Troy Trepanier - profile

By: Steve Nally, Photography by: Steve Nally/supplied

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Looking back on one of the world's top customisers, as he reveals his story behind the metal

First published in Unique Cars #296, March 2009

The population of Manteno, Illinois, has quadrupled over the last 30 years but the sleepy home town of custom car legend Troy Trepanier still numbers only 7000 residents. Big bustling Chicago (pop: 2.8m) might be just an 80km fang down the I-57 interstate, but Manteno remains typical Small Town America.

Troy, who was born in 1969, describes Manteno as a "modern farming town" and the tallest structure around is the Farmers Elevator Company grain storage tower. Both Sears and K-Mart department stores have distribution centres in Manteno and when we clicked on the Manteno website the only event listed on the Community Calendar for February was a low cost pet vaccination clinic. And the annual Oktoberfest.

Yep, Manteno is hardly the kind of town you’d expect to find one of the epicentres of US street machining but there is a well-worn path leading to Trepanier’s famous Rad Rides workshop.

"For a small town we’re very modern, it’s a very nice town," Troy smiles. "In the last 10 years the population has doubled and people are living here and working in Chicago. My joke is that we have paved alleys, not gravel."


In Australia, we romantically think of every small US town of having its own American Graffiti culture of hot rods, cruising and malt shops, but Manteno, again, is an exception. Strange then, that it spawned someone like Trepanier.

"There was nothing like that in Manteno," he shrugs. "There was very limited hot rod and street rod scene, going back, there were only a couple of street rods in town. In the next town they had a little drive-in deal that we used to cruise to on a Wednesday night; very small, maybe 20 cars and always the same 20 cars.

"40 miles north towards Chicago there were a couple of good cruise routes and when I finally got my first car we’d go up there and hang out. To this day there is no cruising in our local area and no good, big car clubs; you have to go to Chicago."

The Trepaniers originally hailed from French Canada and Troy is the third generation Trepanier to call Manteno home. His grandfather had a "one-car garage" where a young Troy used to hang out after school and "braze soda pop cans together". Rad Rides is now situated where his grandfather’s house once stood.


As Troy got older, the dirt bike-riding, school sports star became more involved with things automotive, building go-karts and tearing down engines at his father Jack’s workshop.

"My dad was just a general mechanic who’d service any car you drove in and also did the local drag racing and circle track scene," he says. These days Jack is general manager at Rad Rides.

As a teenager, Troy was an avid reader of the custom car bible, which inspired his fertile imagination. "I grew up with Hot Rod magazine and following Boyd Coddington; he was the big influence. I used to run to the news-stand when I was about 14 to see what Boyd was doing and what was new and cool." Coddington would become a mentor of sorts for the aspiring car builder.

Troy’s grandfather presented him with his first car, a ’66 Chevelle, in 1985. Trouble was, it didn’t run.

"My grandfather bought the Chevelle brand new – I remember hauling my mini-bike in the back seat – but he blew it up and gave it to me and that was the first car I built with my dad," laughs Trepanier, who didn’t complete a formal mechanical apprenticeship – he attended the make-a-mistake-and-fix-it school of engineering.


Trepanier’s Ridler-winning ’36 Ford First Love (top left) marked a major step up for his reputation

"I worked for my father through the day and at night I’d work on my cars. After about three years I got tired of working day and night and my parents built me a little shop on the back of their shop and I started messing with hot rods full time, mainly my own stuff. I learned strictly by trial and error in the beginning, then was very fortunate to work with great people in the middle of my career and learned a lot. I learned the hard way. I wanted to take some welding classes but I was building cars and didn’t have time to."

Troy’s modified Chevelle set him on the road to stardom as he began to gain notoriety at local car shows and in 1986 the car made it onto the famed pages of Hot Rod; a big thrill for the 17-year-old.

"I met Gray Baskerville, who was the icon of Hot Rod, and he took me under his wing and brought me to the forefront. Then I was fortunate to meet Boyd Coddington and he was really nice to me and we were good friends; he’s the reason I got into what I’m doing, period. (But) when we went to the Street Machine Nationals in Du Quoin in 1988 that really opened my eyes. I had a decent little car that’d got a bit of interest but when I went there it was like, wow! I went home, started changing the Chevelle and then it spiralled into this (Rad Rides)."


His ’54 Plymouth creation, The Sniper is another jaw dropper

These days the Rad Rides brand is too big for ‘mom ’n’ pop’ car shows and Troy now appears at around 30 major car shows a year. "It’s a business now," he says, with a tinge of regret for days less pressured.

What sets Rad Rides apart from others is Troy’s emphasis on driveability and mechanical excellence; his cars aren’t just show, they have to go and keep on going.

"I was a mechanic before I was a fabricator so I was more into how to make things work before I knew how to make them look good. You can make anything look good if you work at it long enough. In the States, there are a lot of guys who build cars that look good but their stuff doesn’t work for shit, so we went the other route; we want cars to work first then we make them look good.

"We did the Hot Rod Power Tour from 1990-2003 and that was a good test. The Power Tour is like taking a number one Elite car from the Summernats and driving it from coast to coast. We showed that a hand-built car can work and that gave us a lot of credibility in the mid-’90s."


More Trepanier art: the awesome ’69 Barrucuda Blowfish which scored 255.5mph (411km/h) at Bonneville

Rad Rides was also an early adopter of EFI when others were still fiddling with carburettors and Troy has parlayed knowledge of that technology into a new 21st century business: alternative fuels kits.

"My second car was EFI and I’ve never looked back. We now do an E85 conversion kit for fleet vehicles. I think it will pan out."

Another Trepanier trademark is he doesn’t limit himself to just hot rods or just street machines, he likes variation. "We do a little bit of both but mainly I never want to do the same thing twice. What we’re most proud of is we were the first to have two cars in Hot Rod magazine’s annual top 10 in one year (2008). One was our full-blown show car, our 2007 Detroit Ridler award winner, and the other was our ’69 Barracuda Bonneville salt flats racecar. I’m very proud of that but if you parked them next to each other you’d probably know we did both cars, they have that feel."


Troy at Canberra’s Summernats

When talking US street machines and hot rods, Trepanier’s name is inextricably linked to two other legends of the game: the late Boyd Coddington and Chip Foose. Troy says Coddington, who died last year, was misunderstood and not at all like the way he was perceived on the reality TV show, American Hot Rod.

"A lot of people thought Boyd was arrogant but he was actually very shy. I was surprised when he did the TV show because he never had a lot to say."

Foose is probably the biggest name in custom cars in the world and he and Trepanier are best friends. They’re so close they even share some of the top freelance painters and upholsterers in the business. Foose was once a Boyd employee but the pair famously fell out but made up years later, just in time, Troy says.


"Chip and I are compared a lot but he’s more of a stylist/designer; we’re more on the mechanical side. His break up with Boyd was a terrible thing. Chip had a super talent and had great opportunity to work for Boyd straight out of art school and they did some great things together; Boyd was like Chip’s second dad.

"When Boyd’s company went under they (receivers) asked Chip to save the company. Chip’s a big-hearted person and everything you see on TV is real, there ain’t no fakin’ going on, and he tried to save the ship and the customers’ cars before it went under but there were some very hard feelings between Boyd and Chip, terrible. It was a damn shame. I know Chip talked to Boyd before he passed away and they made it good."

The Ridler, which is judged annually at the Detroit Autorama, is the award for the best custom car in the US and it has been a friendly battleground for Trepanier and Foose in recent years, with Troy’s ’36 Ford Coupe First Love winning in 2007. Winning is not easy; first you have to have the right customer to fund it.

"I’ve been participating in the Autorama since the ’90s, but not entering the Ridler competition," he explains. "Chip got involved in the late-’90s and he raised the bar then raised it again. Ross Myers came to us with a beat up ’36 Ford and asked us if we’d be interested in doing a Ridler. He bought the car when he was nine-years-old for $25 and kept it for 47 years; it was his first car. He let us have full reign on it. We wanted to win but also to raise the bar, like Chip had done. And we did it."


With a Ridler under his belt, tribute TV shows, and a long list of projects on the go, Trepanier is at the peak of his profession and wealthy clients, like Meyers and Roger Ritzow come to him to build show-winning cars. Some, like Ritzow, have commissioned more than one car.

"Roger’s a very passionate car guy and one of my best customers," he says. "We built Roger a little ’32 Ford roadster four years ago and that was rated in the top 75 ’32 Fords of all time, which was a great honour because we don’t (normally) build ’32s because everybody else does. We built the Quadraduce 4WD ’32 then we built Roger’s ‘32 and it turned out awesome. Then Roger wanted to do a big car for his wife Nancy and we’re building a ’56 Chrysler for her now."

Trepanier has been in the custom car game now for 20 years yet he’s still only 39, and is just really hitting his straps.

"It seems like the last five years we’ve done some remarkable things and achieved a lot and turned it into a pretty profitable business," he sums up.

Rad Rides is more than a business; it’s a worldwide brand the small mid-western town of Manteno can be proud of.

Name: Troy Trepanier
Born: July 13, 1969
Claim to fame: Top US custom car builder
Career highlight: Winning 2007 Ridler Award
Career lowlight: ’37 Ford stolen in Quebec and never seen again
Inspiration: Boyd Coddington
Favourite saying: "Measure twice, cut once."


From Unique Cars #296, March 2009

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