Smitty’s Custom Automotive Builds Cars That Back Up Great Looks with Standout Performance
Can a small-town hot rod shop race its way to success while also creating stunning Great 8 finalists? The answer is a resounding yes. You just have to look at Smitty’s Custom Automotive in Tiffin, Ohio.
Owner Chris Smith’s father was always a hot rodder and when he was laid off from his longtime job in the late-’90s, he teamed up with Chris to open Smitty’s Custom Automotive. In the early years, restoration, custom, and truck work consumed most of the shop’s time. Today, Chris says about 90-percent of the work is hot rods, race cars, AutoCross cars, and restoration. The other 10 percent involves collision work for a few customers, plus truck accessories and upgrades.
What began as a father/son enterprise expanded after Chris’s dad retired in 2009, becoming a son/brother team. Today the business is evolving to include Chris’s high-school-age son, Jason, who’s studying machining in vo-tech school. The shop will add in-house custom machine work once his son’s training is complete.
“He has a snow day today and he’s out in the shop wrenching,” Chris says during our recent interview. “I can teach him the other stuff, but we need machining and he’s going to do that.”
Getting Up to Speed
Chris says he’s always been involved in racing on a personal level, both road course and AutoCross. His racing success helped build the shop’s image and reputation. Chris ran the RideTech racing program for years to show that an air-suspension car could handle, perform, and compete on the race track. He piloted RideTech’s yellow ’72 Corvette to a Goodguys AutoCross Street Machine season points championship in 2017 and is always a tough competitor, routinely finishing near the top whether he’s racing at Goodguys or in other AutoCross competition like Optima Ultimate Street Car.
Chris recently began running the race program for Speedtech and now services a fleet of race cars for the Speedtech team and several customers. “Right now, there are five race cars in the shop without motors for offseason upgrades,” Chris says. A Speedtech third-generation Camaro race car in the shop now will be campaigned this year by Jason.
The shop maintains a diverse inventory of parts and accessories and the racing helps with parts sales. “Customers bring in cars to be built or to be maintained,” Chris says. “There are a dozen cars that are here several times a year for maintenance.”
Trucks, Camaros and Great 8s
Nearly 10 years ago, Chris built a C10 Chevy pickup to compete on the AutoCross circuit along with his ’69 Camaro and his brother’s Nova. “We took all of them and went road racing,” he says. “It hooked me.”
Camaros have played an important part of the company’s image, from show cars to race vehicles. Chris says the first major build was a ’69 Camaro for a customer. “We’ve been open 22 years and there has never not been a first-gen Camaro in the shop,” he says.
In addition to ground-pounding race vehicles, Smitty’s Custom Automotive has produced its share of high-profile show vehicles, too. In 2010, a ’34 Ford three-window coupe called Kraken was a Great 8 finalist at the Detroit Autorama. In 2014, a Chevelle called Chevicious was the overall Street Machine winner in Detroit.
Whether it’s a full-on race track performer or a car-show-cruising custom, Chris says building to the customer’s expectations is the guiding principle for all that they do. “When we first started, everyone sat around the car show and trailered there,” Chris says. “Everything had big wheels, air, and was slammed on the ground. Now everyone wants it to run as good as a new Cadillac or Corvette. Now it’s all about quiet, creature comforts, cruise control.”
For most ground-up projects, Chris works with the customer to decide on drivetrain and suspension components before any work begins. He then requires a sizeable deposit to buy those major components. Chris says he wants the foundation of the car settled so he can build around it. Buying the parts up front, and paying for them, means the customer is committed to the project. Plus, having the major components and supporting parts in the shop keeps the build on schedule. That means there is almost no downtime waiting for a component that may have been ordered months in advance but is on back order.
A growing customer segment involves people who buy their first older car at an auction or off a car lot. They aren’t getting exactly what they want, Chris says, so they bring it to Smitty’s to refine and perfect their ride. That means spending additional money to get what they thought they were getting when they originally made the purchase.
Lessons Learned in 2020
Of the many impacts of the COVID pandemic, the disruptions to supply lines affected more than the runs on toilet paper, tissues, and paper towels. “When COVID started and everything started shutting down, we started running out of everything,” Chris says.
When the going got tough, Chris decided that instead of hoarding cash, he would spend thousands of dollars to load up on supplies, just in case. Raw materials, grinding discs, sand paper. He bought cases of wire for the welders, extra bottles of gas, fittings, hoses, and more.
“For cars we were working on at the time, I made a list and we started buying parts so we could keep up with the work in front of us,” Chris says.
COVID and other issues wreaked havoc on the supply lines. Chris says things such as wiring harnesses for LT engines are on back order. A second-gen Camaro project has come to a halt because glass has been on back order for almost a year.
Despite the current challenges, Chris says the work is still satisfying. “We get to build what someone wants,” Chris says. “There’s satisfaction that you’ve made someone happy.”
The shop goal is to build every vehicle to run hard and perform as good as it looks. “Our ultimate goal is that every car we build won’t break,” Chris says.
Smitty’s Custom Automotive
Photos by Zach Miller