Growing up near Omaha, Nebraska certainly is a long way away from the custom hot rod mecca of southern California. That didn’t stop Andy Leach of CAL Automotive Creations from pursuing his passion for building custom cars. From reading the hot rod and custom car magazines as a teenager to having his dad bring home a ’34 Chevy Street Rod, saying Andy was hooked at an early age is an understatement. Working at his home base in Bennington, Nebraska, Andy and his crew have built award-winning custom cars and hot rods for over a decade. We had a chance to speak with him about how it all started and what he has in store for the future.
Have you always been fascinated by cars?
I have. My love for cars really started when I was about 14 and my dad got me into cars. He purchased a ’34 Chevy Street Rod that was already done and from the second I saw that car it changed my life. It was a fork in the road. Prior to that I was very athletic and into sports, and from that moment on it went straight to cars. I was always into art and this is just another, different form of art.
What is your first recollection of being around cars?
The thing that really hooked me was just the custom side of cars and all the things that can be done with them. That goes back to the art thing. It became clear very early that I was interested in the metal shaping side of cars. My dad would continue to buy inexpensive Harbor Freight equipment and I would mess things up. That’s how I learned.
What was it that drew you to the custom and hot rod industry?
Honestly, it was just seeing that ’34 Chevy my dad bought for the first time. Then, I remember my first magazine I bought in the early ‘90s. I think I memorized every page of it. There was a guy named Chip (Foose) out there doing some crazy cool stuff, and Troy Trepanier, and Boyd Coddington. I kind of started to stalk those guys with everything I could find in magazines and stuff. Once you get hooked on something you just keep digging and digging until you find more and more information. Then you go down to the garage, mess around and ruin a bunch of stuff. It becomes a passion. It just hooked me instantly.
How many custom cars per year is CAL Automotive Creations producing?
We typically put one big car out a year, on average. We do a lot of upgrades and little things so there’s a lot of cars that come in and out of the shop. As far as our big cars that get a lot of media attention, it’s usually one a year, sometimes two. We’re kind of locked for next year. We are going to have 3 or 4 cars out, big cars.
Have you had a chance to build something for any famous clients?
No, not so much famous clients. More or less just die-hard clients that collect cars and build cars. We like to build cars for clients that have done it before, they understand the process. Sometimes building a car for a first-time builder is kind of difficult because you’ve got to educate them. The clients we have are just awesome and most of them are repeat customers. That’s what’s fun, you get to know them and find out how they became successful. Good people are just good people. One of our clients jokes around that this is a marriage and I agree. It’s a total trust thing. A lot of these guys give us a car and a few details of what they’re looking for and then have complete trust in us. We get to do what we do, and all my guys are die-hard, passionate car guys.
Anything big planned for SEMA 2020?
As of the last email I saw, they are planning on having SEMA this year. But you know, things may change. We have a ’71 ‘Cuda we finished for Kent Matranga. Kent has a couple of our cars and we have another one in the line that we will be starting for him. We finished the ‘Cuda and planned on touring that all over the country this summer but that’s not going to happen now. If SEMA happens, the ‘Cuda will be in the Baer Brakes booth. We’re so honored to be in that booth because they always have a killer spot. It’s a really neat car.
When did you first attend SEMA as a builder?
The first time I went to SEMA was 2003. I was working for Troy Trepanier of Rad Rides by Troy in Manteno, Illinois. We did a Mustang for eBay Motors and debuted it at SEMA. That was the first time I went. Like most people say, the first time you go to SEMA you’re just overwhelmed. It is the biggest, craziest thing you’ve ever seen, and it just keeps getting bigger and bigger every year.
How did the relationship with Wayne Carini come about?
I met Wayne years ago in Florida at a car show. I can’t remember which show it was, but Wayne is such a good guy. We instantly hit it off and I had the ’40 Ford coupe, Checkered Past, with me and he came up to it. We just started BSing and you know, just hit it off. Talk about a knowledgeable guy. Wayne knows more about every car ever made than anybody I have ever met in my life. He’s like an encyclopedia for every car. He’s just a good guy.
What advice would you give to any young man or woman out there that is interested in building custom cars?
It’s funny, I have a 16-year-old that is working for me right now. He is a perfect example of what we’re talking about. He is so into cars and fabrication. He is an extremely good welder for being only 16, it’s scary. He’s got that passion. I’ll take passion over talent every day. You can groom him and teach him what he needs to know. I tell people all the time, find something you’re into, something you are good at whether it’s the mechanical, metal, paint, whatever. Just continue to do what you’re good at.
If I told you that you could have any car to work on that you haven’t before, what would that car be?
My biggest problem with cars is that I like every single one of them. My favorite car seems to change by the minute. I’d love to venture down to the Pebble Beach Concours-style of car. Whatever that means. I want to do one of those cars that’s just rare as rare can be. We’re in the hot rod world and that’s my first love but if we could go down the European path and some of those cars, I think you could really expand it. Doing a Concours-style restoration or build, that’s where I’d want to go.
If I were to open your garage door at home, what would I find in there?
I have a love for big cars. Especially the 1958–62 General Motors stuff. You’d see a lot of kids bikes and toys and stuff but on the other side of the garage you would see a ’60 Buick Invicta, low mileage original car. A pretty rare car actually. We have a ’69 Oldsmobile two-door hard top. Again, a low mile car. We also have a 1959 Pontiac wagon that we pile all the kids and dogs in and go get ice cream all the time. We absolutely love that car! It just turned over 15,000 original miles. I like those big cars; the styling is unlike any other era. We also have a ’54 Chevy, two-door sedan. That was the last car my dad and I rode in together. That car holds a special place in my heart. I would like to build that car pretty soon. I’ve got all kinds of stuff including a ’62 (Chevrolet) Bubble Top. That’s probably my all-time favorite car.
Any particular destinations you love driving to or roads you like to drive on?
I’ll spin this just a little bit differently. For all our travels hauling cars and stuff, years ago I had a buddy riding with me, and he told me about talking to his truck driver buddy and we took a detour in Wyoming. We cut north because he said it was faster. Well, it wasn’t faster at all, but it was absolutely the most beautiful thing I have ever seen in my life. We were down in the canyon by Idaho, in the northern part of Wyoming and just kind of weaving around this creek or river and we didn’t see another car for hours, didn’t see another town for hours. It was amazing! My dream is someday to build the ’62 bubble-top, and that’s kind of one of those bucket list things with my wife, and head up that way. Eventually make it up to Yellowstone and eventually down the west coast. That’s definitely going to happen someday.
What do you like to do away from the business? Hobbies?
It seems like we’re always involved in cars, even when we’re not working. We take cars out to events like cars & coffee and stuff like that. Other than that, it’s stuff with the kids. We have 4 kids. My wife is a rock star and puts up with all this car stuff. I’m a really lucky guy. We’ll go hiking and stuff like that. She’s big into mushroom hunting and I share that.
Any final thoughts?
I’d just like to say that we’re very blessed for what we do, we’re lucky. I’m lucky to get to spend time with the team and we’re lucky we get to build cars for guys that just sort of let us go crazy with them. We couldn’t ask for anything better. It’s a pretty crazy thing that we get to do what we love and build cars for a living.
Thank you, Andy, for taking time away from your busy shop to talk with us about your passion for custom cars and hot rods. We’re hoping our paths will cross again soon, most likely over a cup of coffee or under the bright lights in Las Vegas.