World class custom car designer Rod Nielson was introduced to cars at a young age, following his Dad around building North American muscle cars in the backyard. Fast forward 40 years and Rod from Hot Rod’s Restos is building some of North America’s most unique custom cars. But it was his older brother who inspired his early love of imports. For years Rod dreamed of restoring a 1972 Mazda R100 and the dream has paid off with the car winning various awards in Canada and “The Sport Compact Winner” at the prestigious SEMA (Specialty Equipment Market Association) Battle of the Builders Competition in Las Vegas. With thousands of vehicles on display and of 380 to qualify, Rod’s ’72 and was in the top four finalists.
Rod has been a long-time client with TJ Bumby of Reliance Insurance. We caught up with Rod to ask him a few questions about this win at SEMA and his crazy process for custom building cars. You don’t need to be a car aficionado to know that the ’72 is a sick-whip car; built by a self-taught car enthusiast. Check out the photos of this rocket on Rod’s Instagram.
You have had a lot of press for 1972 Mazda R100 you have indicated you built this car for your own enjoyment and racing. Have you raced it yet, and is that the next chapter in your car career?
This car was designed and built to be on the track. It is not just a show car. In 2017, I raced in Fontana California. I will put it on the race circuit, but it is a car for time-attack racing, where you race by yourself but against others for the best time. There are a few key races I will want to attend – Area 27 in Oliver, BC & Knox Mountain in West Kelowna. That is a hill climb race. But I will still be building cars. I am in the process of moving shops, and I am looking for a location and set up that is more conducive to what we need to do custom builds.
Looking at your work over the last few years, clearly, you have a unique talent, and your creations are works of art; how where you trained for this unique career?
I started out helping my dad, but the real first restoration I did was a Massey Harris tractor for my Grandfather, and that was such a great project. Over the years I have had many jobs – worked in construction, sold car parts, welding – and all of these experiences accumulated into skills that were helpful in honing my talent. It really started when I was in high school. I did the best I could to soup up any car with what I had at the time. People liked my work and asked me to work on their cars, and things just took off from there.
Tell us how you design a car – what goes into the process?
I have a natural ability; I have a vision and can see the end result before I start. It is a unique skill and it allows me to go through the process without having to hardly ever throw out a part during the build. I hand sketch my vision and I work with an absolute genius – Andrew Kerr of Eye Mechanic Studios – he is an artist and he draws amazing cars. I find images and a list of components that I want to use, explain my vision to Andrew and he will artistically draw the car I will create. He is so good.
How long does it take to custom build a car?
Typically, it takes me about 7 months to a year, which is actually pretty fast. I take on 2-3 builds at a time. It depends on the client’s specs and cash flow. Sometimes the cars have to be built in stages as they can be financed. Another factor is parts availability. These days parts are not always manufactured to spec, so we are often rebuilding or building parts from scratch. But to put it in perspective the Camaro in the Battle of the Builders had 8 years of man-hours put into it. And the Mazda R100 took 5,000-man-hours.
Do you keep any cars you restore?
Yes, I have a couple that I have not been able to part with. I designed and built a Mustang, which I call Rosie that I have not been able to part with, even though I have had offers of up to buy her. I am just too connected to it. And an International cab-over truck – which is a hot-wheels type of vehicle, I had an offer of $200,000 for the cab-over.
What is one of the more unique cars you built for someone else.
I am working on a 1965 Impala with a turbocharged Maserati engine. (find photos of this one).
Who is the ideal client for Hot Rod’s Restos?
I see my craft as more of an art, so I like to work with clients who allow me that creative freedom, because in the end although they own the car, it is my design. The joy for me is in the design so I only work with people who are open to my creative vision.
“I work with people who can collaborate with me on the vision as the builder of the car. I want to build cars attached to my creativity. A customer who wants me to build my version of their favorite car. If I can’t build to my style and vision then I don’t work with them.”
What is the most challenging aspect of the business?
Is having the client understand the value of the vision. Building a custom car is an expensive endeavour. And the street value is not always equal to the hard costs.
It is like the old saying, champagne tastes with a beer budget. So if someone has a half-million-dollar dream with a $100,000 budget, that doesn’t work out. Sometimes though, I put more work into it than the agreed-upon budget, and although the end product is fantastic, it sometimes doesn’t work out financially in my favor.
How do you insure a custom car?
Almost all of our builds are street legal. The first step is to get a certified appraisal on the value of the car. The challenge is in the valuation. Because many of the cars I build are unique and that style of care doesn’t exist; there isn’t anything in the marketplace to compare them to. Haggarty Insurance has a fleet policy for collectors’ cars. But when you race even a street-legal car, you need to insure the car for the activity. TJ is a specialist for fleet insurance and explains, “Rod is a cool client to work with, as his craft and business is interesting and fun. Because of the customization, the account can be challenging, here are not many vehicles in North America to compare them to for insurance purposes. Also, we need to maintain the ability for the builds to be street legal”.
Has Reliance Insurance been a part of your growth? Would you recommend Reliance to other entrepreneurs and business owners? And if yes, why?
Yes, I would recommend Reliance Insurance. TJ has handled all my insurance needs, business insurance and my cars, and my home insurance. He pays attention to make sure I am covered. It is great to have a one-stop shop. I have been lucky; I have not had any claims.