The gig: Chip Foose is considered by many to be the world's top hot-rod designer. His Huntington Beach company, Foose Design, modifies collector cars and builds custom cars. A hand-built creation can take up to six years and cost more than $1 million. Last year the privately owned firm posted more than $4 million in revenue. Foose, 46, also has designed sunglasses and footwear for Oakley Inc.
On screen: Foose has hosted two reality TV shows for the TLC network — "Overhaulin' " and "Rides" — and is currently a judge on the Discovery Channel series "Ultimate Car Build-Off." His work has also appeared in the movies "Blade Runner," "RoboCop," "Gone in 60 Seconds" and "Cars."
In his blood: Foose credits his ferocious work ethic and passion for cars to his dad, Sam, now 76, who ran an auto body shop to pay the bills but spent nights and weekends building hot rods. His father's tenderness and encouragement gave the child confidence; Foose painted his first car — a Porsche 356 — when he was 12 years old. "When I was 3 years old, I would sit next to him and I would mimic what he was drawing," Foose said of his dad. "When I was 7 years old, I'd like to say I was helping him, but I destroyed so many things. But his patience paid off and I learned.... My career, in my mind, is an extension of my father's."
Golden girls: Hot rodding is a male-dominated pastime, but some special women shaped Foose's life. In 1985, his younger sister Amy died at age 16 of progeria, a rare genetic disorder that causes accelerated aging. "She was 3 feet, 2 inches tall and, like, 26 pounds, but she'd melt your heart when you met her," he said. "My No. 1 life lesson was, don't judge a book by its cover — there's something really special behind everybody."
Another love of his life, his girlfriend Lynne, refused to marry him until he finished college. Foose had dropped out of Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, unable to afford tuition. An auto engineering firm offered to foot the bill if he'd commit to work for the company for three years after graduation. Foose jumped at the chance: anything to get the girl. "She wanted to marry her equal," Foose said. "So I knew I had to figure out how to get back to Art Center, and it's the best thing I ever did in my life."
A short-lived dream: While Foose worked off his tuition during the day, he spent nights and weekends working for famed hot-rod builder Boyd Coddington. Foose eventually was hired full time, rising to president. "I thought, wow, this is my dream job," Foose said. It didn't last. Foose said the firm ran into financial trouble in the late '90s and shuttered the hot-rod portion of the business, putting him out of a job. It was lousy timing. Lynne was pregnant with their first child and he hadn't been paid in months, Foose said.
Going it alone: So he decided to go independent. Foose started small and has kept it that way; today he employs just seven people. "That's the biggest thing I learned at Boyd's; stay flexible and don't grow out of what you can afford," he said.
Stick to what you're good at: Still, he's hit plenty of rough patches. In the past, Foose said, he'd excitedly sketch designs and concepts before any contracts were signed, only to see others walk off with his ideas. Yet he refuses to think the worst of people. That's why he defers on most business matters to Lynne, who is a lawyer and helps run Foose Design, and to his vice president, Carson Lev, who used to work for Mattel Inc.
"I have to learn to keep my mouth shut," Foose said. "I get passionate about what I'm doing and I don't ever want to let people down. If I were flipping burgers, I would try to build the best burger ever, that's my attitude. I will also help anybody else that wants to build a burger. I'll tell them everything I know about it. And that's where Carson and Lynne have to step in."
Keeping up the tradition: Foose's son, Brock, 10, and daughter, Katie, 6, can often be found at Foose Design. "Right now they're more into just hanging around and playing in the shop, but Brock does have a junior dragster and he's said he'd like to paint it," Foose said. "I really enjoyed working with my dad as a kid and I really hope someday I can work with my son or my daughter on a project too. But I wouldn't push them either way. It's their choice."