THE ROAD LESS TRAVELLED —
WHO IS 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.