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The Callaway Cars founder channels his need for speed into producing souped-up Corvettes

July 19, 2009|Peter Y. Hong

The gig: Founder of Callaway Cars. The company, based in Connecticut with a major assembly plant in Corona and another plant in Leingarten, Germany, is best known for producing souped-up and restyled Chevrolet Corvettes in cooperation with General Motors.

Callaway's base model is a Corvette with an added supercharger that bumps power up by roughly a third and adds $20,000 to the car's base price. Top Callaway models provide 700 horsepower and feature re-shaped exteriors; they sell for as much as $190,000 and promise to be comparable in performance to top-end Porsches, Ferraris and Lamborghinis at a lower price. Callaway owners have included Paul Newman, George Foreman, Michael Jordan and Otis Chandler, the late Los Angeles Times publisher and motor sports enthusiast.

It's a boutique operation, with $8 million in sales last year. Callaway, 61, lives in Laguna Beach.

The road less traveled: Callaway's father, Ely, founded Callaway Vineyard and Winery in Temecula and the Callaway Golf Co. in Carlsbad, Calif., maker of the revolutionary Big Bertha golf club. But the Callaway name was not a famous brand when Reeves Callaway was growing up in New York's Connecticut suburbs. Ely Callaway was a textiles executive then, and young Reeves wasn't into fabric.

He thus had no interest in following his father's business path. Even if he did, Ely Callaway insisted that his sons make their own careers, firmly declaring "no nepotism" in his businesses.

Reeves Callaway raced go-karts as a child, a passion that was fueled more by his mother, Jeanne, who drove him to competitions in their Ford Galaxy station wagon and served as her son's mechanic, than by his dad. He majored in art at Amherst College, which was a way for Callaway to fit his passion for metalwork and shop craft into the curriculum of a liberal arts college -- his senior thesis project was the restoration of an aged Ferrari 375 race car.

He won the Sports Car Club of America championship in Formula Vee, an entry-level open-wheel class, in 1973. But when no offers came to join major racing teams, Callaway went to work as a race-driving instructor.

Callaway's early disappointment as a racer quickly focused his energies on forming a business. He designed and built turbocharger kits for 3-series BMWs in his Old Lyme, Conn., garage and sold them through mail order for $1,500 apiece. Callaway expanded his business bit by bit, buying new tools and hiring workers as the checks for orders trickled in, until the company grew large enough to build a plant in 1982.

Callaway's big break came in 1985, when General Motors called to ask if he would create factory-authorized, higher-performance versions of the Corvette.

Fathers and sons: Callaway watched as his father, who was then in his 60s, drove with a trunk full of golf club samples to pro shops, leaning on the pros to give his drivers a try. They weren't always interested. "I told him, 'Geez, Pop, I don't think this golf thing is going to go anywhere," Callaway recalls.

Ely Callaway ignored his son, and Callaway Golf became a multibillion-dollar company. For his part, Reeves Callaway didn't stick to his father's rigid ban on hiring family members. His son, Peter, 28, runs the Corona assembly operation.

The difference? "Pete was raised in a shop," Callaway says. "I don't think we ever had a discussion about his coming to work [for the family business]. It's something he always knew he wanted to do." He says he shares with his son a "predilection that I'm convinced was born in, not nurtured, to things mechanical."

Rubber soul: Callaway says his mechanical inspiration is rooted in a philosophical outlook captured by a 1974 book, "Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance" by Robert Pirsig.

The book explores the relationship between art and manufacturing and the idea of quality, or, as Callaway puts it, "the line you draw when you ask yourself, 'Now that I've done this, is it any good? Is this perfect enough?' "

The book's ideas, and questions about philosophy, aesthetics and what motivates one to want to build something, come up whenever Callaway interviews someone who wants to work with the company.

Beyond technicians, Callaway says he wants people who feel and think deeply that "the great thing about an automobile is it ends up looking like something; it also ends up going like something. It's almost alive."


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