Talkin’ Cars With Classic Industries’ Founder and CEO, Jeff Leonard

Every now and again, you get reminded of what brought you to where you are in life. When I scheduled a couple of hours of Jeff Leonard’s afternoon for a casual conversation-slash-interview, I realized that I was taking a step back to my original hot rodding roots. Leonard is the CEO and founder of restoration parts super-supplier Classic Industries, a company that started life as Classic Camaro.

See, my high school car – essentially my first muscle car – was a white-and-black-vinyl-topped ’71 Camaro. Although a fine daily driver, it was in a need of a bit of cosmetic help, and learning that I lived 15 miles from Classic Camaro suddenly made their spotless showroom the new favorite hangout of this budding car lover. When I first met Leonard, I admitted to loitering around the old Gothard St. location, hoping to score some free parts.

“Did you get anything?” Leonard queried.

Embarrassed, I confessed, “No, but one clerk felt sorry for me and offered his employee discount on a center console armrest I needed.”

He smiled, “Yeah, but look at what that one act did. It got the ball rolling.”

Jeff was right.

This particular Thursday afternoon, Leonard was surprisingly free with his time, putting aside close to five hours to sit down and talk cars, big-dollar auctions, street racing down Woodward Avenue, and helping save classics from the scrapper and getting them back on the road.

powerTV: OK, come clean; did classic really start out of a Camaro?

Jeff Leonard: “Yeah, pretty much…the myth of me selling stuff out of the back of the Camaro isn’t quite accurate, it’s a bit romantic. When I graduated high school [in Detroit], I decided to move to California. When I moved out here, I saw a lot of these older cars that didn’t have any rust on them; they looked really nice because in California they don’t salt the roads during the winter like in Detroit, where all the cars rust out in five or six years.

“Now out here, I bought this ’67 benchseat Marina Blue RS Camaro (with a factory 8-track player on the console) for $500. I needed to get some stuff for it but I couldn’t find it anywhere. Nobody was selling product for this car, so I searched around and met up with this guy in Santa Monica that cut and sewed carpet to fit the floor pan since molded carpet wasn’t available back then.

“I thought if this guy’s going to make it, maybe there’s a market for it. So I put out an ad in one of the magazines – I think it was Cars & Parts Magazine, a little tiny ad with a PO Box – and people started to call, so I started selling these carpets; but it wasn’t out of the trunk, but it might have well been. It’s all because of that one Camaro, essentially.

“Afterwards, I started studying the market, and I noticed that the Mustang, which was built three years years before the Camaro came out, had companies selling product for it but not Camaro. The Camaro was 10 years old by then. I went down and I got some books from General Motors – there wasn’t the Internet back then – and studied what was available and got one of their price books and see what was available for old Camaros – ’67, ’68, ’69 – and started categorizing product and put together a little book, and that’s how it really started – that was around 1977, maybe late ’76.”

PTV: But could somebody go into a GM dealership with their ’67 Camaro back then and get arm rests or door panel?

Leonard: “No, you couldn’t get any interior products. You couldn’t carpet but you could get dashpads. The ’68 and ’69 dashpad was still available because dashpads are a commonly replaced item that wears out because of the sun. So GM sold enough of them each year to continue to make them, but as demand dried up, they would discontinue the stuff.

“I had put a catalog together – little 20 page catalog –  it didn’t have much in there, but it did have enough to entice someone to get a free catalog, and we had a couple ads out. Then slowly the items I had researched had started to disappear through GM. I couldn’t get them through the dealers anymore. So a few years later, I thought maybe I could try to reproduce this stuff.

“I was looking at some of the things people couldn’t get anymore (and sold quite a few of) and one of them was a top boot clips – the plastic clips that hold on the convertible cover into place. The clips they had were plastic had a steel U-shaped bracket that would snap the boot to the molding.

“They’d break all the time and you needed 16 of them. I had contracted some people and had them make a tool for the clip and two tools to put them together and that was the first item we ever manufactured. We still actually running that tool today. It’s still a good selling item.

“What happened next was little by little, we started to develop this thing and that thing. While this was happening, the industry was growing and there were other companies that were trying to get in to sell parts. I recognized there was a need for someone to come in and help these other companies as well as the regular consumer, so we developed a wholesale program where we helped sell a lot of our own products to other companies that we’d developed.”

PTV: Is this the roots of OER?

Leonard: “Essentially, yes. We branched out that portion of our company into its own separate division, our manufacturing division. it only hosts sales to the whole sales to the restoration industry or performance industry. classic industries is essentially a distributor for OER.

“We developed OER to create a brand name for restoration parts, and we partnered that with GM. Most of the products we developed for OER are licensed through GM and now with Chrysler. It’s a feather in our cap, it also gives the consumer a level of confidence. That’s an essential ingredient.”

PTV: Classic has a reputation of working closely with GM. Has GM given you the ‘keys to the kingdom,’ so to speak?

Leonard: “Yes they have, if they have it. They recognize that their vehicles being on the road is a billboard for their company. Its nostalgia. It’s like seeing a piece of artwork driving down the street. I look at it, its attractive. there’s beauty, there’s passion. Its great. People have a passion, a love for the great American muscle car. It evokes a sense of happiness and childhood like feelings if you’re from my generation. Them working with us allows these cars to be around longer.

“In the late ’80s, GM recognized that there were a lot of companies out there – not just GM but Chrysler and Ford too – realized that there were companies utilizing their parts and designs that weren’t paying royalties and when something becomes public domain like that, they have a hard time wrangling it back in again, so there was a big meeting in Indianapolis in early 90s, and GM came out along with all the restoration companies came out and they developed a program for licensing.

“What came out of it was an agreement where, in some cases, we actually have original GM tooling because one of our arrangements was that we’d have first right of refusal for tooling that was very old or that they weren’t going to use anymore, or going to scrap it. So we have the opportunity to use it. It’s worthwhile because you have tools that are 40, 50 years old and, you know, you have a tool that can be refurbished and reutilitized, as an original tool product.

“Our job is to manufacture parts that are essentially identical to the original so that you could go to a car show or you could go to replace that part and people go, ‘Man this looks exactly like it should be, this looks brand new’ and our agreements with the manufacturers is key to doing that.”

PTV: Not only has Classic Industries launched a whole new Mopar catalog [Spring of 2011], as well as a separate 5th Gen. Camaro catalog. You’re looking at spreading even further, right?

Leonard: “Right. First, you’ll like to know that we’re adding up to 50-to-100 pages to our Mopar catalog. We’ve got a lot more parts coming. Before that though, we’re launching a whole new website that’s a lot easier to use, to navigate and find parts. In early April we’re launching our ‘Tri-Five’ catalog – which we’re really excited about – and in just a few weeks we’ll have our new Nova catalog out.

“Regarding the Gen 5 Camaros, they got their own catalog because they’re not a vehicle that will be restored anytime soon, it’s a new item. So what we did was say, ‘Let’s get all the performance items, the aftermarket products that people are going to want like floor mats and stuff, and see that there’s not enough to do something with it.’

“We found that there were a lot of companies making product; we actually made a few items ourselves, like sill plates and a couple other things like stripes, some stencils, and few other things, we gathered up a few other vendors things and kinda categorized them. We’ve got another gen 5 book coming out in about two months with more product in it.”

PTV: There might be only ‘so many’ aftermarket products for the new Camaros, but there’s limitless performance parts. Do you see Classic adding these kind of products to its catalog?

Leonard: “We not only do and have them today, but we’ve been carrying that kind of stuff for a long time, that is, a lot of performance stuff. The companies that we deal with don’t only do restoration, we also deal with all the companies who make all that performance stuff too. We deal with everyone to cater to the guys who have those kinds of cars, either reproduction products or performance products.”

PTV: So is a catalog ever really ‘finished?’ Could you foresee a future where your catalogs double in size?

Leonard: “Well, the catalogs are already a pretty good size, so we’re trying NOT to double in size – we don’t want to use all that paper. We want to be conservative in what we’re mailing out, as we have so many catalogs – so we’re trying to enhance our website. Like I said, we’ve got a new website coming out in about a month and two. It’s going to be a lot easier to maneuver, far more up to date, with lots of new ways to search and find things, to cross over products, and so on.

“The ideal things is to be able to have all the stuff online but also have a printed catalog because a lot people still enjoy having that book in their hands. it represents a really tangible company, not just one that sprung up online.

“Ultimately, a catalog is never truly complete because the day that it is printed we have new products coming in that just don’t make it in time. but they do go online, so if you don’t see what you’re looking for in the catalog, you can always go online, go to our website. if not, you can always call us and find out in person. It’s very difficult when you have product coming in daily to keep these catalogs updated 100% all the time.”

Resto-Mods vs. Restorations

Leonard: Look at the auctions that are out there like Barrett-Jackson. You can see that there’s the restoration cars – the numbers matching cars – and they bring good money, but now I’m noticing that the resto-mods are starting to bring good money too.

I think it was Mecum that I saw a resto-mod ’69 Camaro that sold for 120K. I was like, ‘A resto-mod?’ I couldn’t believe it, but it was really clean. There are a lot of companies that have stepped up in terms of reproducing product that is for chassis and suspension that are using modern materials that actually upgrade and update and improve the overall quality of what it was originally.

What I’ve noticed over the past five or six years or so is that the restoration side is crossing over into the performance territory. Look at Jegs and Summit; look at the kind of product they’re carrying now! They’ve got our product, they’ve got restoration stuff now.

We sell Yenko emblems for example; now we’ve sold 100 times more Yenko emblems than there ever where built. It’s not just restoring your car to ‘What’s right’ but you also want to be able to do it the way you want it, and nobody should judge you whether or not you want something real or not because when you drive it around, you’re happy.

PTV: What permits something to be added to the catalog? How much demand does it take?

Leonard: “It’s based off of several things, one, once we’ve decide to print a catalog we go to our specific vendors and say, ‘What do you have that is new?’ A lot of times they’ll have a product that’s new or we’ll tell them what we feel they should develop in some cases, or we’ll develop it our selves in other cases. Generally, when something new comes out and we think its good for the market – we don’t try to second guess it – we try to put it out there.

“Somethings have done well. Some not so well. It all depends on what the guy wants to put on his car and we don’t second guess it, we’re here to cater to the person who wants to do a resto-mod; we’ve got all the parts you could want, if the guy wants to do a complete restoration, a frame-off, we’ve got everything you’ll need for that too.

“When it came to launching a Mopar catalog, we had a lot of requests from people for a long period of time. It was something that’s been in our mind for decade. An opportunity arose to get into Mopar and we started to manufacturer some of the items ourselves because we felt the quality of the products were marginal, not up to the standards that I personally would want to put on a car that I would want to restore.

“We spent literally five years researching all the items, looking at samples, looking at quality, trying to determine which vendors to use, what items we could produce ourselves, buying inventory, make sure we had stock on hand. We did finally launch the line – its only been a year – and it’s the fastest growing line we have right now.

“Whenever you launch a new line it does take time to gain momentum, you start off, you start off slow, you make sure you have all your ducks in a row, you take inventory, you want to service the market properly, but the [reception to the] Mopar catalog did take us by surprise. We didn’t think that it was going to take off quite as fast as it did. I’m happy that it did.”

PTV: Classic has done a lot with Chop, Cut, Rebuild. Is There Anything Coming Over The Horizon?

Leonard: “We’re doing another car with them this year, we’re building a ’56 Bel Air that’s going to be using the new body that just came out – the Real Deal Steel body. We’re going to be partnering with them and supplying the rest of the parts because our Tri-Five book is coming out next month, that’s a new launch.

“When it came to getting into Tri-Fives, what we try to do is look at a line and ask is there demand for this. If so, we ask, ‘Do we get enough requests for it?,’ ‘Can we be competitive?,’ ‘Can we offer the service that people want?’ and generally I say yes to all these questions. We had an opportunity to get into it and a lot of the companies that we already work with already carried the products. We developed some of our own proprietary products too for the Tri-Five; we’ve got moldings, steering, a couple dozen items. We’re kinda excited about that one. We can slow down, we just don’t want to. slowing down isn’t something we’re used to.”

PTV: What goes into quality control (QC) process?

Leonard: “I’ll talk about a grille for example. A few years ago, seven or eight years ago, we built tooling for a ’64 Impala grille. It’s a big aluminum stamped piece and a very expensive tool. What happened is we got several originals, made sure they fit really good, and put them on several cars to make sure there was no issues with them. Then we used that as a prototype to build a tool.

“Once that tool was finished, we got a sample back and we test fit it back on the car to look at it, to make sure the fit was right, the finish was right, that its painted properly, and so on and so on and so on. It took – we go back and forth with the factory – a dozen times to make sure it was perfect.

“Generally it always ends up being right, once we dial in and we’re good with it and everybody’s happy. That’s the QC we’re talking about, quality control before you put it out on the market, you make sure don’t put something out that’s marginal, don’t put something out that has a blemish or defect that you know about before you send it out because that’s your reputation.

“You might get one run of product in and its great. Then there might be an issue with it, maybe it wasn’t manufactured right, maybe the paint’s not right. We take it out of stock, we fix it, whatever needs to be done, because the people that are in those positions are people that have cars themselves. They know what its like to get a part that isn’t right.

“We as a company feel that its important from a customer service standpoint but also from a quality standpoint that in order to maintain your reputation you have to be responsive, you have to make sure you’re taking care of your issues, if at all possible.

“When we get it out there and it looks good on the car, and somebody says, ‘Where’d you get that grille?,’ you say, “It comes from OER, or it came from Classic Industries,” that’s really the best kind of publicity you can get.”

After touring all of Classic Industries’ facilities – there’s two of them, their main building which houses the central warehouse, call center, headquarters offices, and showroom; and their second site, which has their photo studio, secondary warehouse, and test fit center – we had to say good-bye to Jeff. With a handful of new and revised catalogs coming out within the year, a larger and easier-to-operate website on the horizon, and thousands of new parts being added to their various offerings, its clear to see that Classic’s mission to help bring more classic muscle cars back to life is coming to fruition.

About the author

Kevin Shaw

Kevin Shaw is a self-proclaimed "muscle car purist," preferring solid-lifter camshafts and mechanical double-pumpers over computer-controlled fuel injection and force-feeding power-adders. If you like dirt-under-your-fingernails tech and real street driven content, this is your guy.
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