Join Date: Mar 2001
Chip Foose overhaulin' mainstream designs
Chip Foose overhaulin' mainstream designs
HUNTINGTON BEACH, Calif. — Chip Foose recently bought his wife, Lynne, a new Mercedes S-Class sedan, an elegant asphalt-gobbler with a snarling engine and TV screens in each headrest.
The car's new owner promptly blanched. "She protested," says Foose, 43. "But I said, 'Let's buy it now, while we can afford it.' "
Prudent. But let's face it: Foose hitting the financial skids is about as likely as the Model T making a comeback.
The Southern California car designer is the Michelangelo of the hot-rod world, where his prize-winning creations, which can take upward of six years to build by hand, typically cost their owners more than $1 million.
He's also a TV personality (his Learning Channel car makeover series, Overhaulin', has wrapped, and he's in talks for a new reality show on Discovery), product pitchman (Mothers car wax, among other garage staples) and designer for hire (from snowboard graphics to a new Detroit casino).
And now Foose is coming to a Ford dealership near you. The struggling manufacturer hopes to radiate some of his So Cal cool by unveiling a Foose-ified vehicle — almost certainly an F-150 truck — at the New York International Automobile Show in April. Due in showrooms early next year, it's the first in a series of models whose exteriors and interiors will be subjected to the designer's mod sensibilities — a gift of free rein that few in-house designers ever enjoy.
"Years from now, Chip's cars will be seen as some of the great works of our era," says collector and friend Jay Leno. "I go to my garage and I can't tell my Lexus from an Infiniti. But with Chip, you get original thinking. There's no ego in it, either. He's all about the cars."
From birth, in fact.
Foose's road to the pinnacle of automotive artistry began in his father's Santa Barbara garage. Sam Foose started out fixing cars for insurance companies, but his love of sheet metal eventually led to work on custom hot rods — cars that owed their genesis to speed-loving World War II veterans who took rickety hulks like the 1932 Ford coupe (inspiration for the Beach Boys' Little DeuceCoupe) and souped them up.
As the '60s rolled into the '70s, young Chip went from father-led tutorials in drawing to hands-on experiments with welding and sheet-metal hanging. But his cruise through Pasadena's Art Center College of Design, a hot house whose graduates include New Beetle creator J Mays and BMW design maverick Chris Bangle, sputtered to a halt when family funds ran out.
"I got a job at a company that did auto prototypes, including the helmet-shaped car the NFL used to carry injured players off the field," Foose says. "I was happy." Then he smiles. "But I met Lynne."
He proposed, "but she wouldn't hear of it until I got a degree."
A star is born
So Foose forged a deal with his employer, ASHA Corp. The company would pay his tuition, and he would return after graduation.
It proved a shrewd move on ASHA's part. For his Chrysler-sponsored senior project, Foose whipped up a sleek hot rod that caught the eye of the automaker's executives. Although he is officially uncredited, Foose's car, which he dubbed the Hemisfear, evolved into the daring Plymouth Prowler, introduced in 1997.
Heralded as a prodigy, Foose received dozens of offers at graduation, including one from J Mays, then at Volkswagen and now Ford's chief creative officer.
"Even as a student, Chip demonstrated an unusual ability to draw cars that could easily be translated into three dimensions, something that usually takes years to master," Mays says.
But Foose dutifully returned to work at ASHA, then spent a number of years designing cars for legendary hot-rod fabricator Boyd Coddington before finally establishing Foose Design in 1998.
The Foose metamorphosis starts when he is presented with a customer's classic vehicle, typically something from the '30s through '70s.
Using the car as a shell, he hits the drafting table and joins his seven-man crew to redo everything from engines and suspension to body and roof lines.
Drawing upon his vision as well as his knowledge of a car's inner workings, he turns an image in his head into a gleaming, rolling piece of art. He seldom makes more than a half-dozen cars a year.
Foose welcomes client suggestions, but it's clear who's in charge.
"I had a really great idea for what I wanted to do with my car," says Wes Rydell, a car dealer who had Foose work on his 1935 Chevy coupe. "But he just took it to a whole other level."
The Foose look
Foose trademarks include hidden door handles, minimalist styling that borders on sensuous, and, above all, flawless functionality.
"A lot of guys create hot rods that are cool, but they're totally unstable when you drive them," Leno says. "With Chip, form follows function."
Designer Mays describes Foose's style as "sweet and juicy, pared down and minimal, but it pops with that quintessential Southern California hot-rod flavor. And it always puts a smile on your face."
Ford has high hopes for its partnership with Foose, which echoes existing programs with Harley-Davidson and Eddie Bauer.
"We want him to help us break through the marketplace clutter," spokesman Robert Parker says. "Chip is popular with the kinds of people and in parts of the country where we want to grow."
That would include the middle of the country, where American iron is still king, and here in this car-crazed corner of the USA, where the automobile earned its iconic status thanks to perfect weather and lilting odes to cruising.
Can Foose convert the masses to his candy-colored, streamlined aesthetic? "If anyone can, Chip can," Leno says.
Most car-world folks use just one word to describe Foose.
"The word is overused and trite, but Chip is a genius," says Dick Messer, director of Los Angeles' Petersen Automobile Museum, which lionizes the industry's finest. Death is the usual requirement for a show, but Foose warranted an exception. He emptied his sketchpads and garages for the year-long (and just concluded) exhibit Chip Foose: From Pen to Pavement.
"His vision is so pure, and he has the skills to turn it into reality," Messer says. "Go and ask him to draw you a perfect circle."
In his cramped shop offices, Foose obliges with a quick swirl of the pencil. The circle is frighteningly round, though he dismisses the effort as "fair."
The perfectionist in Foose has served him well in his chosen field. But it also nearly wrecked his life.
Which drives us back to the sleek Mercedes S-Class. It's more than a gift; it's an acknowledgement that his wife was right, he was wrong.
Foose has worked for much of the 19 years he has known his wife, who is 41. After children arrived, cars took priority, even over sleeping. Typically, he gets four hours of shut-eye a night.
Although proud of her husband's achievements, Lynne reached her breaking point two years ago, when she threatened to take their children, Brock, now 7, and Katie, 3, and walk.
"Our son was born, and for about five years, I never saw Chip," Lynne says. "I'm structured. He flies by the seat of his pants. He wasn't always reliable. So I said, 'Unless things change, I'm done.' "
Recalling the moment, Foose shakes his head.
"If I was away for work and landed at 6 p.m., I'd come straight to the shop and work," he says. "Now I go home. I'll even fly back for trick-or-treating."
Foose had his epiphany when a deal fell into place last year for him to finally put his original vision of the Hemisfear into production with an area builder called Metalcrafters. Redubbed the Foose Coupe, the $300,000 beast — what Batman would drive to a drag race on the edge of Gotham City — has made Foose understand that time really does fly.
"I made that sketch 17 years ago, and yet to me, it seems like yesterday," he says in the unusual but characteristic quiet of his shop. "That made me realize that if I didn't change things, my kids would be grown and gone before I even knew what happened."
He is now a more present father, Lynne says. He's usually home for dinner. He even helped his son win top design honors with his entry into a Cub Scout Pinewood Derby — the equivalent of Bill Gates helping out his kid with a computer project.
From wooden kid car to seven-figure show winner, Foose is relentless in his pursuit of perfection. It is partly a tribute to his sister Amy, the youngest of four Foose kids.
Amy died at age 16 from Hutchinson-Gilford progeria syndrome, a disease that accelerates aging while stunting growth.
"She was always going 100 miles an hour and never complained," Foose says. "She tried out for high school cheerleading every year, even though she was 3 feet tall and weighed 26 pounds."
He points to a loft in his shop. A miniature wooden car with a plate reading "Amy" sits under the glare of a fluorescent light. "Amy became the team's mascot," he says. "She rode around the field in that."
Foose flips open his cellphone and retrieves a photo of him with a child who has the same disease. They met at a car show in Canada.
"He was great. I popped him on my shoulders and we just walked and walked, checking out cars."
Working 9 to 4, or more
Foose's can't-say-no nature is evident on an average day at the office.
9 a.m.: Whips up a graphic for a stock car featuring three intersecting lines in green, yellow and red, the colors of the peppers that his client grows.
11 a.m.: Slips under a Foose Ford F-150 prototype to determine how he'll lower the truck's ride height to give it a more menacing look.
Noon: Confers with his staff about a shell of a 30-year-old car that, six figures later, will meld the past with modern touches.
1 p.m.: Redesigns a seat for a company selling Foose interiors, using innovative coloring techniques to make the sketch pop in 3-D.
3 p.m.: Rushes down the road to Metalcrafters, which is hand-building his Foose Coupes out of pricey carbon fiber.
4 p.m.: Fields a call from a magazine reporter seeking comments on custom-car king George Barris.
Says Lynne with a sigh: "If Chip had his way, he'd work for free and give anyone who asked a job."
Carson Lev, Foose Design's new vice president, has been brought on to ensure that Foose gets the most mileage out of his design efforts, whether they're for a line of Foose T-shirts or a model-car version of Jeff Gordon's NASCAR monster boasting Foose graphics.
"Chip is known for auto styling, but that vibe transfers easily to so many things. To me, Chip is a Michael Graves in the making," Lev says, referring to the architect whose modernist household wares are a staple at Target.
"Good design is good design. If you can do a car people like, you can do a toaster."
Or knives and forks, figures Bruce Meyer, who is past president and on the board of directors of the upscale Beverly Hills department store Gearys. Meyer is a passionate car collector who specializes in restored vintage cars, not the newfangled rods that Foose traffics in. Nonetheless, Meyer wants Foose to tackle flatware.
"He could do that, or something in glass or ceramic, whatever, I'll take it," Meyer says. "He's got such amazing control over lines and balance. You look at anything he's done, and, from an aesthetic standpoint, it's almost perfection."
Over at Metalcrafters, Foose watches as the black coupe he dreamed up in college heads into a trailer and out of sight, en route to a hot-rod show in Sacramento.
He responds to a compliment with a hushed "thanks." It's the same response you'd get if you were to tell him you like his T-shirt or the color of his socks. Foose is almost frustratingly humble, a design star trapped in the body of a perpetually striving teenager.
"I just feel lucky, I guess," he says, shrugging. "I have a great family, great clients, a great staff, and I get to do what I love."
He'd say more, but the phone's ringing. Time to roll. Home.