Andy Heintzelman 2014-09-26 16:57:54
Tom VanDerGeld remembers when A&W Root Beer brought its Cruise Night to his hometown of Cambridge, Ontario, in the early 1980s. It was the soft drink maker’s first event in Canada, and the turnout was impressive—some 1000 cars. For VanDerGeld, it further fueled a budding interest in fast cars. “I got into cars when I was about 17 years old while I was in high school,” he said. “I ended up hanging out at the local cruise night and I realized, man, I really like those street rods.” VanDerGeld had already built a 1976 Trans-Am, and the cruise night inspired a 1934 Ford Pro Street build. But that was just the beginning. In 1999, VanDerGeld started Lowdown Hot Rods, and since then he’s gone on to build a number of turnkey beauties for clients across the US and Canada, and even in Russia. Included, at the time in 2009, was the world’s fastest street car: championship drag racer Rod Saboury’s twin-turbo, 1963 split-window Corvette, which completed a pass in 6.75 seconds at 209 mph and earned acclaim from coast to coast for its power and spectacular design. Lowdown, which marks 15 years in business in 2014, includes VanDerGeld and his wife, Linda, and five additional full-time employees. They operate from a 6000-square-foot shop in Cambridge where they handle fabrication, suspension, chassis, installations, renovations and turnkey builds of drag cars, as well as all types of hot rods and muscle cars. A Deal With a Friend VanDerGeld’s parents weren’t into street cars or racing, but learning some skills from his father, who was a machinist, has paid dividends over the years. Also, dad was there for advice when Tom made his first equipment purchases—a mill and a lathe—after starting Lowdown. VanDerGeld, 49, was apprenticing as a mechanic when the car bug bit him. He landed a job at a local shop that did street rod work. “That got me going,” he said. “I worked there for about a year.” When that bus ines s c losed, VanDerGeld moved to the welding trade for about two years, then got a job with Paul Horton, who had started his Breslau, Ontario, street rod business in 1973. VanDerGeld would eventually run the back shop, where street rod chassis were designed—the suspensions, front ends, rear suspensions. “We built it up,” he said about the fabrication business. “But we were manufacturing a ton of parts.” The demand for parts drove Horton to focus on that end of the market rather than fabrication, and that opened a door for VanDerGeld. “He said, ‘If you want to go do car work, you’re more than welcome,’” he recalled. VanDerGeld appreciated the friendly business split. “It was awesome,” he said. “Paul and I are still very good friends.” 90 Percent Turnkey In addition to skills, knowledge and friendship, another thing VanDerGeld took from Horton was Marc McCrae, who joined Lowdown about a year after its founding and has been there ever since. Linda had worked at Horton’s, too—the experience helped her and Tom in getting Lowdown off the ground. Other employees at Lowdown are John Veldman, Tyler Kawalez, Riley Holland and Rob Allison. VanDerGeld had substantial carbuilding experience to start his own business, but it was nerve-racking, and still can be. “It can be stressful, there is no doubt,” he said. “We generally have anywhere from at least five to 10 turnkey cars on the go; we’re generally hopping pretty good. But it didn’t start out that busy, of course. “Ninety percent of what people come to us for is a turnkey car,” he said about the current status at Lowdown. “They might bring us, let’s say, a ’55 Chev, we’ll tear it down, redo all the chassis, suspension— work our way back up through the car.” Lowdown Hot Rods gets many of its parts from Paul Horton’s business, which is just 15 minutes away. Lowdown has kept its machinery traditional, even if it means having to outsource some work. In fact, the VanDerGelds outsource CNC work to a couple of local companies, including one that offers laser cutting, and that hasn’t created any wait time difficulties, Tom said. “There’s no doubt, if you can do everything in-house, I think you’re far better off,” he said. “The problem I have is that some things we’re just not doing enough to warrant spending the money on that type of equipment.” The equipment he does buy, VanDerGeld purchases outright. “We kind of always protect ourselves for that slow time, so if everything’s paid for, you’re not paying on all these things,” he said. In addition to the mill and lathe, the Lowdown shop has sheet-metal brakes, bead rollers, an English wheel, shears and welders. VanDerGeld noted he is licensed in various areas of welding from earlier in his career, which included completing a course offered by Jerry Bickel Race Cars. Bickel is also a key drag race parts supplier for Lowdown, as is Tim McAmis Performance Parts, both of whom earned VanDerGeld’s praise. Lowdown doesn’t do any interior trim work or painting, farming out those duties as well, he said. Attention to Detail Lowdown has also been involved in the Pro Mod market over the years, having built five of those popular, highhorsepower drag racing machines. “It’s a costly market. You want to run those cars, you’ve got to have a big budget to spend,” VanDerGeld said. Among his Pro Mod customers is Al Hinds, of Waterloo, Ontario, who VanDerGeld had met back at that A&W Cruise Night. Soon thereafter, they enjoyed “weekend fun,” taking their high-dollar show cars across the country before Hinds got into Pro Mod racing in the early 1990s. VanDerGeld at the time was working for Horton, but also doing some work at his home, and he helped Hinds salvage a stalled project to build a 1995 Camaro. “When my Pro Mod Camaro build didn’t go so well,” explained Hinds, “I pulled it out of that shop and said to Tom, ‘Buddy, I need a hand here. Can you help me fix it and finish it, and are you interested in coming drag racing with me?’” He knew his old friend could help. “His attention to detail is phenomenal,” Hinds said. “He really understands a chassis. He understands function and what is a street machine and what is a race car. “Because he’s been in the car show circuit as well, he understands what the customer is trying to achieve,” he continued. “Whether it’s a mild creation or a wild creation, he can do it.” Hinds noted VanDerGeld’s welding skills. “To be honest with you, I haven’t seen anybody who can weld like he can,” he said. Hinds would get out of racing for a time, but started back up around 2006 and went to VanDerGeld to build an all- Canadian-made 2007 Corvette that would clock around 6 seconds at 240 mph. “There really isn’t anything that he can’t do,” Hinds said, noting how he and VanDerGeld spent a weekend fabricating a mold for a carbon-fiber hood scoop for the Corvette. “That’s totally got nothing to do with chassis building. Again, there’s really nothing he can’t do.” Hinds spoke about how VanDerGeld did apply some car show techniques to his race car: the brake lines, the fire bottle lines and all the wiring was hidden in the tubes of the chassis. Even the puke tank was behind the rear wheels to prevent any spills from going under the car. Lowdown is focused on “things that really make a difference,” Hinds said. In addition to the cars of Saboury and Hinds, another important project for Lowdown over the years included a 1937 Chevy Nitro Coupe built and maintained by Lowdown, and owned and raced by Gary Irving in Super Chevy from 2001 to 2004. VanDerGeld was a key crew member on the ’37, which gave him a lot of knowledge and experience. “That was really big for us; we even had a die-cast of the ’37 Chev Nitro Coupe,” VanDerGeld said. “That was actually our first complete Pro Mod car that we ever built. It was because we were running that car that we got Rod Saboury’s car.” Building & Billing Asked to detail one key business decision or strategy that’s made a difference for Lowdown, VanDerGeld is quick to answer. “Buy my own building.” Actually, they built the place. Lowdown had started in a small shop in an old house behind Tom and Linda’s home. As the business grew, they rented a building for a few years, then realized “that wasn’t the greatest thing to be doing, paying out all that kind of money,” VanDerGeld said. It didn’t take long, and they decided: “We’ve got to build or buy.” It took a year or two to find a property, but a 6000-square-foot building was up by 2004. They paid attention to things like insulation, “so it’s more comfortable for the employees and us,” VanDerGeld said. Having their own building is a matter of control, and, of course, money. What had gone out the door as rent now stays with the VanDerGelds, the building representing a “retirement package,” reported Tom. In a business where cash flow is critical, the VanDerGelds have addressed that by billing their customers weekly. “We give them an invoice for the parts and labor that we did that week, and we expect the bill to be paid up by the following week,” Tom said. VanDerGeld said cash flow is the most difficult thing for a small business to maintain. “That scares me the most, because when you’ve got six or seven cars that you worked on heavily that week, you’ve got all those hours of labor plus all those parts that came in,” he said. “That’s a serious amount of money,” and the weekly billing helps replenish it. There is occasional push-back on that weekly billing, but the ground rules are laid out from the start. Besides, the system usually works better for the customer, too, VanDerGeld said. “I’ve seen projects get out of control because the customer says, ‘I want this, I want that, I want this.’ And they forget how much more that’s costing them,” he said. “All of a sudden, that $100,000 car is $150,000 or $180,000. ‘Hey, what happened?’ If you bill every week, they seem to stay on top of it.” Hinds liked the idea of being billed weekly by Lowdown. He’s also familiar with the more traditional 30 percent down, 30 percent half way, remainder at delivery. But he’s been bitten by those scenarios, and paid a lot of money with little to show for it. With Lowdown, “If Tom didn’t work on my car, I didn’t get an invoice (for that week),” he said. Also, to keep customers engaged, Linda posts photos weekly on the website that show the progress on Lowdown builds. No customer names are included, but they know which car is theirs. “We have customers worldwide we’re building cars for. They can’t get here, so we keep them up to date as much as we can,” Tom said. “This keeps them on top of their cars, and they love watching the build on the Internet.” Promotion & PRI VanDerGeld estimates 95 percent of Lowdown’s business comes through its website. Lowdown also sponsors local car shows, and sponsored a Quick 16 race at Toronto Motorsports Park this year. VanDerGeld also remains a “big believer” in the Junior Dragster program and “getting kids started early and working them up.” Naturally, the VanDerGelds make it a point to get to the PRI Trade Show each year. “We go mostly to see what the new products are, talk to the guys who we’re buying our products off of,” Tom said. It’s also an opportunity to catch up with old friends and meet new ones. “We’ve built a couple race cars for guys because of social networking down there,” he said. “You meet this guy and he introduces you to this guy. ‘Could you help me out with that?’ ‘Sure could.’” Staying on Track In addition to its drag car builds and other unique racing projects, which have included an alcohol funny bike and a mud racer, Lowdown remains connected to racing through a 250-inch full-size dragster, which runs as a house car. Oldest son Brody, 21, drives it in NHRA Top Dragster, a category that features the fastest cars in bracket racing. The blown 540-horsepower motor launches the car down the quarter-mile in the mid- 6-second range at more than 200 mph. The VanDerGelds race within about five hours of Cambridge, including at Toronto Motorsports Park, where Brody won two track championships in Junior Dragsters; and younger son, Austin, 18, also got a taste of the racing bug at the time. They also race at Grand Bend Motorplex in Grand Bend, Ontario, and at US 131 Motorsports Park in Martin, Michigan. “I think being out there with the dragster has definitely found me quite a bit of work,” VanDerGeld said. “If somebody crashes, I’m right there. I don’t bug people, but they’ll ask me, ‘Can you fix that?’ I find that works quite well.” But the origin of Lowdown still goes back to those cruise nights more than 30 years ago, when a love of fast cars would begin to transform into a successful career for Tom VanDerGeld. It was fun then, he said, and “we’re pretty happy still doing it.”
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