Steve’s Auto Restorations – From One of Classics to Fords
Steve Frisbie, founder of Steve’s Auto Restorations in Portland, Oregon, is an unassuming sort. Quiet, serious, studious. With eyeglasses and a full-beard he projects the appearance of an academic, which, when you think about it, he is. But rather than mastering French Linguistics, he majors in car crafting. You see, over the past three decades Frisbie and his talented team have produced some of hot rodding’s most eye-popping vehicles, including last year’s (2017) head-turning Ridler winner at the Detroit Autorama, a mind-blowing, uber-tweaked 1933 Ford dubbed the “Renaissance Roadster.”
As a young adult, Frisbie worked at the Portland-based Boeing facility, where he learned how to paint, assemble, machine, and weld, skills required to build an airplane – and coincidently the same skills it takes to build a hot rod. In the 1970s, he left Boeing to start Steve’s Auto Restorations, focusing on classic car restoration — you know, the Pebble Beach, Gucci loafer crowd. Restored Model Ts, Model As, Gullwing Mercedes, pre-war American and European Classics, Frisbie painstakingly restored them all. And he was good at it. Very good. Frisbie became a fixture at the famous Pebble Beach concourse, dazzling the high-brow attendees with his faultless handiwork.
Then in the late 1980s, the world economy downshifted, blowing up the classic car market, which had been hotter than a flathead in August. Prices had been skyrocketing. Auction houses had been flourishing. Then it all collapsed like a nail-impaled wide-white radial. That million dollar Ferrari Testerossa was suddenly worth $250,000. Ouch.
“The restoration business took a real hit,” Frisbie explained. “Shops closed everywhere. The boom was over. The fact is, the restoration market views automobiles simply as investments. When that investment potential is gone, so is the interest in building those cars.”
Luckily for Frisbie he had slowly developed an interest in rods and customs. And while the build-cars-for-profit restoration market had flatlined, the build-cars-for-fun hot rod market had come back to life. And few were better positioned to take advantage than Steve’s Auto Restorations.
Frisbie possessed talents few traditional hot rod shops had. In restoring a 1948 Franay coach built Delahaye, for example, there is no 1-800 number to call for parts. The restorer must fabricate from scratch intricate metal and wooden components, such as Landau bars or a top bow. And Frisbie was a master at creating something out of nothing. As anyone who has ever built a street rod knows, fabrication is life.
At SAR, Frisbie has put together the facilities and craftsmen to handle every aspect of hot rod construction: body work, fabrication, chassis construction, mechanical assembly, brightwork polishing, upholstery, paint — everything needed to build award-winning vehicles. With 14 artisans on staff, SAR does as much work in-house as possible.
Brightwork is a SAR specialty, like hand-formed bumpers. First, the metal is carefully smoothed, then sent out for copper plating. Next, the part is polished even more before being re-coppered again — a process repeated up to five times before the bumper is nickeled and chromed.
The results are breathtaking. Much of the brightwork on the 2017 Ridler winner (which was also named America’s Most Beautiful Street Rod at the Goodguys West Coast Nationals) was handcrafted; same for perhaps SAR’s most famous ride, the NewMad ’55 Chevrolet Nomad (a past Goodguys Custom Rod of the Year winner, by the way).
Frisbie also has invested in a luxury few hot rod shops can afford — a full-time, in-house designer. Dave Brost is one of the most highly regarded visionaries in the industry. A graduate of Oregon State University, his vision ensures that every SAR vehicle is aesthetically compelling. And he’s multi-talented, as adept with modeling clay as he is with a sketchpad.
As if building hot rods wasn’t enough, Frisbie also runs another on-site business, Real Steel, which produces steel reproductions of of 1933-34 roadster bodies. They’ve sold hundreds over the past 20 years, Frisbie said. For a few years, Real Steel even offered a complete ’34 3-window coupe, a project that sadly died with the economic crash in 2007.
Those salaries illustrate Frisbie’s resolve to operate a tight, profitable business. Client relations is key, with each customer receiving a weekly progress report and worksheet. SAR also emails each client digital photographs of the work as it progresses.
If there is a secret to SAR’s success, it’s Frisbie’s preternatural dedication to what he calls perfectionism. “Our guiding philosophy,” Frisbie explained, “is to attain ‘perfectionism’ in the products that we produce and the cars that we build.”
Along the way, Frisbie has honed and expanded his business to ensure long-term success. The company has expanded the aftermarket sheet metal support products for 1933/1934 Fords through Real Steel, he said. Moreover, SAR continues to expand its capabilities to perform ‘ground up’ builds, from 1930’s vehicles to those of the 1960’s and 1970’s, including Corvettes.
“The Ridler-winning car proves we are capable of building an award winning vehicle from design rendering to finished car,” he explained. “This diversity is healthy and much more interesting.”
The upper echelon of hot rod builders – Steve Moals, Roy Brizio, Troy Trepanier, Alan Johnson, Randy Clark, Troy Ladd — all push the envelope of metal craftsmanship and artistic vision. Yet describing Steve Frisbie as a hot rodder, is like describing Ernest Hemingway as a guy with a typewriter. Frisbie and his contemporaries are doing more than hot rodding: They are creating automotive art from a blank page, opening our eyes to the limitless possibilities of what a hot rod can be.
When Frisbie walks outside sometimes he turns and looks up at the ‘32 Ford coupe perched atop the gable over the shop entrance. It looks like a bright yellow gargoyle against Oregon’s ever-raining sky. “You know, we make our living working with steel,” he laughs. “We even sell those all-metal ’34 bodies, but this is the northwest and that ’32 up there? It’s a ‘glass Wescott body. That thing will never rust.”