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EXCLUSIVE! - The Thoughts of Chip Foose
Chip poses with his P32 Roadster, which harks back to the 1940s, while Hemisfear in the background is at the cutting edge of contemporary hot rod design
Chip Foose has been at the cutting edge of contemporary hot rod design for over a decade. He helped turn the hot rod world on its ear with a number of stunning concepts while at Boyds, and more recently revealed the charitable and generous side of his character with the hit TV series Overhaulin’.
Chip was back in the spotlight at the 2006 SEMA Show in Las Vegas, where he revealed his long anticipated dream car - Hemisfear - a personal interpretation of a contemporary hot rod, poised for limited production. In between all of this, Chip managed to find time to talk to DRCReview at the GNRS, before jetting off to an event in Canada. Read the full transcript below.
How has Hemisfear been received since its launch at SEMA last year?
Everyone I’ve talked to seems to love it – which is a great thing, in my mind. We are taking the green car to a Barrett Jackson auction in Florida soon - not to sell that car, but to sell the first car that will be built for the public. We have a lot of interest in Hemisfear right now, and we’ve told everyone we are not taking orders just yet. We are still working out a few details on the car – the black one on show here at the GNRS only ran for the first time last week, but it’s a blast to drive. We’re taking it up to Willow Springs to make sure the suspension is working correctly.
Muscle car overtones in the side profile of Hemisfear
The black car belongs to Don Voth, a customer in Canada, and he’s elated with it. When that happens, I know I’ve done my job right. I’ve wanted to build this car for over 10 years, and now I’ve made myself very happy.
At the moment, we have two completed cars. We’re working with a company called Metalcrafters, in Fountain Valley, California, and we’ll be building 50 cars in total. The number one question, however, is: how are we going to register it? We have not identified which way we are going about this yet, so until we do, we are not selling any of them. Our hope is to register cars for customers. If not, we could sell it as a track vehicle only, and if someone wants to make it street legal, then it’s up to them. That is maybe the way we’ll go, but until we have examined all of the possibilities and come up with a solution we think our customers will be happy with, we are not taking any orders. We are looking at $295,000 per car.
Hemisfear is Chip's modern interpretation of the Prowler concept with a roof
How did Hemisfear come about?
It started in 1990, when I was a student at Art Centre, and the Chrysler Corporation came in and sponsored a project to create a niche-market vehicle. I gave them a purple model of a coupe and a roadster, and that was the initial spark for the Prowler. They took the roadster to production, but I always wanted to build the coupe version for myself. When we signed a deal with RC2, a diecast company, they actually provided some seed money to produce my car.
Every part of the car is beautifully detailed - just check out that smooth, integral light panel
I then went over to Metalcrafters with my quarter-scale model, and we enlarged it to a full-size foam model, so we could look at the form in more detail and play with the shape a little. We then went to a full-scale body mock-up. I was waiting for them to give me a quote to build the car, but they came back to me and said, “We want to build your car – but we want to make 50 of them! If we can do that, we’ll build your car.” I thought, “Wow! Let’s get started.” This was less than a year ago, and we subsequently got the project underway, which relieved a lot of stress for me.
If Ford were to redo the classic 3-window coupe for 2007, you can imagine it might look something like this
I’ve always wanted to do a project with Metalcrafters, who, in my mind, are the number one fabrication shop for show cars in the country. The guys there are amazing – they are true enthusiasts. I think we have eight totally different projects with them right now. I’ve got a limo going on, some neat projects for Ford Motor Company, a really wild ‘Cuda, and some other cool stuff that’ll be hitting the street real soon. They just do them so fast – they have 160 employees and they do whatever it takes to get the job done. We design everything on the computer first, so we know exactly where we’re going and can give people drawings, and then they build everything to specification. It all comes together so much easier that way.
They are a prototype shop, and they do cars for manufacturers like Honda, Toyota, Chrysler, Ford and GM. When you go to the Detroit Auto Show, for example, and look at all the concept cars and one-offs, that’s the sort of work they do.
What this means is that not only can we build the body for Hemisfear out of carbon fibre, but also we can stamp it out of steel. They have an autoclave, which we used to cure the composite body, and that facility is 30ft long and 12ft in diameter. They’ve built funny car bodies for John Force, and the Chrysler Charger funny car, as well as some other really amazing stuff. What’s been fun is working on some of the projects we’re putting together with them, and bringing in some of the ideas at Foose Design, where we try to make everything on a car super-clean, not only where you would normally look, but also where you might not, like underneath. Before, it was just the exterior that had to be inspirational, but now, we’re mixing it up and doing both the exterior and undercarriage.
What inspires you in your design work?
I get inspiration from all walks of life, from people talking and from just listening to observations. I go to museums and look at all sorts of things – you never know where a great idea is going to come from. I’ve sat down on aeroplanes and looked at the interior design and other things, and thought, for example, “Hey, that would be a great wheel design.” I always take my sketch book and look at all sorts of details. I’ve gone to the Henry Ford museum and looked at the early farm equipment. There’s some neat stuff in there, like spoke-wheel designs. I also look at china – dishes are round and you can find some innovative designs decorating them that might translate into something automotive. Another thing I will look at is snowflakes under a microscope – there are some amazing shapes and patterns, and they’re organic.
What advice would you give to budding designers who want to follow a similar path in automotive design?
Listen to your clients, but follow your heart. Do what you truly know in your own heart will work. Follow your dreams. I’ve been blessed to work with some great clients, and they’ve allowed me to build some wonderful cars. I’ve also been lucky enough to be able to put a little money aside to allow me to build a couple of cars for myself. I was always an enthusiast for someone else, but now I’m getting to do some things for myself, which is really putting a new light on it.
Design sketches for a hot 'Cuda project
What sort of medium do you use when producing artwork?
I don’t really have a favourite – I don’t care if it’s ballpoint pen or pencil – as it’s the enthusiasm I get when the drawing is completed that’s the main thing. Sharing an idea, be it a line drawing or a full rendering, if it communicates what I’m thinking, then it’s done the job. That’s what I love. I don’t consider myself to be an illustrator; I consider myself to be a designer and a builder. I don’t consider my drawings to be real artwork; I consider them to be a tool to build the artwork. The vehicle is the artwork.
Hard to believe but Chip doesn't rate himself as an illustrator!
Have you ever had a hankering to work for a mainstream car manufacturer?
I have worked with them, and I’m doing a lot of work with Ford right now. I tried full-time employment in 1992, with Ford, but I knew soon after I started that it wasn’t going to work for me. I wanted to stay in the enthusiast hot rod world. When you work with an OE manufacturer, you do a project, it goes on show and your name is never attached to it. You are simply part of a group that gets the job done behind closed doors, and then the car is put in a big warehouse somewhere and doesn’t go any further. When you build a car for someone in the hot rodding world, you also build a friendship and a relationship. When I come to a show like this, I might have, say, five or six customer cars present, and I run into the owners and other builders involved with the projects I am doing. I might even end up going out for dinner with them, so it’s a lifestyle, not a career. That’s what draws me back to this all the time.
Some of the outstanding Foose-designed cars on display at the Peterson Automotive Museum, as part of a special feature showcasing Chip's work. Above in Ron Whiteside's 'Stallion' based on a '34 Ford Coupe, and originally bought to drag race. Foose later transformed it into a Ridler Award winner. 'Grandmaster' below is a 1935 Chevy Sedan owned by Wes Rydell that is equally unique, with deftly shaped and smoothed bodywork and one-off design Foose wheels.
This lovely '35 Chevy was built from the inspirational illustration below
What’s your finest achievement in an automotive sense?
I hope it’s the friendships I’ve built. It’s not about the cars – it’s about the people.
Looking back, you were responsible for many of the significant cars to come from Boyd Coddington’s shop. What was that experience like?
I have to thank Boyd, and all the crew there, for allowing me to have a great time, and the car owners, of course, for allowing us to build some cool stuff. I would never have left, but we went bankrupt in 1988, and I was forced to go my own way. That may have been a blessing in disguise, but I really did enjoy my time with Boyd.
Where do you think Boyd would be now if you hadn’t been involved back then?
I think he’d be doing exactly what he’s doing today. He is an enthusiast, and I think Boyd will always build neat cars. He works with lots of other designers. I know he has another car on the go that will be fantastic. Brock Meyer designed it, and it’s sort of Delahaye-inspired. It’s got a Marcel-built body, and it’s very, very cool. I wish Boyd all the best, and I wouldn’t trade my time with him for anything. I met some incredible people at that time in my career, and I’m lucky enough to be still working with many of them now.
Would you say Overhaulin’ has been a life-changing experience?
Overhaulin’ was a huge time thief. It took me away from Foose Design, and I wasn’t able to stay passionate on the things I really love doing. For me, Overhaulin’ was an opportunity to work with another great group of guys, and achieve something that nobody else has ever achieved – to restore a car in a week. We did that over and over again, while still running Foose Design, but the best part of it was making someone’s dream come true. I could go seven days, with maybe just two naps during that week, but you completely forgot how tired you were when you saw the owner’s face as he or she was reintroduced to a shiny, restored car. Because of that, I’d do it over and over again.
One of the many cars rebuilt in just 7 days for the Overhaulin' TV series
Is there likely to be another series?
We’re done with Overhaulin’ in its current format, but I am in the development stage of another show with The Discovery Channel, which may carry on with the same kind of theme as Overhaulin’, but cover some of the things we’re doing at Foose Design.
Out of the 75th anniversary cars on show, do you have a favourite?
All of them. There’s something about every one of them that grabs your attention. All cars are different. Some of my artwork – well, every piece, really – I can finish it and think it’s the best piece I’ve ever done, and I’ll hang it on the wall, but the next day, I’ll come in and can see something about it that bothers me. When I look at other people’s artwork, though, I just look at how cool it is, and that’s what I see in every car over there – each car is a different piece of artwork.
Who do you admire in this industry?
I think anyone who uses their hands to create what they love doing. I look at other rod builders, like Troy Trepanier, Roy Brizio and Steve Moal, and I call them artists because they create such neat cars. There are so many others out there, though, that it’s a shame just to name those three, because I can’t name all of them. They all build really cool cars, and I love coming to the shows to see them. It’s a feeding frenzy – one guy does something to a car and starts a new trend, then someone else thinks it might look cool on the car he’s building, and tries to figure out a new way to make it work on their project.
The other thing this continual innovation does is drive the aftermarket industry – the wheels get bigger and technology allows us to move forward. I just don’t see it ending, because you can always go forward. The P32 is a good example. A lot of people say that everything that can be done to a ’32 has been done, but I just looked at the idea of what might happen if a Second World War fighter pilot was parted from his aeroplane in the mid-‘40s, and decided to build a ‘32 roadster to resemble it. Everything on that car uses old parts, but I wanted to do something different and new, as a way of saying that it hasn’t all been done yet. I’m known for real contemporary cars, but I love the old stuff. I’ve got a ‘47 Ford Convertible that’s been nosed and decked. It’s got wide whitewalls, red-painted wheels with hubcaps and a flathead with two deuces, and I love that car. I never want to be pigeon-holed.
P32's most contentious feature must be that distinctive propeller fairing inspired nose
I wanted P32 to sit nice and low, like the Doane Spencer car. It has a unique front suspension, and the steering tie rod is actually underneath the transmission – it’s in the back, and it has two arms coming through the frame that push and pull the steering. The rear frame has a 6½-inch kick-up, and we cut the body and made the wheel wells much narrower to the beltline. That’s the sort of thing I was doing on Boydster and Boydster 2.
For all P32 has a primitive look about it, Hemisfear is as advanced as I think the hot rod industry has yet come. It has hot rod influence, it has muscle car influence in the side profile, the plan view is a ‘30s-teardrop shape, and it has supercar placement of the motor/transaxle, behind the driver. There’s no wall between it and the driver – I call it a flat bottom with a roof. It’s a blast to drive, and it’s not as noisy as you might think, since the exhaust comes down at the back. There’s a healthy slurping noise when you hit the throttle, but we’re actually looking at other intake systems that could get rid of that. It’s still the best sounding stereo I’ve ever heard, though.
Wonderful soundtrack from the new 392 cu. in. Hemi
Personally, I think you have an uncanny knack of bringing out the best features of the cars featured in Overhaulin’. Why do you think that is?
That’s very nice of you to say so. I don’t know how, but it might be something my dad instilled in me as a kid, and also working with Mark Stehrenberger throughout the late ‘80s and early ‘90s. Mark was a great teacher. If you are familiar with Road & Track magazine, he always had illustrations in there. I worked with Mark, and he really taught me a lot about working with cars, and colours and design. I treasure the time I spent with Mark. We used to get a lot of spy photos of new cars, and then had to illustrate them for the magazines. He’d give me these spy photos and say, “What does this car look like underneath the camouflage?” I would then start sketching, and he would help, and we’d end up with a final line drawing that we’d colour up and then send out to around 50 different magazines with a story. Let’s say we were illustrating a new Volvo. We’d look at the heritage, to see where the design might be going, and we’d make up wheel designs to suit the car. Often, the drawings were spot on when the car was actually revealed in the flesh. My job then was to thumb through all the magazines, find the illustration and bill them for use. It was a blast, and it really taught me to look at cars.
What ambitions do you have left in automotive design?
I’m 43 now, and you never know what opportunities may come along. I can sit here and say I hope to do this and I hope to do that, but I don t know what I hope to do. What I do hope is that I continue to get opportunities. I have a few cars in my mind that I’d like to build, including a Bugatti project that I hope to do. It will be a big car, and look as if somebody took a Bugatti and hot-rodded it.
Chip with P32 - check out the aircraft-inspired rivet detail around the door
Where do you see Foose Design 10 years from now?
Hopefully, doing what we are passionate about. I have licensing agreements with Ford Motor Company and a few other companies. What I would truly love Foose Design to be is a sponsored hot rod shop, where if a client comes in with an idea for a new car and we think it would be fun, we’ll build it for him without worrying about charging for every nickel and dime it cost to build. If we are sponsored by Ford, Pirelli, Dupont, or whoever, we don’t have to charge the customer all that money to build the car. My goal is to allow the guys and myself the opportunity to create the best things we possibly can. Race teams get to build the best possible cars with the help of sponsors, and that’s what I want to turn my hot rod shop into.
I want all of my clients, both past and present, and the wonderful friends I’ve made, to benefit from this as well. I like to share things, I like making people’s dreams come true – that’s what Overhaulin’ was all about, and that’s what I’d like Foose Design to carry on doing. I’m looking forward to taking Foose Design to the next level. We are expanding, we are looking at new buildings, and I really want to grow the company.
Story: Andy Kirk & Graham Jones
Photos: Andy Kirk
Special thanks go to Chip Foose, Carson Lev & Tony Thacker for helping to set up this interview