Shop Tour: Karl Performance Finally Takes Center Stage
After a few big builds, this Midwest custom shop is finally getting the recognition it deserves. With two big awards under its belt, the future for the Karl Performance custom shop is looking brighter than ever.
For a long time, the custom shop at Karl Performance stayed out of the spotlight. Located in the “middle of the Midwest,” the shop was a local secret, churning out high-quality custom cars with impeccable attention to detail. After more than 20 years in the custom car building business, though, the team at Karl Performance, inspired by a few recent big breakthroughs, is ready to take its deserved place in the forefront of the industry.
“Right now we are a hidden gem,” said Clint Quesinberry, the shop’s marketing manager. “I don’t want that; I want everyone to know about us!”
The Des Moines, Iowa-based shop has been receiving more attention in recent years, and that’s just fine by the build team.
“I’ve always said we were one of the area’s best-kept secrets,” said Jim Hidy, who manages the high performance and engine building parts of the shop.
While the shop’s most recent award winners—a ’38 Chevy that was named a Top 5 Finalist for Goodguys 2016 Classic Instruments Street Rod of the Year, and a ’56 Chevy convertible that was a Goodguys/Vintage Air Custom Rod of the Year finalist in 2014—have helped put it on the industry’s radar, the build team says that they’re just getting started.
BUILDING THE BRAND
The custom shop is just one part of the larger company that is Karl Performance. The company’s owner, Carl Moyer, also owns the largest pre-owned Corvette dealership in America, as well as a speed parts distribution company, among other things. When he decided to add a custom shop to his company’s offerings over 20 years ago, the former Pro-Mod drag racing champion was simply looking for a place to have his cars worked on.
“Carl was very successful in Pro-Mod racing,” Hidy said. “He won two world championships in Pro-Mod in the mid-1990s. There was a guy who worked on Carl’s cars on the side while also working a full-time job. Carl wanted him to work for him full-time, building his cars, so Carl decided to open up a shop. He figured between his own hot rods and his friends’ hot rods, he could find enough work for this guy to stay busy when they weren’t racing.”
Since that time, Carl has added new businesses and purchased existing companies, but his standards for quality have never changed.
“Carl has super-high expectations for everything that comes out of [this shop],” Quesinberry said. “At the end of the day, we have to stay up to Carl’s standards. If it isn’t up to his standards, we have no business doing it. He expects nothing but the best and there’s no cutting corners.”
Those standards have led to some big success for Moyer. His dealership is currently in its tenth consecutive year of being the number one certified pre-owned dealership in the nation.
“If you think about what Carl’s done with the Chevy dealership, it’s much more impressive when you realize that he’s doing it in Iowa, and not a big city like Los Angeles or something. That’s a huge thing to accomplish,” Hidy said.
“Carl’s business philosophy and the way he treats people is a big reason for his success,” Quesinberry added. “His determination is really unmatched. When he gets his mind made up to do something, it’s going to get done, one way or another. He’s a very determined individual, and that carries over into everything we do here.”
Like everything, Moyer sits at the helm of the Karl Performance custom shop, which works like a well-oiled machine. Offering all services in-house—including paint, body, upholstery services, engine machining, dyno and more—the shop’s nearly 30 employees stay busy working on mostly full, turnkey builds. The cars that come out of the shop must be up to Moyer’s high standards.
“We don’t build crazy, wild exotic stuff,” Hidy said. “It’s clean, well-executed, very tastefully done and we pay attention to detail.”
While the build team is willing to do just about any genre of car—anything from pro-touring to restorations to street rods and muscle cars—they are selective about what projects they’ll take on.
“There are some projects that we won’t get into,” Hidy said. “Either it’s not the right thing for us or the customer’s expectations aren’t in line with the way we do things. We have a standard of what we’ll do and how the car needs to look when it leaves here. We are not the average mom-and-pop-type body shop. We build high-end cars and we are selective of what we will put our name on and send out.”
Because of this, the shop avoids taking on many partial projects.
“We won’t get into doing body and paint work on a car unless it’s a car that’s in exceptional condition or it’s being restored or rebuilt,” Hidy said. “It’s attached to our business name, so even if we didn’t actually build the full car, we feel we have a responsibility for it. We are cautious about taking on things like that.”
THE KARL PERFORMANCE LOOK
One only has to look at the ’56 Chevy convertible built by Karl Performance a few years back to understand what type of cars that shop can—and will—build.
“It is one of those super-cool cars that, everywhere you look, has something new to see on it,” Hidy said. “People are blown away by it. Talk about details—it is full of those!”
That car, which was named a Goodguys/Vintage Air Custom Rod of the Year finalist in 2014, is still popular wherever it goes.
“That car was back in the shop about six months ago,” Quesinberry said. “It’s not usually here, but it was on a lift while I was giving some people a tour of the shop. They were beside themselves when they saw it!
“That car is a really good example of what we do here,” he added. “From the ground up, there is absolute attention to detail, even on the parts you don’t see. That car speaks volumes about how we build cars.”
Quesinberry says that customers who see the car, which is owned by Moyer, are able to get an understanding of what the shop is capable of doing.
“It’s good for people to see cars like that because it obviously shows that we have the ability to create amazing things,” he said. “If we can do something like that, they trust us with their projects. That’s how we do things here. It’s done exceptionally well or not done at all.”
“If we can execute something to that level, and our customers see that, they aren’t worried about trusting us with their smaller scale project with a smaller budget,” he said.
The Karl Performance team recently received a lot of fanfare for a ’38 Chevy coupe it built for Moyer. That car—which was named as a finalist for the Goodguys 2016 Classic Instruments Street Rod of the Year award—is all about modesty and class. Still, even Moyer has been surprised by how well the car has been received.
“We had to talk Carl into taking that car to the show,” Hidy said. “He said that he had nicer cars to bring, but we knew that car was the one to bring. It’s well-liked and it has a broad appeal. It’s a little different because it’s not a flashy color; it’s a stock 1930s Chevy color. But when we took the car to the show, I heard so many people commenting about how clean and tasteful it is.”
The car, which Moyer found locally, had been restored once before the Karl Performance team got a hold of it. It now features an Art Morrison chassis, a crate ZZ5 small block with Inglese injection, a 4L65E electronic shift transmission, and OEM-style dash parts.
“People seem to relate to that car,” Hidy said. “It’s very different from many of the flashy cars that we were competing against, but people can really picture themselves owning and driving a car like the ’38. It was a little more modestly built [than some of the other cars] but it’s a car people like because they want to drive it.”
The shop, which is located just a few miles from Moyer’s Chevy dealership, is also known for taking risks in its builds. Although attention to detail and high-quality always remains in the forefront of every build the shop does, the Karl Performance build team is not afraid to try new things.
“With a lot of the stuff we do here, we are the first people to try it,” Quesinberry said. “There’s a lot of stuff people haven’t done before, so we have to figure it out. It’s an obstacle.”
“We don’t build crazy, wild exotic stuff. It’s clean, well-executed, very tastefully done and we pay attention to the details.”
– Jim Hidy
The team is currently working on a ’68 Camaro and decided to try something new with the car’s interior.
“We took a fifth-generation Camaro interior and modified it to fit into the ’68 Camaro,” Hidy said. “We made it look like it came from the factory like that. When you sit in that ’68, you feel like you’re in a brand-new Camaro. It took a lot of engineering and thought to get it to fit and function so well.”
Although the shop tends to stick to doing about three or four full builds at a time, it currently has about eight full builds in progress right now. Hidy thinks that one, in particular, a ’54 Chevy sedan delivery, will be the shop’s Next Big Thing.
“It’s going to have some really cool concept stuff that’s been talked about, and it has lot of really neat customizing ideas,” he said.
The car, which is on an Art Morrison chassis and features a Lingenfelter 417c.i. V8 stroker engine will eventually serve as a shop vehicle. Although the guys don’t want to give away too many details about the build, they said that the car is being built to bring more publicity to their shop.
“It is something that will really represent the abilities of what we do around here,” Hidy said.
That new level of exposure has been a long time coming for the Midwest shop.
“For a long time we flew under the radar,” Hidy said.
“People take us more serious now [because of our recent breakthroughs] and we’ve gained a lot more respect,” Quesinberry added.
The shop has amped up its marketing plan in recent years and puts on frequent “Cars and Coffee” events. At those events, customers and locals have been able to come and tour the shop and talk with the build team about future projects.
“Sometimes people have no idea we exist, but when they come in and see our facility and see the projects we’re doing, it gives them confidence and builds their trust in us,” Hidy said.
Although the shop has been around for several decades, its builds didn’t get a lot of recognition until recently.
“We had gotten away from [competing] because Carl doesn’t like the politics of it all, but we’re competitors,” Quesinberry said. “We want to become a household name. We don’t have a TV show or anything, but our goal is to get out there, shake some trees and get people to notice us. We want customers in here who share our same vision.”
Karl Performance had one car at the 2016 SEMA Show. The team hopes to have triple that at the 2017 SEMA Show.
“We have a lot of good things that are just beginning,” Quesinberry said. “I feel like we’re on the cusp of really exploding.”
Photos by Mike Harrington