For Scott Bonowski, sweating the details is a key part of building a high-quality hot rod or custom. In fact, Bonowski operated a one-man mobile detailing business before starting his successful Southern California shop, Hot Rods & Hobbies, where he and his team build and paint award-winning hot rods, customs and classics – including the 2018 America’s Most Beautiful Roadster winner, which went on to become the Goodguys 2018 Tanks Inc. Hot Rod of the Year. Bonowski’s detailing experience taught him to pay attention to the little things – the fine points that separate top-level customs and classics from the rest.
Bonowski had both formal training and professional experience in collision repair and paint work prior to starting his detailing business, and before long he was being approached by clients to make small (and sometimes not-so-small) body and paint repairs. He rented a small shop in Redondo Beach, California and started taking on projects. This was in the late-’90s, and it wasn’t long before he was painting cars for clients like Edelbrock and attracting a steady stream of customers with his high-caliber body-and-paint work. Bonowski soon rented a larger shop in nearby Torrance and hired a few talented team members to help keep projects moving.
Bonowski’s reputation for quality work drew a variety of clients to his new Hot Rods & Hobbies shop. Naturally, there were plenty of hot rod and custom projects, but also a steady stream of high-end exotics. These were cars that required special skills – cars for which nobody made aftermarket replacement panels, so repair parts had to be hand fabricated, and paint work needed to be impeccable. Bonowski and his team proved they could deliver, painting Pebble Beach-style classics and other vintage exotics. Taking on a ’58 Porsche 356 project for well-known collector Bruce Meyer offers insight into the level of respect the shop had earned in a short time. “Once I started painting cars like that, I had more credibility,” Bonowski said.
On the hot rod side of the fence, one of the shop’s big breaks came with Steve Frediani’s ’51 Ford convertible, dubbed Pandora’s Box. The shop completed the car’s extensive metal work, applied the custom finish, and handled the assembly on the ground-breaking custom, which won the America’s Most Beautiful Custom award at the 2006 Sacramento Autorama and made a significant splash in the West Coast rodding world.
As you might expect, that sort of success led to additional attention and growth. In 2007, Hot Rods & Hobbies made another move, this time to the 13,000sq. ft. facility in Signal Hill that it still occupies today. This larger location allowed for a better separation of space, with dedicated areas for fabrication and metal work, mechanical work, bodywork, and color sanding and polishing. The shop also has a down-draft paint booth, plus a separate 4,000sq. ft. building for assembly, detailing, and application of Nano Ceramic Protect, a final coating that provides protection and easy maintenance for a car’s finish.
In addition to a larger space, the Hot Rods & Hobbies team roster also expanded. The number of employees has fluctuated over the past decade, from a low of eight to the current count of 18. Each team member has a specialty, whether that’s fabrication, bodywork or mechanical.
Being in Southern California has its advantages, one of them being the opportunity to work for celebrity clients. One of the shop’s higher-profile projects was the custom ’50 Mercury built for television and movie actor Matthew Fox. The sinister black custom crossed boundaries, with traditional custom elements like a chopped top and frenched lights blended with hot rod-flavored Billet Specialties wheels and a 502c.i. big block. It won a trio of awards at the 2009 Grand National Roadster Show, the prestigious World’s Most Beautiful Custom trophy at the Sacramento Autorama, and was a Top Five finalist for Goodguys’ 2010 Custom of the Year.
The Mercury was followed up with a sleeper-style ’66 Chevelle, also for Fox. A few years later, the shop built a custom ’57 Chevy convertible for comedian Mike Epps, complete with a Roadster Shop chassis and LS1 engine. Bonowski painted it a gorgeous candy apple red that’s perfect for the classic Bel Air lines.
Goodguys members may be most familiar with the custom ’48 Chrysler Town & Country that Hot Rods & Hobbies built for our in-house celebrity and founder, the late Gary Meadors. Starting with a rough body and bins full of rusty parts, Bonowski and his team crafted a classy resto-mod cruiser with an Art Morrison chassis, Viper V10 engine and all the amenities Gary and his wife Marilyn could want for cross-country road trips. The car was nice enough to be displayed (and photographed) in bare metal, and even made an appearance on the Jay Leno’s Garage program.
One of the most significant acknowledgments of the shop’s work and reputation was being named Builder of the Year at the 2011 Grand National Roadster Show in Pomona. Bonowski and his team celebrated the honor appropriately, bringing a variety of both finished and unfinished cars (including Meadors’ bare metal Chrysler) to display in the show’s main building.
Hot Rods & Hobbies shows cars at the Grand National Roadster Show every year, but 2018 was special as the shop entered – and won – the coveted America’s Most Beautiful Roadster competition with David Martin’s ’31 Model A roadster. This is actually the third incarnation of the blue roadster, which Martin has owned for 35 years. The car’s competition theme goes beyond just appearances, too – it competed in the Silver State Classic open road race in Nevada last year, averaging more than 100mph. How many AMBR winners can say that?
Whether it’s an AMBR winner or a simpler resto-mod build, cleanliness and cohesion are common themes that weave their way through all Hot Rods & Hobbies creations. “They have a flavor that flows from top to bottom,” Bonowski said. “I don’t do anything too radical, it’s just enhancing what’s already there. For the most part, they still resemble the car they start with.”
While most clients who are drawn to the shop share that same philosophy, Bonowski said he sometimes helps guide them, especially when it comes to custom builds. His input is based on a simple piece of advice: “Don’t just accessorize the car – build it to be the right car.”
A similar approach helps guide color choices on the shop’s custom builds. Bonowski doesn’t pick favorite hues. “I like a lot of colors – it depends on the car,” he said, though he tends to favor clean solid colors over wild finishes. “I’m not a fan of heavy graphics. If it is a graphic, it’s relatively simple.” Most of the shop’s creations are built to be driven, which also factors into color choices. “Repair-ability is nice – even when you’re building one-off customs,” Bonowski said.
That’s not to say it’s all one-off customs. Our recent stop at the shop found it filled with a full spectrum of vehicles – from ’30s street rods, to muscle cars, to vintage classics. “We have everything here right now,” Bonowski said. And while the shop used to dabble in all areas of vintage vehicle maintenance and repairs, he said they’ve been busy enough that they are now focusing primarily on full builds and paint jobs.
When asked where he sees the hot rod hobby trending in the next few years, Bonowski said he’s seeing a push toward cars with conservative body modifications and updated mechanicals. “I think resto rodding is going to be around for a long time,” he said. “Drivability seems to be what most people are looking for.” He noted the number of cars at events with LS engines and the increasing use of aftermarket frames to get updated suspensions and modern road manners. “We do a ton of chassis swaps,” he said, estimating that his shop has likely installed 75 Art Morrison frames under cars over the past decade.
Drivable, dynamic and well-detailed – it’s a winning combination of characteristics for any hot rod or classic, and a solid foundation on which Hot Rods & Hobbies plans to build cars well into the future.