SHOP TALK: CHIP FOOSE

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Marked by the power of imagination, Chip Foose began working on automobiles at the age of seven. Chip’s raw creative ability, determined resourcefulness and seemingly poetic adaptations have earned extensive praise for their originality and innate excellence.

From receiving the coveted Ridler Award in 2005 at the Detroit Autorama to holding the distinction as the youngest inductee to the Hot Rod Hall of Fame, Chip has quickly created a legacy that’s well beyond his years.

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NB: “When people talk about how good you are at what you do – do you buy into that?"

CF: “Not at all…as soon as you do, you’re done. The hungry cat wins the fight, right? I still think of myself as a 14-year-old kid who still wants his first car.”

NB: “Growing up in your father’s shop and getting into it at such a young age, what were some of the keys to you getting started?”

CF: “I attribute it to my father – my hero. In my mind, he’s still the best builder out there. Every other builder out there was an influence. I’d see things and say ‘that’s pretty cool…how can I make it better?’ I’m just tryin’ to make every car better. I’m never looking to slap someone upside the face and say ‘hey look at this!’ I want to tap ‘em on the shoulder and say ‘hey, come back, look again’. Simple, clean and elegant. If they ask why I did this or that, I didn’t do my job right. I’ll spend 45 minutes hanging a bumper to keep the gap a perfect 1/8 of an inch all the way around. You can’t do that with production models – but you can with custom cars.”

NB: “Varying reports exist on the actual age of your first time in the shop…”

CF: “I was 3 when I started drawing. My dad was a talented artist so I’d sit next to him and copy whatever he was doing. He showed me a couple of tricks – how to make things look three dimensional – and it took off from there. When I was 7, he started taking me to the shop. I know I destroyed a lot more than I helped out. Patience, though. He really allowed me to hone my craft. Every day was a learning experience. I’d weld, cut, hammer, paint. When I was 12, I got to primer a Porsche all by myself. I worked there for 15 years before I ended up going to the Art Center in Pasadena.”

NB: “When you start playing with something, do you always have a plan?”

CF: “A lot of times, it’s not completely drawn out. But I’ll verbally describe it to the guys, sketch it – a picture’s worth a thousand words. They know what they’re doing. And in my head, I can visualize the whole project.”

NB: “But you’re not just a gear head. You’re formally educated in the field.”

CF: “When you’re drawing things, you don’t always know why. Going to the Art Center taught me the reasons why and the study of form. How to really develop it. Those are lessons that will be with me for a lifetime, things I can pass on to other people. We all learn from each other. The other builders aren’t competitors, they’re potential best friends.”

NB: “How do those lessons translate into building cars?”

CF: “As a designer that grew up building cars, I know it can be built. It’s easier for me to verbalize, sketch and communicate with the designers.”

NB: “What was the moment where you said, you know what, I’m pretty good?”

CF: “I still haven’t done that – I still want to get better. It’s what you learn after you know it all that counts.” 

NB: “What goes into that – how do you keep it fresh and continue to grow?

CF: “I think we’re just getting started. Cars are only a part of this – it’s the people that matter more. Making dreams come true. My goal is to create more and more products, like Foose Wheels. It’s quite rewarding to design a really cool wheel that sells. But it’s all aspects of design, not just cars. Making things that are cool, things that people want.”

NB: “How do you deal with success, the fame and the expectations as you continue to grow the Foose brand and take on new challenges like TV?”

CF: “The TV thing just came along. I’m not an actor. Not a celebrity. I’ve been building ‘em the same for 37 years. Now, they’re just puttin’ it on TV. It’s about making dreams come true because all that other stuff can go away. But I’m still gonna be here building cars. I would never start a hot rod shop to make a living. It’s not the money – it’s what I’m passionate about. The pure desire to do something cool. People want cool cars – thank God for that!”

NB: “What are some of the big differences between designing/building for corporate America vs. doing it in your own shop?”

CF: “In the corporate world, the projects are unreal because the budgets exist for it. But you’re a small part of a large team at a huge corporation. When it’s done, you’re on to the next thing. It’s just a job. Here, it’s a lifestyle. You have relationships with the cars, the customers and other builders. A car may have a lifespan of 20 years. I’m running into people who used to build cars with my father, going to lunch, talking about it, working on restoring old projects. I enjoy it this way a lot more.”

NB: “What’s your typical design process like?”

CF: “Initially, the owner of the car brings us an idea. A dream vision. Wants, likes, might-wants, pictures. My goal is to take their dream and make it better than they ever thought or imagined. I want to give them something beyond their expectations. Their dream might be based on something from their high school days and the quality of design back then was nowhere near what it is today. We get to bring their dream ten times beyond what they thought was possible.”

NB: “What kinds of projects get you really wound up?”

CF: “All of them. Watching something grow in front of you, becoming what you want it to be. I can sit down in a chair to read a book and fall asleep in three minutes. But when I start building something, I’m up for three, four days straight. Every aspect of the build keeps you excited. From design work on two dimensional papers, to the initial stage of the build, through boot camp, all the finishing details and starting to actually put it together. It’s one of those things you never want to leave. Watching it come together is a pure adrenaline rush. Seeing the finished product, set on the floor, ready for the show – it’s one area when men can cry.”

NB: “Talk about the power of imagination…”

CF: “I like to say that in custom cars, there’s no such thing as rules or laws. As soon as you settle on something, you’re putting an end to it. Proportion is the only rule I’ll follow. And even then, I just want to balance things so it’s not awkward. Anything you can possibly imagine, you can build. In design, it’s really easy to be different. But it’s difficult to be extremely tasteful and timeless. I want customers to feel that they’ve spent their money wisely. That the design’s not going to date. Imagination…I could go crazy with it. But it’s how you control it and bring it back to be timeless. I want my stuff to be seen again, and again and again. To learn something every time you view it.”

NB: “The Chip Foose bumper sticker would read __________.”

CF: “When people ask me my best advice for getting into the industry, I just tell ‘em to follow their passion. Do what you really love doing. Do it because you love it, not because you’re making money at it.”

NB: “How are YOU behind the wheel?”

CF: “I was 12 when my dad taught me how to drive. We’d been working on fixing the door dings in a Rolls Royce in the shop. I dropped a primer gun and it splattered all over the back of the Rolls. We ended up having to repaint it before we backed it in to the front of the shop. That day he was teaching me how to drive, telling me to park next to the Rolls. While I was trying to make a right turn, my foot slipped and hit the throttle, just wiped out the Rolls. Pushed it into a Porsche, too. The bumper (from the Rolls) is hanging in the shop.”

NB: “Eminem said he’d stop rapping before he was 30. Jim Brown walked away from the NFL at the top of his game at 29. Jordan did, too…then came back, retired and came back again. How will you avoid being the Wizards’ Jordan?”

CF: “As long as I have the ability to build what I can visualize or draw, I’ll continue to do it. If I lose that desire to bend metal and get dirty, I’m done.”

Next week we’ll break down the design details of Chip’s brilliant P32 “Street Fighter”, which made the rounds for a showing in the Oakley lobby during October-November.

Author

Newbear Lesniewski

Date

November 16, 2007