot rod industry by continuing to churn out award-winning cars and trucks while keeping a reputation for being reliable and honest. Steve Legens has somehow managed to do it all; his Tennessee-based Legens Hot Rod Shop just celebrated its 25th anniversary in August, and Legens and his 13-person team at Legens Hot Rod sHOP have been entrusted to build the 2016/2017 Goodguys Grand Prize Giveaway Car, which is surely a testament to Legens’ creativity and skill.
Legens credits hard work, his strong faith in God and his belief in himself for getting him this far.
“I never doubted myself,” he said. “I never doubted that my shop would make it. I was that driven—or that dumb!”
Now the owner of 7,200 square foot shop with countless builds under its belt, as well as several “big wins” (including last year’s Goodguys Truck of the Year-Early and PPG Dream Car awards,) Legens sometimes finds it hard to believe that he was able to build such a booming business, especially considering the shop’s very humble beginning.
DRIVING HIS DREAM FORWARD
Legens’ road to hot rod shop success started where many builders’ careers begin: a fascination with cars. As a youngster, Legens says he caught the car bug, and from then on his free time was spent customizing cars, as well as bikes, go-karts and just about anything with wheels. At 13 — an age that most kids were spending their money on comic books or baseball cards — Legens bought his first car.
“I bought a ’54 Chevy from my aunt when I was 13,” Legens said. “My dad wasn’t really a car guy, so I was kind of self-taught on everything. I didn’t know how to do anything with cars, but I’d pick up a book or ask someone how to do something.”
By 15, he was customizing, building and trading cars.
“By the end of high school, I had probably had [and traded] about 50 cars,” Legens said.
Legens played football in college but left school early to enter the workforce, going to work on heavy equipment.
“I probably should have stayed in college, but if I had stayed, I might not be doing what I do now,” he said. “Everything works out how it’s supposed to.”
Legens continued to work on cars on the side, purchasing his first early hot rod in 1979. He fixed it up, customizing the ’31 Ford five-window coupe hiboy to resemble the ’32 coupe driven in the movie “American Graffiti.”
“My passion for building cars never went away,” he said.
Eventually, Legens started work at Modern Tool and Die, working as a tool and die maker after the company opened a plant in Legens’ hometown of Martin, Tennessee. Although that was not Legens’ true career calling, he did learn a lot during his time there.
“That job actually helped me in my car piddling because my eye became a lot more precise,” he said.
By then, Legens was working full-time at night for Modern Tool and Die, and heading out to a tool shed on his father-in-law’s farm during the day to work on cars. His father-in-law had some equipment and plenty of space, and eventually, Legens built on to the shed to create a shop where he could work on cars.
“I had built hot rods by then, but had never built one from the ground up,” he said. “So I started building a 1940 Chevy at night. I built every piece on that car. Working on it part-time, it took me three years to complete. During that time, though, people began to notice what I was building, and eventually they started asking me to do stuff for them.”
Legens began doing part-time jobs for other people and, after four years, realized that something had to give.
“I was basically killing myself, working eight or nine hours a day at my regular job, and then doing part-time hot rod jobs the rest of the time,” he said.
Legens knew it was time to make a change.
“I had been working on hot rods for four years, and by then I had a good background,” he said. “I decided to venture out in 1991. I prayed about it a lot and I felt good about opening up my own shop. Walking away from my [regular] job that day was hard but I knew I would make it.”
Even when others doubted him, Legens believed in himself and his ability.
“The first day Legens Hot Rod Shop officially was in business, I met up with a couple of guys at the parts store,” he said. “They heard I was trying to open up a hot rod shop in rural Martin, Tennessee. They all made comments about how I’d be closed in a year, and how I’d never make it. I sure proved them wrong!”
LESS IS MORE
Martin is a small rural town about 135 miles northeast of Memphis. While the University of Tennessee has a campus there, Martin is certainly not a place you’d expect to see a booming hot rod shop. Legens has never let that stop him from being successful, though. Instead, he allowed his work to speak for itself.
“If you’re doing good work, you could be in the middle of the desert and people are going to seek you out,” he said.
After eight years of working on his father-in-law’s property, Legens ventured out again, purchasing a new shop to work out of. He worked hard to build great cars and a great reputation in the industry.
“I had some good builds in those first 10 years, but it took about that long before we really got on the map and people started to notice what we were doing out here. After 10 years or so, business just blew up for us.”
Legens and his team have the philosophy that “less is more” when it comes to the cars they build.
If you’re doing good work, you could be in the middle of the desert and people are going to seek you out.
– Steve Legens
“We’re known for our subtleness,” he said. “Our stuff isn’t too bling-bling; you have to look closely to see our small custom details. They don’t pop out right in your face. Our stuff blends, but if you’re someone who knows that [kind of] car, you will figure out what we did to it very quickly. We try not to go over the top.”
While Legens Hot Rod Shop doesn’t specialize in any one type of car, they do put an emphasis on coming up with the right color combo for each project.
“We pride ourselves in finding the perfect color for the car,” he said. “Most of the time, that’s the most confusing part of the whole build—figuring out what color to make the car. We have renderings done and that gives the owner a good perspective of what colors will look good, and we will help them decide.”
Legens particularly enjoys mixing colors, and will often create custom colors for his customers.
“For one car, I matched it to a jacket that was a color I fell in love with,” he said. “To me, each car has its own special color. Obviously black always works, but there are a lot of black cars out there. To stand out, you have to pick a slightly different color. I like for the colors to be more personal.”
Legens also feels strongly that the cars he and his team builds should be driven.
“I love building show-quality stuff but I encourage my customers to actually get out there and drive them,” he said, adding that the ’36 Ford roadster that he built for himself (which ended up being a finalist for Goodguys’ Street of the Year in 2007) is frequently hitting the road.
“When we built that car, the guys in my shop said I’d never drive it,” he said. “I ended up driving it to the LA Roadster Show, and it’s been to California five times since then. I don’t care how nice it is, I’m going to drive it!”
Last year, the Legens Hot Rod Shop team built a very roadworthy 1940 Ford pickup for customer Robert Anderson. The team finished the truck just hours before it made its debut at Goodguys’ Nashville Nationals last year, but it made a big splash. Still, Legens was skeptical that the truck would be able to edge out its stiff competition to win the Truck of the Year-Early award.
“I’m very humble, so I tried not to get my hopes up too much,” he said. “I saw that our competition was heavy. I had confidence in the truck, but you still don’t know.”
The truck did, indeed, end up taking home the award, and Legens says that the pearl green prizewinner will always hold a special place in his heart.
“That truck was very special for us,” Legens said. “We had been in competition for the Street Rod of the Year before, but this was the first time we actually won the big award!”
Legens and his team are currently working on a few cars that could be the shop’s next big build. Notable car collector George Poteet currently has the shop building a car for him. This car — a ’58 Chevy pickup — is the fourth car the shop has built for Poteet.
“George has had a car in this shop for about seven years, and all of his cars are special,” Legens said. “He’s a big icon and when I tell people that I build cars for him, it’s a big deal.”
Poteet’s ’58 Chevy is just one of about ten cars that are currently being built at the shop. It’s being built alongside another huge project, the 2016/2017 Goodguys Grand Prize Giveaway Car. The 1963 ½ Ford Galaxie made its debut in Columbus in July and will be given away at Goodguys’ Columbus show in July 2017. As per usual, Legens Hot Rod Shop is giving the car the signature subtle touches and a unique color choice.
“It’s an unusual tan color, and all the trim and wheels are going to be a satin bronze finish,” he said of the car, which will also have a new Ford Coyote motor and one-off wheels. “It won’t have chrome bling on it, so it will be more toned-down and have more of a muscle car look.”
Legens says he was surprised by the amount of work the project has required.
“It’s been hard, it’s a lot to take on,” he said. “This isn’t our normal build. We are starting with a used car and a big one at that! It’s been really challenging. It’s a good size car, but it will be a car that can do Goodguys AutoCross, or be driven on a road tour.”
While Legens plans to take the car for a spin on a road tour, he knows that he will eventually have to give it up.
“It will be hard to give away!” he said. “I wish I could win it! Someone’s going to be very, very happy to with it, though.”
KEEPING THINGS HONEST
No matter how successful his shop has become, Legens centers his business on being honest.
“I have a strong faith in God and I try to instill that into my employees,” he said. “We always do the best we can and are honest with our customers.”
When the financial crisis of 2008 hit, Legens felt the sting and knew that many of his customers would be feeling it too. Many of Legens’ customers at the time had lost a lot of money in the stock market, so Legens wrote them each a letter and told them that if they needed to pull their project cars, he understood.
“I told them that their families are more important than anything you’ve got to do here,” he said. “I dropped my labor rate down to help the ones who kept their cars in [the shop]. I had a few cars that did get pulled out and I totally respected that.”
Building cars for Poteet helped Legens keep his shop afloat during those tough times.
“I think George saved a lot of shops in 2008,” he said. “A lot of shops may have gone under had they not been building for George at that time.”
While Legens Hot Rod Shop admits that their customers are now more responsible with how they spend their money, he has no desire to do anything but continue to build cool cars in a small town.
“I’m one of the few Americans who can say they enjoy coming to work every day,” he said. “I really do love what I do. I can see myself doing this until I’m 80! I don’t see too much changing in the future.”