Centre home to nationally-known street rod specialist
By Scott Wright
CENTRE — When Neil Lea finally took the plunge and opened his own business, he already had years of experience in the fine art of street rod restoration.
“The first car I ever restored was a 1953 GMC pickup that my dad and I rebuilt when I was 15 years old,” Lea says. “Ever since I was a little kid, all I ever thought about was cars.”
The 1994 Cherokee County High School graduate went off to college for a few years before returning home to take a job in Fort Payne. But he always had a car in some state of restoration in his backyard garage, he says. And he always thought about beginning his own business and making a living out of the hobby he loved.
“I was talking with a co-worker one day, showing him pictures of a car I was working on and he told me I ought to give it a shot,” Lea remembers. “It took me about six months to make the switch to full-time restoration.”
Lea said he already had some of the heavy-duty equipment he needed, so he leased a 4,000-square-foot building in downtown Centre in 1999, hired some help, and got to work on the backlog of orders he had already accumulated.
“We had projects waiting to begin the day we opened the shop,” Lea says. “They were jobs that required our full attention.”
Four years and several thousand man-hours later, Lea's shop, Rods and Restos, was on the automotive map thanks to a vintage car he restored for a customer in Gadsden.
In 2004, during a week-long event televised by the Speed Channel, the 1955 Chevrolet sold for a then-record $210,000 at the Barrett-Jackson auto auction in Scottsdale, Ariz.
Before he knew it, Lea found himself on the cover of several top-level magazines that work the street rod restoration beat. Not long afterwards, calls from customers looking to hire Lea to handle their projects began pouring in.
“We took the '55 Chevy around to trade shows for about a year,” Lea says. “I'd carry the car to the show and the owner would meet me there. I got some publicity for my work and he got to show off his new street rod.”
It's an arrangement Lea has used to his advantage several times over the last few years.
“All our orders come from the publicity we've received from displaying our work at national car shows,” Lea says. “We don't even have a web site, yet. But we've got a waiting list about two years long.”
The notoriety has allowed Lea to expand his operation. Last December, he moved Rods and Restos into his very own 7,200-square-foot shop in the Centre Industrial Park. The shop is scattered with welding machines, work tables, hanging air hoses, tool boxes and massive machines designed to do just about everything from bend sheet metal to mount wheels and tires. Separate work areas and partitioned paint and assembly bays line the walls, to better ensure quality control throughout the restoration process.
“We had most of this equipment in the old shop,” Lea says. “But we spent a lot of time walking sideways and ducking under machines. We've got room to work in here.”
There's a flurry of activity inside: Sparks scatter across the floor, hammers pound and sanders scrape, welding machines cast shadows along the walls. Lea travels from station to station, overseeing his staff of seven assistants.
“It takes a special kind of person to do this work,” Lea says. “I've got some guys who have been with me for a long time, and some of my new employees specialized in street rod fabrication at V.C. Tech in Birmingham.”
Several cars in various states of repair sit inside the shop, mostly Fords and Chevys from the 1940's, '50's and '60's. Lea conducts an impromptu tour.
“This '41 Chevy is for a customer from Las Vegas,” Lea says, pointing to a hulk of green metal parked a few feet off the ground on a steel frame. Lea explains the details of the restoration project with a series of automotive terms which include suspensions, Z-06 engines, channeled frames and dry-sump 427's, most of which eludes the writer.
How long will the project take?
“About a year,” says Lea, moving to the next car in line.
There's a 1962 Chevrolet Bubble Top on another steel rack, and it's missing just about everything. From the firewall forward, the car is naked except for the redesigned, custom-built front suspension. The interior is empty, too, except for one of Lea's employees and his welding torch.
“It's OK to look at the arc,” says Lea, recognizing an automotive novice when he sees one. “That's not the kind of welding machine that will hurt your eyes.”
Lea explains that the '62 Chevy will eventually be delivered to a customer in Bakersfield, Calif. The restored version will be powered by a specially-built aluminum 409 cubic-inch engine that isn't even available anymore.
“I found a guy who is going to build it special,” Lea says with a grin and a nod. “It's supposed to have a five-speed manual transmission, too. And it's going to have one. Real hot rods have three pedals in the floor.”
Another car Lea is working on, a 1956 Ford, will soon be featured in a bare metal studio shoot in “The Rodder's Journal,” a high-end, quarterly magazine that Lea describes as among the most prestigious in the world of automobile restoration.
“That's scheduled for sometime later this year,” Lea says. “I've very excited about that because we'll be able to showcase the metal work we're capable of producing.”
Seated in the relative quiet of his second-floor office, Lea expresses an appreciation for the way cars were built in decades past that he doesn't believe exists anymore in the auto industry. He says his work gives him an opportunity to experience, up-close and daily, that long-past sense of pride.
“We're not hacking up classic cars,” he says. “We're just trying to do them justice. I feel like what we're doing is what those guys would have done with these cars if they'd had the technology at the time.”
And what is it, specifically, about restoring these classic cars that appeals so much to Lea?
“I like the machines and the process even more than I like the finished cars,” he says. “I'm happy building. My love of cars has really evolved into a passion for the process itself.”
Lea is quick to point to the support he receives from his family. Without them, he says, he wouldn't have lasted long in the street rod business.
“I've got loving, supportive parents and my wife, Amy, makes a lot of sacrifices for me so I can spend the time that I need to do this job the right way,” Lea says. “In this line of work, all I have is my reputation and it takes a lot of long hours to make sure everything that leaves here is representative of the work we do and the expertise we provide.”