If you're into music, maybe you'd like to meet Mick Jagger. If sports is your thing, spending a half an hour with Magic Johnson would be cool. While it's usually tough to get next to the famous, at SEMA (the Specialty Equipment Market Association: Read our overview of the 2007 SEMA Show), icons you'd like to meet are often just walking around. You never know whom you'll see in the next booth or aisle.
In just one day, we ran into the legendary George Barris (creator of the Batmobile and other TV Land rides), Al Unser, Jr. (of Indy racing fame), and Warren Johnson (Pro Stock drag racing champion and engineering guru for GM Performance Parts). As if seeing and chatting up these bigger-than-life car guys weren't enough, we had the chance to spend serious time with three other auto-aftermarket powerhouses.
Our first interview was with Funkmaster Flex, the popular New York radio DJ, well-known car customizer and show organizer. If you haven't caught Flex on air in The Big Apple, then you can see him on Spike TV or ESPN. Even though Flex is a celebrity, he's no ordinary celebrity when it comes to cars.
From our humble perspective, we fully expect celebrities to cruise down to their local Bentley or Ferrari dealer to order the most expensive model their managers will allow because that's what celebrities are supposed to do. Once they've got their requisite fancy car, they check that duty off their "I'm-a-star" list and turn their attention toward buying other things they no nothing about ... like Rococo art or Ming Dynasty vases (pronounced vaaaaa-ses).
This isn't Flex. He's truly into cars. For instance, if you're shopping for something cool on e-Bay like an unrestored Oldsmobile 442 or a basket case Camaro Z28, you might be bidding against Flex. He's always looking for personal projects to add to his collection of muscle cars. In other words, Flex is a real car guy who dreams and works on his cars just about like any other car guy. Of course, the fact that Flex has serious resources behind his restoration and customization efforts makes him higher up the food chain ... but that's academic to the fact that this emissary of hip hop culture is the genuine article.
For more proof, one only has to look at the tasteful creation Flex created for Ford Motor Company's SEMA effort. Flex started out with a pre-production 2009 Ford Flex, a new crossover that Ford will bring out next year. "I really wanted to go for a subdued sense of style with ultimate luxury," said Flex as he walked us around Flex's Flex2. "We kept the shine down on the wheels, and then matched the finish of the wheels with the aluminum trim running under the windows." Sitting on 22-inch rims, the rich wine-colored crossover sits low. You'll never mistake this for some kind of minivan.
Flex then explained that what he tried to do with the Flex2 was enhance the design Ford's styling team had already created. "I didn't want to go outrageous just because I could. I wanted to enhance what was there and take it from a 10 to an 11 or 12," Flex said. Touches like the supple leather seats and custom entertainment system helped Flex accomplish his goal.
You could say that customizing cars and trucks runs in Beau Boeckmann's family. His father, Bert, was hired on at a small California dealership called Galpin Motors in 1953. Within 10 years, Bert had taken over the place, and today Galpin Motors is among the largest dealers in the world, selling over 25,000 cars and trucks a year. There were many reasons for the huge success at Galpin, including participation in NASCAR racing and the creation of the world's first custom van that Bert designed and built for a friend. The "Surfer Van" is credited with single handedly creating the conversion van industry.
Young Beau grew up in this successful, creative and supercharged selling environment. Today, as president of Galpin Auto Sports (G.A.S.), Beau lives the dreamy life of an automotive designer with the ways and means to build just about anything. To see G.A.S. and Beau in action, check out the latest season of MTV's popular Pimp My Ride. Every episode was filmed at the G.A.S. garages.
On the busy SEMA floor, Beau met us to talk about his team's newest creation, the Ford Super Duty F-450 Bio/Hydro. More than anything else at the show, this truck was both mean and green. It rolls on 22-inch rims and sports a six-inch suspension lift. Once you get past its intimidating size, Galpin's F-450 executes on two trends AOL recognized at this year's show, diesel power and greater environmental awareness.
The mighty Power Stroke diesel engine in the Ford F-450 is modified to run on both bio diesel (produced from soy beans) or pure hydrogen (one of the most abundant elements on Earth that when combusted produces only water vapor). This major powertrain modification helps reduce this giant's carbon footprint. Those tanks mounted in the bed are real, and store the hydrogen, while the truck's standard fuel tanks store the bio diesel.
Inside, the Galpin team also took an environmental tact -- many features are made from recycled and/or natural products. The carpets are made from recycled soda bottles and the headliner is made from hemp. Boeckmann says, "I really love the presence of this vehicle. We didn't want to do something that was wimpy environmentalism. We wanted to make a serious kick-#@! environmental statement!" Their truck does. The green paint even comes from a snake ... it's a color you can order on a 2008 Dodge Viper. Beau says, "This truck proves that you don't have to give up performance to be environmentally friendly."
On a more serious note, Boeckmann says, "We've been environmentally minded for a long time at Galpin Motors. Back in 1979, we opened the first methanol fueling station in California. We also sold the General Motors EV1 electric car, and have been selling E85 (ethanol) fleet vehicles for years." With Boeckmann's penchant for performance and concern for the environment, look for future G.A.S. vehicles to build on some of the same themes and technologies found in the Bio/Hydro F-450.
What kind of guy is named Carroll? If you ask that question at SEMA, 99 out of 100 people will look at you like you're some kind of idiot. Some might even take a swing at you because their reverence for Shelby is so strong. Nearly everybody at SEMA knows who Carroll Shelby is. He invented the original Cobra and the Shelby Mustang. Over the years, he's contributed to vehicle programs and created cars as varied as the Shelby Mustang KR-500, the Dodge Omni GLH, and the latest Ford GT supercar. He was also a winning race driver and race-team owner. To not know about Shelby is like being a baseball fan who doesn't know about Babe Ruth, Hank Aaron, or Ty Cobb.
At a special invitation-only dinner, Shelby got up to the podium and said very plainly, "We're good at what we do at Shelby Automobiles. We make good looking cars that go fast." After that he introduced several cars that any enthusiast would covet. The first looked just like one of Shelby's 1967 Mustang racecars. The restored 1967 Mustang body is fitted with a new 525-horspower 408-cubic inch V8 -- this Mustang will run. At $99,500, the new/old Mustang might be a bit pricey for some enthusiasts. For people on more of a budget, there's the new Terlingua Racing Team package for the current V6-powered Ford Mustang. The complete package adds about only $8,000 to the cost of your Mustang, making the combination a true performance bargain. The new pony car delivers amazing performance that will humble much more expensive cars. A supercharger boosts horsepower to 375, while chassis upgrades improve handling and braking. Decked out in traditional Terlingua racing livery, there will be no mistaking this edition for a run-of-the-mill work horse.
Shelby went on to talk about when he and his racing friends formed the original Terlingua Racing Team. "We really wanted to thumb our noses at the stubborn, old racing establishment," Shelby remembered with a smile. "We wanted to win races and have a lot of fun. We did both." The team's "roaring rabbit" insignia poked fun at Ferrari's prancing horse emblem. Shelby himself was carried the official team position of "social director."
Shelby has been a fixture in the automobile business since he was a race driver in the 1950s. Today, at 85, he still maintains a vigorous schedule. At SEMA, the line to get autographs from the old man started forming 90 minutes early and ended up being hundreds of people deep.
If Funkmaster Flex and Beau Boeckmann are fortunate, they'll live long enough and do right by enough people to be as respected as Carroll Shelby. We should all be so lucky ... but since we can't, at least we can run into guys like this at SEMA.
About the author: Rex Roy is a Detroit-based automotive writer and journalist. His new book, Motor City Dream Garages, will be on shelves in November.