Rebuilding a fallen hot-rod empire

Posted: Thursday, August 24, 2000

ANAHEIM, Calif. -- Beneath a blazing sun, Boyd Coddington returned to the Street Ride Nationals in Louisville, Ky., to begin reclaiming his legacy. The bearded, burly 55-year-old unfolded a simple card table, laid out about a dozen aluminum car wheels and hoped the crowds would materialize as they once did.

An old acquaintance approached Coddington, decked out in his trademark Hawaiian shirt, jeans and shades. Aren't you embarrassed? the man asked. How can you go on?

Coddington considered the questions. After all, just a few years before, he had attended such shows surrounded by fans, an entourage and a couple of his trademark showy cars.

But last summer in Louisville, he was all alone and starting anew after his Orange County businesses collapsed, leaving his empire -- and his reputation -- in tatters.

''I told him a man's got to do what a man's got to do -- and that I had no intention of quitting,'' Coddington recalls.

It has been a painful climb back for Coddington, who for more than a decade was the undisputed king of hot rods and specialty wheels. His sleek cars, distinguished by their sporty aluminum wheels, graced the cover of Smithsonian magazine, were made into a series of Mattel Hot Wheels toys and were snapped up by the likes of ZZ Top's Billy Gibbons and Van Halen's Michael Anthony.

His cars ''were like moving sculptures,'' recalled Gray Baskerville, senior editor of Hot Rod Magazine.

Then the ride abruptly ended. Boyds Wheels, a company the former Idaho farm boy and Disney machinist had guided to nearly $30 million in annual sales, ramped up its production capacity just as the market for high-end custom wheels softened.

With losses mounting and sales dropping, the company filed for bankruptcy in January 1998 and later liquidated most of its assets.

The devastated Coddington thought about retreating from the scene entirely. Instead, he pieced together a new company in Anaheim by July 1998, selling off his Ferrari for $150,000 and some real estate holdings for $1.5 million to fund operations.

''I was crushed like an ant, but I want to come back and prove to myself and customers that I can still do it,'' he said.

His new venture encountered resistance. Some skeptical suppliers, owed money by the original company, insisted on being paid upfront, Coddington said. Many dealers and wholesalers were reluctant to place orders, waiting to see how the company fared.

Critics blame him for running Boyds Wheels into the ground, costing shareholders millions of dollars. Unsecured creditors sued Coddington last year, claiming he used company assets for illicit personal gain. He denies any wrongdoing. Attorneys for the plaintiffs say the suit remains resolved.

Even Coddington's attempt to use his own name for two new businesses triggered a legal dispute. Automotive Performance Group, the company that gained control of Boyds Wheels and Hot Rods by Boyd during the bankruptcy proceedings, sued Coddington for trademark infringement.

The case was settled after Coddington agreed to use his full name for his new ventures.

Now, business has started to pick up at Boyd Coddington's Wheels, he says, predicting that sales this year will more than double to $5 million, generating earnings of at least $500,000. The business is benefiting from resurgent demand for custom wheels. The retail market has grown by about 9 percent annually over the last decade, reaching $1.7 billion in sales last year, said Jim Spoon-hower of the Specialty Equipment Market Association, the Diamond Bar-based trade group for the automotive aftermarket.

''Demand for the Coddington line has really taken off,'' said Adolph Bautista, manager of Dealers Supply, a wholesale wheel distributor in Fresno. The distributor expects to buy $300,000 worth of Coddington's wheels this year, up from $125,000 in 1999, he said.

The wheels sell for $250 to $1,000 each.

Distributors and wholesalers account for about 75 percent of Coddington's business, with sales to customers over the Internet and at hot-rod shows accounting for the rest.

Earlier this year, Coddington also opened a new hot-rod shop, returning to the arena in which he made his mark. Together, the two businesses employ 42 people.

Boyd Coddington's Garage is filled with engines, chassis and bodies. The spruced-up vehicles sell for $100,000 to $400,000, Coddington said. An Alaskan tour operator has put in an order for six 28-seat hot-rod-styled buses at $180,000 apiece.

''I'm back in the game,'' Coddington said. ''This is my life.''

Growing up on a dairy farm in Rupert, Idaho, Coddington devoured car magazines and dreamed of escaping to Southern California to build hot rods -- cars or trucks that have been modified to provide a streamlined, custom appearance and zippy performance. Arriving in California in 1967 he eventually landed a machinist job at Disneyland, building rods on the side. In 1978, he opened Hot Rods by Boyd in the garage of his Anaheim home.

Three years later, Coddington began making stylish billet wheels, which are carved out of aluminum blocks by a computer-controlled lathe. The wheels proved so popular that he launched Boyds Wheels in 1988, and it soon eclipsed his hot-rod business in annual sales.

Coddington vows that he has learned from past mistakes, expanding slowly this time around and working to keep costs in check. Instead of attending 35 hot-rod shows a year, he said, he now goes to the 10 most important ones.

Coddington says he is putting in 80-hour weeks to reclaim his reputation.

''I learned about the American dream and then about the American nightmare,'' he said. ''I'm trying to build the American dream again.''

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