THE ROAD LESS TRAV­ELLED —

WHO IS CHRIS SLEE?

NZV8 - - CONTENTS - IN­TER­VIEW: CON­NAL GRACE PHO­TOS: ADAM CROY / SUP­PLIED (CHRIS SLEE)

The US has earned it­self a rep­u­ta­tion as a land of op­por­tu­nity, and, for those will­ing to work for it and ac­cept what­ever luck comes their way, it can cer­tainly work out. Sev­eral years ago, we ran a se­ries of ar­ti­cles cov­er­ing Ki­wis who’d man­aged to suc­ceed in the mo­tor­ing in­dus­try over­seas. Chris Slee was one of those Ki­wis. Chris em­i­grated from New Zealand in 2008, and now runs the suc­cess­ful Kiwi Clas­sics and Cus­toms in Franklin, Ten­nessee — a one-stop cus­tom shop able to han­dle al­most every as­pect of a ve­hi­cle build, which rose to promi­nence af­ter Chris de­buted his wild cus­tom Mus­tang at the SEMA Show in 2014. One of Chris’ many builds is a ’65 Ford Mus­tang con­vert­ible, which he pur­chased in Detroit as part of a road trip with his father, Ron, who vis­ited him in 2016. Af­ter an in­ten­sive re­build, Chris shipped the Mus­tang over to New Zealand to gift to his dad, and flew over when the Mus­tang had landed to com­plete any re­me­dial work re­quired for the VIN and cer­ti­fi­ca­tion pro­cesses. While he was here, we man­aged to catch up with Chris, to find out a lit­tle more about how he got to where he is now.

NZV8: Hi, Chris, it’s good to meet you. As we speak, we’re on Auck­land’s North Shore, which is where it all started for you, isn’t it? Chris Slee: Yes, that’s right. The first Amer­i­can V8 car I had was an old ’66 Stude­baker. My dad had a love for old Amer­i­can cars — when I was a kid, he had Pon­ti­acs and Chevys. They were just four-door sedans, but, in the day, they were a bit spe­cial. Back then — and I guess we’re talk­ing early ’70s — any­thing Amer­i­can was quite a big deal.

Did he get those spe­cially im­ported? No, he just man­aged to find them and buy them. We lived in Taranaki at that point, and he had a few mid-’60s Amer­i­can cars, and I kinda just fell in love with it then. So, I had my Stude­baker, and, when I was 18, I had my Buick Elec­tra — a lit­tle pic­ture of it was in­cluded in New Zealand Hot Rod mag­a­zine. I’ve been hooked since I was about eight or nine. I had pic­tures of old Amer­i­can cars on my wall as a kid, and made the kit­set mod­els, and then I was a mem­ber of the North Shore Rod and Cus­tom Club.

You had moved up to Auck­land? Yeah, we moved up to Auck­land when I was 14. I man­aged to buy an Amer­i­can car, and joined up with the North Shore Rod and Cus­tom Club. I was a part of that for quite a while. I also joined Hi­bis­cus Rod­ders when it first started. So, be­ing into cars, that was a nat­u­ral path for your ca­reer to take? To be hon­est, not re­ally — I drifted away from hot rod­ding for quite a while, and went into mo­tor­sport. I was a lit­tle dis­il­lu­sioned with the hot rod­ding back in that day; some of the stuff be­ing done was re­ally a lit­tle bit too back­yard. It’s kinda gone the other way now — ev­ery­thing’s so strict! I wanted to drive hard, and that’s what led me to mo­tor­sport, and that’s where I learned most of my craft — shap­ing metal and do­ing lots of re­pair work on rally cars. You’re for­ever stick­ing them into banks and stuff like that, so a lot of that came about, and it en­abled me to do some of the stuff that I wanted to do. I re­mem­ber one year, at one of the meet­ings we went to, we won Best Pre­sented Rally Car. I was quite proud of that. Ral­ly­ing is re­ally all about go­ing fast, so there was a kind of con­flict of in­ter­est — part of me wanted to have the coolest-look­ing rally car there, and part of me also wanted to have the most func­tional. I think that’s part of the rea­son I’m do­ing pretty well in the States — be­cause what I do is pre­sen­ta­tion, and it’s gotta work. I won’t build a car that’s got one inch of sus­pen­sion travel. I can, but it’s gotta have func­tion.

Is that com­mon in the States? From an out­sider’s per­spec­tive, it seems that form has tra­di­tion­ally taken prece­dence over func­tion in many Amer­i­can builds. Yeah, and the prob­lem they have is that no­body’s polic­ing it. If you let a kid loose in a candy store, he’s gonna do what he wants. I think it’s an is­sue in the States, and they need to ad­dress it — but I don’t know how; maybe not as tough as they are here, but def­i­nitely some sort of con­trol. There’s a lot of shops do­ing re­ally good work, but there’s more shops do­ing re­ally bad work. I think there’s more peo­ple in the hobby who aren’t nec­es­sar­ily … very knowl­edge­able. They love the cars, love the hobby, [and] the in­ter­ac­tions that you get to have, but they don’t nec­es­sar­ily know what they’re look­ing at.

You’re cur­rently work­ing through an LVV check­list for your dad’s Mus­tang to pass cer­ti­fi­ca­tion. We’ve gotta ask — how did you man­age to get ac­cess to Steve Sankey’s C.A.R.S. work­shop? I was here three years ago, and [Steve]’s wife works for a le­gal com­pany that my in-laws were deal­ing with. Their con­ver­sa­tion went along the lines of ‘My son-in-law does this’ and ‘My hus­band does this’; so, any­way, I went and spent half a day with him, and we’ve sup­plied him with a few parts — stuff you can’t buy in a shop­ping cart on the in­ter­net, like sec­ond-hand stuff. He seemed like a real de­cent guy when I met him briefly, so I thought, I’ll help him out. Now, he’s help­ing me out. Steve opened his doors — just let me come and go, and use his tools. One of his guys is help­ing me as well, and he’s the quin­tes­sen­tial hot rod­der in my view — he’s help­ing an­other guy out.

That’s pretty neat. You and your fam­ily are ob­vi­ously per­ma­nently based in the US now, which must have been a mas­sive change. How did that all come about, and why? I’d been work­ing in the mo­tor­sport in­dus­try, but for me it was a bit like Ground­hog Day — just more of the same. Every year, I’d put my name in for that Green Card lot­tery, and [even­tu­ally] it came up. I prob­a­bly did it about four or five times, then it came up, and the hard­est part was prob­a­bly the process. It took about 18 months to fi­nally get it, and then, when they say yes, you’ve got six months to get your­self there — trou­ble is, you don’t know whether you’re go­ing to get it or not, so you can’t re­ally plan for it.

So, it was a con­tin­gency that may or may not have even­tu­ated? Yeah, and then you’ve got to sell the house, sell the cars, sell ev­ery­thing …

That sounds in­cred­i­bly dif­fi­cult. It wasn’t too bad. For me, set­tling was a piece of cake. For the wife, not so easy. The kids, they had a mix — some of the other kids at school were fas­ci­nated by the ac­cent; oth­ers didn’t like it. It was some­thing weird, odd, for­eign. So they got a lit­tle bit of that, but for me, as soon as I got in­volved with the hot rod­ding over there — hon­estly, it sounds a bit melo­dra­matic, but it’s like a brother­hood. I don’t know a bet­ter word for it.

And that was in Texas, was it? Yeah, it was — in Austin.

So, was it straight into cars when you got there, or did you have a crack at the ‘nor­mal’ life? When we first got to Amer­ica, we spent the first nine months trav­el­ling around, then set­tled in Austin. I went to work for a guy do­ing HVAC — heat­ing, ven­ti­lat­ing, and air con­di­tion­ing — mak­ing all the big duct­ing and stuff like that. So it was met­al­work, just of a dif­fer­ent sort. I didn’t go straight for the hot rod­ding. Af­ter watch­ing the Chip Foose shows and hot rod­ding shows, I hon­estly thought, I can’t re­ally fly with those guys — this is the big stage. I’ll just go to hot rod shows, and buy an old car and just mess about with it. I was a bit gun-shy.

You just wanted to be a back­yard hot rod­der? I wanted to be those guys, but I didn’t think I could do it. I thought they were all up on this level and, ac­tu­ally, they’re not. Some are up on that level — way higher than me — but there’s a whole bunch who are just am­a­teurs. I don’t want to sound ar­ro­gant. Then the guy I worked for, do­ing the HVAC, who had an old Lin­coln Capri, brought it in when we were quiet at work, and said “I want this, this, and this done”.

He knew what you could do with cars? He didn’t re­al­ize that I could do it to that level, but he knew I was into those cars. He said, “Look, we’re a bit quiet; why don’t you work on the Lin­coln for a while?” So I started do­ing it, and ended up restor­ing the thing com­pletely, paint­ing it in a stor­age shed, with one door and one light bulb, and peo­ple said, “Wow, who painted that car?” and that kinda ran its course, once I’d fin­ished the Lin­coln.

EVERY YEAR, I’D PUT MY NAME IN FOR THE GREEN CARD LOT­TERY, AND IT CAME UP

So, that one build opened enough doors for you to get into that sort of work? It did. I went to a Mus­tang shop in Austin, and said, “Do you need some­one to come and work?” They wanted to know what I’d done, so I showed them pic­tures of this Capri, and it was ba­si­cally, ‘When do you wanna start?’ I ended up part-time there, and they were push­ing me to work more.

Was this a time when you were try­ing to keep some sort of work–life bal­ance, with the fam­ily be­ing in a new coun­try? Yeah — what had hap­pened was this: at around the same time as I ap­proached them for work, I dropped my daugh­ter at [the house of] a friend she’d met at school; in the shed was a ’67 Mus­tang fast­back look­ing sad and tired. So, be­ing a hot rod­der, I met the mother and asked about the Mus­tang in the shed. She said it was the hus­band’s, and that he was look­ing for some­one to re­store it. It’s funny how things work out, with the Mus­tang shop and find­ing this Mus­tang that the guy needed re­stored kinda hap­pen­ing at the same time. I was sort of bounc­ing be­tween the two, work­ing at my garage at home and work­ing part-time at the shop.

You’d sud­denly ended up be­ing a go-to guy for that sort of work? Yeah, I’d gone from think­ing I couldn’t re­ally hang with them, to re­al­iz­ing that I was more than ca­pa­ble, and hav­ing more work than I ever did. The Mus­tang shop was push­ing more and more for me to work for them, to the point at which cus­tomers were com­ing in and ask­ing, ‘Why isn’t he work­ing on my car?’ It just kinda went from there. Then we ended up mov­ing to Ten­nessee — my wife got of­fered a re­ally good job up there in the med­i­cal field, so it was like: fol­low the money. That was in 2012, and it’s funny how life pans out some­times. We had our RV, and we needed some­where to put it. My wife found a stor­age yard that was near the house, and the guy who owned the stor­age yard was into hot rods! We got talk­ing, and he had some space, so he asked me to come in and show him what I could do. So I did, and we struck up a deal, and I rented half of one shop. It all started from there. Your ‘Kiwi Clas­sics and Cus­toms’ name is pos­si­bly most well known for the ‘KSV9000’ Mus­tang, un­veiled at SEMA. How long did it take you to trans­form it into what it is? That was done for the 2014 SEMA Show, and it took about a year. That was a thrash. The KSV — or the car that would end up be­ing the KSV — was just an $800 shell off Craigslist, which is kinda like Trade Me, and I started work­ing on it, and peo­ple started notic­ing, and the rest is his­tory.

What was the brief for that? It was just a six-cylin­der car, and I was go­ing to keep work­ing on the body­work. The ini­tial plans were that it was prob­a­bly go­ing to re­main a six­cylin­der — I just needed it to look good.

You didn’t stick to that brief at all! No! It went to the stage where I de­cided to put a big block in it, be­cause you can buy a 460 for next to noth­ing. So that was that plan, and then I got in­volved with a TV show called

Search and Re­store. I’d put my name down for that, got a call, went in there, and met a bunch of guys who were in the in­dus­try — like, deep in the in­dus­try. I made some con­nec­tions, and they were kinda in­ter­ested in what I was do­ing. Af­ter the week that I spent there, they asked me to come back again; it was all for free — like free labour; I didn’t get paid, but that was OK. Marie was mak­ing enough money that I didn’t need to make money, which was nice. So I spent two weeks there, and it was one of the best things [that] I ever did.

Be­ing able to show these guys what you’re ca­pa­ble of do­ing? Some of the guys with some mana in the in­dus­try were re­al­iz­ing, ‘This guy’s ac­tu­ally OK’. In Amer­ica, they will tell you how good they are. Ki­wis just get it done. We had a meet­ing at the start, be­cause they split the build into four weeks, with a new crew each week. We came in, and there was a list of jobs to do that week — who wants to do this, who wants to do that? So I’m just sit­ting there, quiet, and they were hav­ing a big prob­lem with the dash­board. ‘VooDoo’ Larry [Grobe] — he’s one of the big dudes over there — he’d mod­i­fied the dash for some dif­fer­ent gauges and this and that, and it just wasn’t fit­ting. The host of the show asked who wanted to do that, and ev­ery­one took a step back, so I’m like: all right, find me the hard­est job, and I’ll do it. I was pretty ner­vous — VooDoo Larry’s a big­gish name over there, and I’m cut­ting up work that he’s al­ready done! So I got that done. Then they needed all the win­dows put in. If you ever try to put win­dows in a car that you didn’t pull apart, it’s chal­leng­ing! That was the same thing — ev­ery­body kinda wasn’t keen to touch it. But I said, “Hey, I’ll do it.”

Get­ting known as the guy who will just muck in and get it done cer­tainly can’t have hurt. Some of the guys there, it caught their at­ten­tion. Be­cause there’s 10 or 11 guys there, and there’s al­ways one that’s the weak link and there’s the guys that shine. It wasn’t just me — there were some av­er­age guys, and some guys who knew what they were do­ing, and I was just try­ing to be one of the ones who knew what they were do­ing. It went re­ally well! I made some good friends off that TV show — peo­ple I’m close friends with now. All of this was go­ing on as you were start­ing Kiwi Clas­sics and Cus­toms, and the build of the KSV? Yeah, I had to shut the doors for two weeks. It was very, very en­joy­able, though. Strate­gi­cally, it was one of the best cou­ple of weeks I’ve ever had. One of the guys I met on the show was in­stru­men­tal in get­ting the car into SEMA. We kinda hit it off, and he had a con­nec­tion with Trick Flow, which sup­plied the top end of the mo­tor — like about $7–8K’ worth of equip­ment. The thing is, be­cause Trick Flow is in Hot Rod Al­ley in SEMA, that’s the place to be in. Once I had it in writ­ing and con­firmed that I’d be in that booth, all the other spon­sor­ships came. Spon­sor­ship’s a big thing in the States. They get bom­barded with emails every day — like ‘I’ve got a Honda Civic and I want Wil­wood brakes for it’; delete! How­ever, if you ap­proach them with a car that’s go­ing to SEMA, they’ll email back for de­tails, and, once they’ve con­firmed it, it gets a lot eas­ier on the parts front — es­pe­cially when you’re talk­ing $6–7K’ worth of brakes! We were gonna just have a C6 au­to­matic in it, and then Amer­i­can Pow­er­train ap­proached me, and, ba­si­cally, it be­came about 60 per cent off the trans­mis­sion, so it be­came too cheap not to go for a T56!

You can’t re­ally say no! That’s right, and it was the same with the in­te­rior. That’s how I started the re­la­tion­ship with TMI Prod­ucts. They sup­plied me with all the door pan­els and the head­lin­ing and all that stuff. An­other com­pany, Heat­shield Prod­ucts, sent me enough that I was still putting their stuff in two cars later — they just sent me this big-arse box of it!

So, through that, you ac­tu­ally ended up build­ing re­la­tion­ships with brands, some of which will have per­sisted through your ca­reer there? Oh yeah; Wil­wood was a good ex­am­ple. Ob­vi­ously, I sought them out at the show, and met the guy I’d been email­ing with. He came over and had a look at the car, and was im­pressed. Af­ter SEMA had come and gone, I needed some Wil­wood brakes, so I rang him and they ba­si­cally said, ‘We’ve seen your work; you can just go straight in at whole­sale di­rect’. Nor­mally, you’ve got to have a buy-in and show who you are and what you are. Wil­wood have gone on to use my car in their ad­ver­tis­ing. It’s been in about six dif­fer­ent mag­a­zines!

As a car builder, hav­ing ac­cess to a bunch of parts that you need has got to make your life a lot eas­ier? Oh yeah. I mean, it’s still rel­a­tively hard to make a liv­ing out of it — you’ve got to work at it, and every dol­lar helps. But it was nice that, as soon as they saw my car, there was no prob­lem. You’ve ob­vi­ously sorted the re­la­tion­ships with busi­nesses and spon­sor­ships through that SEMA build. How did it go with the cus­tomer side of things? I haven’t got any builds out of SEMA, but I have got busi­ness out of it. Ob­vi­ously, they’re [SEMA and Kiwi Clas­sics and Cus­toms] al­most as far apart as you can get, ge­o­graph­i­cally, but it just gives you that cred­i­bil­ity. There’s a lot of wannabe shops out there, and a lot of the hot rod­ding guys won’t

YOU’VE GOT TO WORK AT IT, AND EVERY DOL­LAR HELPS

take their car just any­where — they wanna know who you are, what you’ve done. It’s their baby, so they’re care­ful. So, hav­ing been to SEMA, hav­ing been in mag­a­zines, hav­ing been seen on TV a lit­tle bit, you get that cred­i­bil­ity and sud­denly they re­lax, and, rightly or wrongly, they go, ‘He knows what he’s do­ing’, so they’ll take me their car. Hav­ing the KSV parked out­side work doesn’t hurt — it’s a good-look­ing car. So, you’ve still got it. Is that one of those cars you’ll never sell, be­cause of its sig­nif­i­cance to you? Prob­a­bly not. I did get a very hand­some of­fer out of Dubai — the guy had seen it and wanted it, and I nearly sold it. Then I thought, I’m gonna end up with a bunch of ze­ros in my bank ac­count, but I’m busy enough that I’m not go­ing to have the time to do it again. If I sell it, I’m go­ing to be so busy build­ing other peo­ple’s cars that I’m never gonna be able to build it again. If I was 20, or 30 even, I might have done it, but it’s a lot of work to build a car like that, and I just wouldn’t be able to fit it in again. Even build­ing this car for my dad — it’s very chal­leng­ing try­ing to get that done be­tween cus­tomers’ cars.

You’ll still have busi­ness com­mit­ments back home, as we speak. Yeah, but we got it done. It’s a bit late — I mean, we were try­ing to get it done for the Kumeu show, but we ran into a few is­sues. We bought an en­gine that was sup­posed to be good, but wasn’t, and had to get that re­built. It all puts time out.

What are you run­ning in your dad’s Mus­tang? Those Ford Per­for­mance 347s seem to be the hot ticket at the mo­ment. Just a 302. I ac­tu­ally pre­fer the 331 — I be­lieve it goes a bit bet­ter, even though it’s smaller. It’s a hap­pier en­gine. Peo­ple who own the 347 may not agree, and that’s OK!

They’re a de­cent, af­ford­able, and easy so­lu­tion — and there’s the al­lure of telling peo­ple you’ve got a stro­ker mo­tor! Yeah, the 331’s a stro­ker, too. One of the Mus­tangs I com­pleted, we put a 331 in it, and the guy wanted ‘331 Stro­ker’ badges on it, and I’m like, “Stro­ker has a slightly dif­fer­ent mean­ing in New Zealand, but don’t worry about it!” [laughs]. But, yeah, that’s lost on the Amer­i­cans. That’s why I ran my car as the ‘KSV’ — I stole it off HSV. If I’d done it here in New Zealand, peo­ple would have rolled their eyes; you can get away with it over there.

Is be­ing a Kiwi a bit of a nov­elty over there? Oh, def­i­nitely, yeah. For some of them, it makes it a lit­tle spe­cial — ‘I’ve got this guy from over­seas build­ing my car’. If that floats your boat, great!

How many cars have you done since the KSV? I’d have to count. It’s been a few. For a long time it was just me, and then I em­ployed an­other guy, who’s an ex­cep­tional painter, and then I’ve added an­other guy, who’s into sheet metal, and I kinda bounce be­tween the two of them, and I can do a lit­tle bit of up­hol­stery and stuff like that. So it’s close to a one-stop shop. With your mo­tor­sport back­ground, all the un­der­car­riage stuff is a walk in the park for you? Yeah, it re­ally is. Even though I don’t have to be, I’m pretty safety con­scious. It’s not just peo­ple say­ing, ‘You’re gonna get sued’ — I just don’t wanna put some­thing out there that’s gonna break, or gonna hurt some­body. I don’t need to be cut­ting cor­ners like that, and I just won’t. I’ve been asked, and I’ve said no — “Can’t you just do this?” “Well, no, be­cause that’s not the right way to do it.”

Are peo­ple over there a lot more will­ing to hal­farse things that maybe shouldn’t be? They are, be­cause there’s no one to stop them. Only a hand­ful of states even have safety in­spec­tions. Your cus­tomers must be pretty pleased when they get in and re­al­ize the car ac­tu­ally does drive nice, be­cause you’re able to set a car up prop­erly, rather than just bolt a bunch of brand-name stuff to­gether. Yeah, and it’s funny how things work — one of the guys I met on the Search and Re­store show, who hosted one of the other TV shows within the pro­duc­tion com­pany, rang me the other morn­ing. He’s build­ing an­other car, and he was ba­si­cally ask­ing me, ‘How do you think I should do this? Do you think this is the right way to do it?’ That was a bit of a turn­around — he was the guy who was on TV do­ing how-to shows, and he’s ring­ing me ask­ing how he should do some­thing.

A lot can hap­pen in five years, huh? What’s next? It’s been an ex­cit­ing five years; it re­ally has. Our next step would be to get big­ger premises — to buy big­ger premises, rather than rent­ing.

So, you’re still in the premises that the busi­ness started in? Yeah. I’ve taken more and more room as it be­came avail­able, but, yeah, still in the same premises. It’s a good lo­ca­tion. It’s in a wealthy county — one of the 10 wealth­i­est coun­ties in the coun­try — so there’s a bit of coin to spend. We just booked in a ’50s Cadil­lac for a full restora­tion, and that’s for a fam­ily that’s very wealthy; ob­scenely wealthy.

The type of cus­tomer who will pay the in­voices like clock­work, and let you get on with the job? Yeah; I kinda need to change the way I look at things a lit­tle bit — step it up a bit. Be­fore I’d be say­ing, ‘We can do this, but it’s a bit ex­pen­sive’. Now, I can re­ally get into it and stop wor­ry­ing about it be­ing too ex­pen­sive.

It’s gotta be a hard thing, re­train­ing the way you think about the fi­nan­cial side of the build? It’s a tran­si­tion — def­i­nitely a tran­si­tion. I’ve also gotta learn to say no more, be­cause peo­ple are com­ing in and I still strug­gle with say­ing, ‘We just can’t do that — we don’t have time’. That’s hard, to send peo­ple away.

What are you work­ing on at the mo­ment? At the mo­ment, we’ve got a Chevy truck go­ing to SEMA. It’s for the na­tional sales man­ager for TMI Prod­ucts, and that’s a con­nec­tion that dates right back to my first SEMA build. It’s just net­work­ing — so much of it is just who you know. You’ve got to have the ‘what you know’ to back it up, though. That whole SEMA thing: the guy who got me into that prob­a­bly still doesn’t re­al­ize how much he did for me. I didn’t at the time, either. I’ve been lucky — no ques­tion about it — and I’m grate­ful for that. You know, when you’re hav­ing a shit day and the car’s just not play­ing the game, some­times you gotta re­mind your­self of that.

Too right! Thank you for giv­ing us the time for this in­ter­view, Chris.

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