For 25 years, Tony Theis ran a retail repair shop near his home in Carver, Minn. When the state decided to take the property for a public project, Theis made a decision of his own. He bid goodbye to the tight schedule of repairs and maintenance jobs and opened a business closer to his heart: building hot rods.
The difference between a Theis Repair hot rod and one from, say, the big builders you see on television, is the car owner's role. This isn't a drop-off-car-write-check operation. All the car owners Theis builds for, he also builds with. Owners help in the construction of their cars, choosing and chasing parts, turning wrenches, removing bolts and clips and surface rust and deciding what they want where, from the position of the wiring to the type of engine and transmission. When it's time to put it all back together, the owners get busy there too, installing clean, polished, finished parts to complete the job.
Applying his broad mechanical background, Theis takes care of functionality, reliability and all mechanical issues. While car owners make many decisions, Theis ensures safety and drivability in every vehicle. The car must run right, it must drive and handle properly and predictably, and it must stop well. With those essentials in place, owners can diverge a little or a lot from stock configuration.
This business model of helping enthusiastic owners help themselves in creating a car of their dreams has proven successful and satisfying. "I've never met a bad car guy," Theis says. His customers tend to be working men whose children are grown. They've saved up the money and found the time to create a car they've always wanted. In many cases it's a car tied to an important memory - a first date, first kiss, first drag race, first trip to the drive-in.
Theis matches drivers and cars. "I listen very well," he says; he helps owners build what they want, whether their priority is power, gas mileage or even something to run a road course. The owner finds the chassis - the base vehicle he (only men so far) or she wants to work from - and the two work together from there, choosing an engine and transmission, colors, any special parts, etc. "They choose cars from the 1950s to the early 1980s," says Theis. "Get below the 1950s and you have to customize everything for modern performance."
Some owners want cars that are very close to stock, basically going the restoration route. "These are non-numbers matching cars," Theis stresses, as those are the vehicles that may be purchased and rebuilt reasonably. Start with a rare, numbers-matching car and costs go beyond the price range where Theis focuses his operations.
Asked about the humorous signs some mechanics have, indicating that their hourly rate increases if the car owner helps out, Theis clarifies that that refers to repair work on a schedule, where speed takes precedence. His hot rod operation is about cooperation and collaboration, not tight daily timetables. Owners drop by when their schedules allow, which may be once a week at times, or several days in a row. Sometimes he works alone in the shop; at other times two or three owners are there, too. It's not uncommon for customers to collaborate on one owner's car for a few days and then switch to another.
Theis averages about a half dozen cars a year and has built about 40 overall. How fast they get done depends on how much the owner can help out. Some turn around in six months; others take two years. The main thing is that owners help out. Theis has refused only a few prospective customers when all they wanted to do was drop off a check. That's not how this shop operates.
"I spend 200 to 300 hours with these people," Theis says, "and in all cases we've become friends." A couple years ago, his brother, Jimmy, put together an event to provide oil changes for single moms. "Most every guy I built a car for was out here helping out," Theis recalls. That's what the Theis Repair experience is all about.