Classic Rebirth, Real Deal Steel Makes Metal Memories
There is a classic rebirth afoot. Every few years an urban legend resurfaces about a barn full of 1957 Chevys that were taken off the assembly line and stashed somewhere to be discovered 50 or 60 years later.
The closest thing to that fantasy ever becoming a reality is located in a nondescript metal building in an industrial district in Sanford, FL. For the past seven years Real Deal Steel has been assembling and selling all-new-steel bodies for 1955-1957 Chevy two-door sedans, two-door hardtops and convertibles.
And first-generation Camaros and Firebirds.
And 1966-1967 Chevy II Nova two-door hardtops.
And scores of previously unavailable replacement panels and pieces for these three popular Chevrolet classics.
Founded by Joe Whitaker and Randy Irwin, two long-time car guys and Classic Chevy Specialists, Real Deal Steel culminates a years-long desire to own and operate their own automotive business.
“Randy and I always saw ourselves having a hot rod shop or doing something with cars,” Whitaker said. “We got to know the main supplier of reproduction Chevy sheet metal and this opportunity to build the bodies presented itself.”
So after years of working for Eckler’s Classic Chevy (Joe for 23 years, Randy for 18), the longtime friends jumped ship in 2011 and began swimming in the entrepreneurial sea.
Since the guys built and sold their first body – a ’57 Chevy convertible – the business has expanded to include 1955-1957 Chevy bodies, 1967-1969 Camaro and Firebird coupes, 1966-1967 Chevy II Nova two-door hardtops and 1940 Ford five-window coupes, built exclusively for Dennis Carpenter Ford Restoration Parts.
Along the way, a replacement parts and accessories program produced dozens of previously unavailable reproduction pieces (such as complete Nomad and station wagon tailgates) and a variety of custom pieces.
“We thought we’d just do ’57 convertibles because we thought they’d always be popular, but people started asking: When are you going to do this, when are you going to do that,” Irwin said.
In less than six years, Real Deal Steel has produced and shipped more than 600 bodies –nearly 70 Camaros, approximately 25 1940 Ford coupes and the rest Tri-Fives.
How the bodies are manufactured
Real Deal Steel body pieces are made from virgin steel at a state-of-the-art stamping factory in Taiwan. Each component is an exact duplicate of the original factory piece. Components are shipped to Sanford, FL, where they are assembled on custom-built complex workstations designed to assure that each body is the same as the previous one.
Getting to this point, though, was time-consuming. Each piece had to be engineered to match factory originals precisely. Vehicles were shipped to Taiwan where they were disassembled piece by piece.
“They first build a fixture from the original body so the new bodies can be reassembled correctly,” Whitaker said. “Once the fixture is completed, the entire body is drilled apart into its component pieces.”
Spot welds on the new bodies match factory-original locations anywhere that they can be seen. But, in places that cannot be seen in a completed car, either more spot welds are used or in the case of the cowl area entire seams are mig welded rather than spot welded to make the structure more rigid.
“That helps take the cowl shake out of the car,” Irwin said.
The result is a body that matches the original product in any visible area.
“If you took a car to a Classic Chevy show and entered it in the restored class, no one could tell that it was a reproduction body,” Irwin said.
The new bodies have all of the factory-original mounting tabs, holes and other details to allow for all levels of trim to be fitted easily during final assembly by the customer.
The only used parts in the Tri-Fives are the dashboards. Because of the complexity of the dash designs, costs to reproduce them are prohibitive, especially since there is a large supply of straight, uncut and rust-free originals. Real Deal Steel takes the used pieces, strips them to bare metal and primes them before installation.
International customer base
From the start, Real Deal Steel had an international customer base. Bodies have been shipped to India, Indonesia, Turkey, Australia, New Zealand, Switzerland, Sweden, Germany, and Cuba.
“We’ve indirectly shipped two ’57 convertibles and a lot of parts to Cuba,” Whitaker said. “Our contact in Miami ships the bodies to Argentina and they are then shipped to Cuba.”
Unique customer challenges
When appropriate, the exported bodies are built for right-hand drive applications.
However, a recent order for a customer in Australia presented a new challenge. He wanted a 1957 convertible with right-hand drive. But, instead of using a 1955 or 1956 dash as was done by the factory for exported ’57 models in the Fifties, this customer wanted a ’57 dash.
That was the problem. The double-hump dashes in the ’55 and ’56 cars are easily adapted to right-hand drive, but the one-hump ’57 is not. To satisfy the customer, Real Deal Steel commissioned One-Off Motors of Longwood, FL, to rework the ’57 dash to relocate the instrument cluster to the right side.
Then, another hurdle. The customer wanted a chrome tilt column, but simply taking a left-hand-drive column wouldn’t work, so ididit built a one-off tilt column for a right-hand-drive ’57.
Expanding product line
Beginning with the Tri-Five bodies and continuing with the Camaro/Firebird and Chevy II lines, Real Deal Steel offers several body modifications for customers who will build modified cars.
For example, the Chevys, Camaro/Firebird and Chevy II bodies can be fitted with mini-tub rear wheel wells that allow the customer to use larger wheels and tires with additional modifications depending on the vehicle model.
One side effect of producing the new bodies is the continued development of customer options that evolve into an expanding parts business. For example, Real Deal Steel had smooth firewalls manufactured to use on customers’ Chevy bodies. Those pieces are also available as individual pieces for customers who want to swap out a firewall on an existing car.
While full bodies generated all of the company’s income at first, the parts and accessory portion of the business now brings in nearly half of the company’s revenue. Real Deal Steel sells about 50 proprietary accessories directly or through its dealer network.
A few of the more popular pieces include:
-Tri-Five Chevy rocker panels that include the top access holes (often left out of reproduction pieces) as well as the brackets at the front of each panel that the lower front fenders bolt to.
-The ’57 Chevy under-hood brace that moves the notch for the radiator hose from one side to the middle, allowing modified cars to use centered radiator outlet.
.-A Tri-Five trunk floor pan modified for use with wider wheel tubs.
.-For ’55 and ’56 Chevys, a smooth replacement cowl vent piece that eliminates the slotted holes. For cars that do not use the kick panel air vents, this piece smoothes the space between the back of the hood and the base of the windshield.
-A tubular frame kit that upgrades an existing Tri-Five chassis so it can be used under a convertible or high-horsepower car – without the expense of an aftermarket chassis.
-A kit that takes advantage of the ’57 Chevy fresh air ducts over the headlights and creates a cold-air induction system for LS or LT engines.
Where it goes from here is anyone’s guess, but our money is on Real Deal Steel continuing to accelerate the rebirth of more American Classics.
Story by Dave Doucette. Pictures Courtesy of Real Deal Steel
About the Author: Dave Doucette has been hot rodding and writing stories since the age of 16. He was one of the original members of the Goodguys Rod & Custom Association and served as a Goodguys Rodders Rep for a decade.