Color On Wheels strikes balance between custom builds and collision repair
Denver--Unlike a typical body shop owner, Joe Qualls measures his car counts not by the month, but the year. That’s because his mainstay business, Color On Wheels, focuses on hot rod and restomod projects that extend well beyond 12 months.
Qualls said he does, however, often find himself turning cars at a much faster pace for insurance carriers. Since Color On Wheels has the ability and talent to paint cars in-house, he said, many customers bring their daily drivers to him after an accident, balancing off the custom work with collision repair jobs.
“Even through the economic downturn in 2008, we never slowed down,” he said. The insurance work fills lulls between builds and now accounts for a quarter of overall sales, he added.
The majority of the shop’s work is building custom Ford, Buick, Chevrolet, and Dodge hot rods from most decades, he said, with occasional exotics like the 1990 Ferrari 348 in the shop recently for a paint job and custom tail-lamp conversion.
Qualls said he simply focuses on creating cars that customers want to drive, taking old cars and modernizing them into restomods.
“People want modern technology in their hot rods nowadays,” Qualls said, with features such as air conditioning, performance suspension, disc brakes, fuel injection, radios, and more. “Everybody wants the old-car feel, but modern amenities.”
Paint paves the way
“Not many hot rod shops have their own paint facilities,” Qualls said, pointing out that this is exactly how he got his start in the business.
For more than 17 years, Qualls painted hot rods for Gary Vahling, owner of Masterpiece Hot Rod in Denver. Eventually, while working as a vendor to Masterpiece, Qualls developed a penchant for building hot rods and later bought the business from Vahling in 2000, melding it into his existing paint business.
Today the shop sprays PPG’s Deltron 2000 DBC base coat, a system designed to replicate OEM finishes, he said, adding that each job is completed with Global Refinish System clear coat supplied through FinishMaster.
“We try to stick with colors that are basic,” Qualls said, pointing out that if something happens to the car later on, and a portion needs to be resprayed, it’s much easier to match the paint. Standard colors also appeal to a larger audience if the car is going to be sold, he added.
Small shop delivers big results
Controlling the build, from start to finish, is critical to the quality of the build, Qualls said. “I don’t want to be a big shop,” he said. “I like to keep control of what’s going on with a small crew.”
Working alongside Qualls are shop foreman Morgan Russell, bodyman and painter Greg Karlstrum, and hot-rod builder Vince Miltonberger.
Aside from vendors who media-strip cars, install upholstery, and build specialty powertrain components, most work is done in-house, he said. That includes custom fabrication of some body panels, brake, fuel and transmission lines, exhaust, and even frame construction.
Selecting suppliers who offer the right components and parts is also important, he said.
Color On Wheels is an authorized dealer for Art Morrison, whose chassis allow old cars to handle like modern Corvettes, he said.
Crate GM Performance LS engines, sourced through John Elway Chevrolet in Englewood, breathe new life into most Chevy projects, putting out 525 HP right out of the crate, he said. “If I ever have any trouble, Ken Casey is good at taking care of it,” he said of John Elway’s GM performance parts specialist.
Other key suppliers are Phil Long Ford in Denver, for Ford Motor Co. parts; Western Engine, which is able to perform custom engine builds; Driveline Service, for custom driveshafts; and Jared’s Transmission, which supplies units able to handle all the increased horsepower.
ODE Hot Rod Parts in Hudson is also a go-to supplier for hard-to-find performance parts. “They carry everything or know where to get it if they don’t,” he said of ODE. For A/C systems, Qualls is a Vintage Air dealer and buys direct.
Transparency builds trust
Since most of Qualls’ customers already own the cars they bring to him, time is saved by not having to locate a car to be built.
After modifications are discussed and timelines are set, Qualls said he collects an initial deposit from the customer to begin work. A file is created for each car that includes a tally of parts, labor, and the photos taken each week.
“I’m an open shop,” he said. “They can come in at any time to see how their car is progressing.”
Cars are completely torn down and disassembled, and parts are then sent to Blast Tech in Englewood to remove paint and rust.
In cases where replacement sheet metal is unavailable, Qualls’ shop makes it in-house, which he said is preferable to using reproduction parts that seldom fit correctly and often need to be modified.
Each build is reassembled prior to painting — a step some shops may bypass, Qualls said, but which allows for final adjustments to be made before it’s disassembled again for paint.