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Shop Profile – Rutterz Rodz: Steering Ahead

Any business owner will tell you that repeat customers are the best, whether it’s a $4 cup of coffee or a multi-million-dollar yacht. Mike Rutter, owner of Rutterz Rodz in Bristol, Tennessee, is proof of that.

“We’ve been fortunate that up to now I don’t have a huge client base, but what I do have is customers who keep coming back,” Mike said. “They like what we do and they come back for the next one.”

Rutterz Rodz, shop profile, hot rod shop, bristol, mike rutter, custom rod, goodguys, axalta paint

The steel building may be nondescript, but the custom creations that roll out of Rutterz Rodz are anything but that.

Rutterz Rodz, shop profile, hot rod shop, bristol, mike rutter, custom rod, goodguys, axalta paint

Doyle Thomas’s Camaro, a 2018 Griot’s Garage Muscle Machine of the Year finalist, was on display in the Rutterz Rodz office when we stopped by.

When Mike moved from owning a detail shop to building cars full time, he was lucky to have a customer from Texas who, after commissioning his first build, was pleased with the work to the point that he had Mike build six other cars. Mike said the business grew from that experience. “I basically turned a hobby into a business.”

PURSUING HIS PASSION

An admitted lover of all things on wheels for as long as he can remember, Mike’s first four-wheeled vehicle was a ’69 Mustang that he acquired at age 14. After high school, Mike went to college to become a computer science engineer. That plan changed when Mike took a co-op job at the local Raytheon plant during his senior year in college. He was writing code to fly the Patriot missiles. “I absolutely hated it, didn’t know what I was going to do with my degree when I got it,” Mike said.

Rutterz Rodz, shop profile, hot rod shop, bristol, mike rutter, custom rod, goodguys, axalta paint

The Rutterz team was busy assembling the ’57 Ford belonging to Doyle Thomas when we stopped by the shop. The car was treated to a supercharged late-model Ford drivetrain and a host of subtle mods. It debuted weeks later at the Heartland Nationals in Des Moines and promptly grabbed a Builder’s Choice award from Roger Burman.

He was anxious to get out of school, get a job and start paying off student loans. So, he quit school and went to work with his dad and opened an automobile detail shop. Before hooking up with that Texas customer and jumping into the business full time, Mike built cars as a hobby. In the ’90s he built a couple of Speedstar coupes that were popular, but what helped spread the word was his approach to ’32 Fords.

Rutterz Rodz, shop profile, hot rod shop, bristol, mike rutter, custom rod, goodguys, axalta paint

An in-house paint booth allows Rutterz Rodz to have control over all aspects of the refinishing process.

“We were doing a little different ’32 then,” he said. “We were channeling it, stretching it a little bit with a pinched nose. People noticed it as being something different so those were selling pretty good for us.”

A NEW DIRECTION

Rutterz Rodz has been rracking up awards from the get-go, including a variety of honors from Goodguys, Street Rodder magazine, a SEMA Mother’s Shine Award, and a Detroit Autorama Great 8 for a ’34 Chevy phaeton. One major project a few years ago was a sign of an emerging trend that continues for the shop today. A customer had been trying to buy a Chrysler prototype from the ’50s – a ’55 Imperial convertible that was never put into production. With no success buying the concept car, he approached Mike with the idea of building his own.

Rutterz Rodz, shop profile, hot rod shop, bristol, mike rutter, custom rod, goodguys

This ’55 Imperial convertible built for Wayne Davis several years ago has set the stage for many Rutterz Rodz builds that have followed. A production ’55 Imperial convertible was never built, so Rutterz used a ’55 Chrysler New Yorker convertible top on a ’55 Imperial coupe to craft this one, and then made it modern underneath with an Art Morrison IFS, Gen III 392c.i. Hemi, and overdrive automatic transmission. Photo by Mike Harrington

“That was really different for us,” Mike said. “The customer came with that idea. We put together some ideas together to make that happen. He wanted the updated suspension, late-model motor. The rest of it he wanted close to a restoration”

That challenge intrigued Mike. “My interest in that was that it was something my shop had never done before,” Mike said.

The car was built by combining a ’55 Imperial two-door hardtop and a ’55 Chrysler New Yorker convertible. While this project set the stage for many current builds, Mike had an impressive revelation. “What I learned was that coming from the Fords and Chevrolets that we’d worked on in the past, that Chrysler in their day was so far ahead when it came to the engineering that was in these cars,” Mike said.

FALLING IN LINE

In addition to the steady full-build custom projects, many customers at Rutterz Rodz are now asking for their own version of the Imperial: a look that’s mostly stock on the outside, but with modern drivetrains and suspensions. “Customers are demanding that the cars perform on the road,” Mike said.

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Rutterz Rodz recently finished this ’57 Ford for repeat customer Doyle Thomas. The car incorporates detail elements from an F-Code Thunderbird and keeps things basic and classic on the outside, while being completely updated underneath with a supercharged 5.4-liter Shelby GT500 engine and an Art Morrison chassis.

A recently completed project illustrates this trend. Mike said the customer wanted a ’55 Cadillac convertible to look mostly original, but he wanted to drive the car. Mike’s crew installed an Art Morrison front suspension, an LT4 powerplant and modern transmission.

Mike was apprehensive at first about this style of build. “We thought they should be set on a pedestal, like you did with a model car as a kid,” Mike said. “Just look at it, don’t touch it.”

Rutterz Rodz, shop profile, hot rod shop, bristol, mike rutter, custom rod, goodguys

But that’s not a problem now. “That excites me more today than anything we’ve ever done,” he said.

MEETING EXPECTATIONS

There is an advantage to having a group of repeat customers: They know what Mike does and he knows what they like. “The customer can make or break you,” Mike said. “I’ve learned that the hard way and the easy way. My best customer now has a motto of ‘don’t let me screw it up.’”

That’s the goal with every customer, new or old, and it starts with the design process. “I try to listen to what they’re after,” Mike said. “I just help them match things to the particular project.”

After that discussion, a drawing is produced. Mike often uses Eric Brockmeyer. “Our drawings are realistic,” he said. “There’s no way you’re going to look at it and say that will never function. I’m showing the customer, ‘here’s what we can bring to life for you.’”

Rutterz Rodz, shop profile, hot rod shop, bristol, mike rutter, custom rod, goodguys, axalta paint

This ’57 Cadillac Eldorado Brougham is getting the modern resto-rod treatment with a Roadster Shop chassis, twin-turbo LS engine, and essentially stock exterior. The ’32 Victoria is a shop project that Mike works on when time allows between customer projects.

Of course, during the build there will be changes. “We may start out with the car being black, but at the end it may turn out being red,” Mike said.

TAKING CARE OF BUSINESS

Like most established shops, Mike bills long-term-build customers every two to four weeks, invoicing for parts and labor details. “I don’t take any money up front,” Mike said. “We work for our paycheck.”

Rutterz Rodz, shop profile, hot rod shop, bristol, mike rutter, custom rod, goodguys, axalta paint

Mike Rutter and Johnathon Tolley work on assembling the Thomas ’57 Ford project.

While Mike likes the consistency and security that steady repeat customers provide, he’s also conscious of the need to expand the business, to let more people know about the five-man shop nestled in the hills of east Tennessee. Mike often takes completed customer cars to shows to display his talents and to answer questions from prospective customers. He plans to increase that strategy. “I need to broaden my horizons some,” he said. “I try to go to some different shows.”

Like his customers, Mike has a love of cars. But he’s also aware of the challenges that come with owning a business. “I like creating things, but I didn’t like having a boss,” Mike said. “That’s why I was afraid to turn what I loved into a business because I thought it was going to sour it for me.”

That doesn’t seem to be the case. Based on his enthusiasm, it appears Mike’s automotive passion is as strong as ever. Considering his years of experience and the loyalty of new and old customers, we think he can rest easy that Rutterz Rodz will be around for quite a while.

Rutterz Rodz, shop profile, hot rod shop, bristol, mike rutter, custom rod, goodguys, axalta paintRutterz Rodz
2627 Volunteer Parkway
Bristol, TN 37620
www.RutterzRodz.com
423-764-7237

Photos by John Jackson

Dave Doucette is a long-time Goodguys member with a career in newspaper, magazine and website journalism. He was one of the founding editors of USA TODAY, editor of two daily newspapers and co-owner of a magazine publishing and trade show company. He owns and operates Real Auto Media. His first car was a 1947 Ford; he has owned Camaros, Firebirds, El Caminos and a 1956 Chevy that was entered in shows from California to Florida before being sold last year. He was one of the original Goodguys Rodders Reps and served as president of two classic Chevy clubs. Doucette grew up in South Florida, avidly following the racing exploits of local hero Ollie Olsen and, of course, Don Garlits. He remembers riding his bicycle to Briggs Cunningham’s West Palm Beach factory to peak through the fence at his Sebring and LeMans racers.

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