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Hemisfear driving impressions and how Chip Foose realised his dream
Chip Foose and Hemisfear - one of two cars equipped with injected Chrysler Hemi power
Santa Barbara in California is probably best known for its inviting beaches lapped by the Pacific Ocean, but it’s also the birthplace of Chip Foose and continues to be the home of Sam Foose, Chip’s father. Sam has turned out a host of noteworthy customs and rods over the years and understandably, hanging out with a creative automotive father had a profound impact on Chip. At the tender age of 12 he had already mastered the spray gun and painted his first car - a 356 Porsche.
It was a chance meeting with one individual, however, that was to provide the catalyst that would propel Chip in a new direction. While working for Sam, Chip met Alex Tremulus, the designer of the original Tucker. Chip fell in love with Alex's art work while Alex told Chip about a great place where he could really develop his creative interests. It was called the Art Centre College of Design in Pasadena. Art Centre was not a cheap school back when Chip attended, nor is it today, where it costs almost $100,000 to complete the eight semesters (terms). In fact, part way through his studies Chip had to go back to work and earn more money just to pay for his schooling.
Nevertheless, he persevered and made it through. For his final semester in 1990 Chrysler sponsored a project to design a niche market vehicle. Chip chose to design a car for an existing niche - the street rod market - which, at the time, was amazingly buoyant.
“I gave them a purple model of a coupe and a roadster, and that was the initial spark for the Prowler,” says Chip. “They took the roadster to production, but I always wanted to build the coupe version for myself. When we signed a deal with RC2, a diecast company, they actually provided some seed money to produce my car.” After almost a 20 year wait, Chip realised his dream and Hemisfear was born.
I first met Chip at the Art Centre. He had been working for Frenchman Alain Clenet who produced one of those Thirties-style, long-nosed sports cars based on a Detroit chassis. Clenet owners included Rod Stewart and the King Hussein of Jordan. They featured in the TV show Dallas and the Clenet was selected as the official US Centennial Motor Car in 1986 - the same year Chip began working as designer/fabricator at Asha Corporation, Clenet's design and engineering offshoot.
Chip graduated with honours in 1990, but Asha's focus was shifting away from design towards engineering and Chip was forced to move on and work elsewhere. It was during this period in his life that Chip including a short stint at Ford Motor Company, with whom he continues a close relationship. It was all good experience for when legendary hot rod builder Boyd Coddington came calling.
Chip enjoyed his time with Boyd, saying, "It was the best job ever. I got to design and build whatever I wanted while Boyd sold the projects and worried about the money. I knew that if I hadn't signed on with Boyd I would have regretted it every day." Chip joined Boyd full-time in 1993 and I came on board in 1995. Chip and I shared an office overlooking the hot rod shop and we had fun. We'd meet most mornings and Boyd would play liar's poker to see who paid for breakfast and then the day would begin with Chip designing everything from T-shirts and packaging to wheels and complete automobiles. Boyd was hot and could seemingly sell everything that bore his name and while there Chip penned some masterpieces including the Boydster series.
Most hot rods by Boyd were hand-formed, steel bodies assembled atop a ladder-type frame fabricated by one of Boyd's team of Swedish workers Larry Sergejeff. Much of the metal work was farmed out to Marcel De Lay and his two sons who continue to operate one of the most renowned hand-crafted body building establishments in the USA. Chip, of course, had to design everything from the vehicle itself to the shape of the pedals, instruments and upholstery style. And, those cars were built very quickly, usually in a matter of months. Boyd's was building several cars at once so Chip really hustled to keep the designs flowing. He would also have to design everything from the wheels to the marketing materials and the invitation to the media launch. He's amazingly prodigious and, as you may have seen on TV, can even sketch upside down so that you can see what he's doing.
As has been well documented, Boyd's wild ride came to an end in 1996 when the publicly traded company simply ran out of cash. The company was liquidated and Chip was on the street. Never one to let the ink dry he launched his own design company - Foose Design. Hard working to the point of being manic (ask his wife Lynn) Chip never looked back. He finished a 1934 Coupe for Ron Whiteside and then re-did the Boydster II for Chuck Svatos employing Brits John West (Dan Fink Metalworks) to handle the fabrication and Mick Jenkins the colour change from yellow to black. In 2000, the car won the coveted America's Most Beautiful Roadster Award.
Chip was on the road to success but could easily have taken a wrong turn when Jesse James of Monster Garage came calling. Jesse wanted Chip to be his designer turning Mustangs into lawn mowers and Ford Expeditions in trash trucks but that wasn't where Chip wanted to go saying, "That direction would have defeated my plans to be taken seriously." Undeterred, Discovery Channel wanted to do something with him and between them Chip and producer Bud Brutsman developed the concept for what became Overhaulin'. Chip says, "Our two childhoods clashed: Mine was about building stylish cars and Bud's was about playing pranks, so we stole people's cars and rebuilt them without them knowing." To date they have filmed 83 shows over five seasons.
Custom interior colours to order
One arena in which Chip really did excel was in designing and building hot rods specifically for the Ridler Award presented each year at the Detroit Autorama. Chip won in 2002 with the '36 Chevy Grand Master, in 2003 with Ron Whiteside's '33 Ford Stallion and again in 2005 with Ken Reister's '36 Ford Impression. He didn't win in 2006 but he was a finalist. However, his own dream roadster was about to debut.
There were actually two Foose Coupes at the 2006 SEMA Show: a green one and a black one belying the misconception that only one of these cars was ever built. In fact, five have been lovingly pieced together. Both SEMA cars were powered by mid-mounted Chrysler Hemi V8s, however, subsequent cars have been fitted with either Ford or Roush/Ford V8s. The cars are built by Gaffoglio Family Metalcrafters in Fountain Valley, California. Metalcrafters gained its excellent reputation building Chrysler's legendary dream cars of the nineties. The attention to detail and fit and finish is that of any high-end production car.
Hilborn injection takes power up to 500 ponies
Under the smooth carbon-fibre body resides a modular steel space frame with Indy car-style independent suspension designed by John Hotchkis with unequal length control arms both front and rear. Up front there are rocker arm actuated inboard Koni coil overs with more of the same in the rear. The motor is mounted ahead of the ZF 5-speed manual transaxle right behind the driver. It's loud but not intrusive and oh-so-sweet sounding. Indeed, some of this interview was conducted while driving the car and hearing was no problem.
The Coupe has all the comforts you'd expect from a $298,000 car: Air conditioning, power windows, power door locks with remote, tilt steering column, turn signals in the outside mirrors, leather upholstery and beautifully hand-crafted details all designed by Chip. Everything from the sill plate to the instruments resembles the work of a watchmaker- it’s exquisite.
The lightweight monocoque body is a built much like a Lotus in two layers with an inner and outer that is autoclave cured. The doors, while obviously not steel, have heft and shut like they should with a reassuring "thunk". In the case of the green machine, the easily lifted engine cover, reveals the eight gaping stacks of the Hilborn electronic fuel injection. It looks and sounds like a vintage dragster on steroids.
Like most cars, the Hemisfear rides on big wheels: 20 x 8 inch up front shod with 225/40 PZ Pirellis and in the rear 315/35 ZR 20s. Sticking out in the breeze, they may be no more legal in California than they are in Croydon but here nobody seems to care. The wheelbase is 120 inches. The front track is almost 61 inches and the rear is a tad over 65. Overall, the car measures 164 inches but is just 45 inches tall – 5 inches more than a GT40. It weights a mere 2775 lbs and as you might expect with 500 horsepower to play with, acceleration is quite staggering.
Detailed engineering cutaways necessary for production
Even though Chip's shop is on a quiet industrial street in Huntington Beach, where there are numerous hot rods shops, Hemisfear elicites stares from every body who sees it. We took off with Chip behind the wheel taking it easy. We'd managed to over cook the battery while we had a sandwich and Chip just wanted to make sure we were going to get home okay before handing over the controls to me. The car is surprisingly comfortable. There’s not a huge amount of room but then again, this is a mid-engined supercar. The carbon-backed seats are firm and supportive. The steering wheel is half wrapped so the back side is aluminium with machined finger grooves - cold in the morning but not on this blistering summer's day. The billet aluminium wheel has three split spokes so the round instruments with large Foose logos are easy to read. The tach is trick in that it is wrapped around the speedo in the same nacell. The sculptured aluminium gear lever is a carbon-covered pistol grip while the clutch and brake pedals are round and ribbed like early Ford pedals. The throttle is an oval shape and everything has a Foose logo - maybe too many?
The neat combined speedo/tach
The clutch was surprisingly light and it was an easy shift into first, however, even the slightest depression of the throttle resulted in a surprise suck and roar from the injectors. It might be a tiger sucking air through its teeth and roaring before it pounces. Either way, it's time to make tracks and let out the clutch and take off down the street. Shifting was simple but getting used to the view was less so. All you can see is a long green bonnet, which makes you feel like an eight ball looking down the green baise, and big donuts of rubber rotating on the periphery. I've driven plenty of open wheel fenderless hot rods, including the Plymouth Prowler, but this was definitely different.
Visibility was surprisingly good - better than the Prowler due to the large screen and reasonably-sized side windows. That said, I never reversed! The Woodward rack and pinion steering is light and because the car weighs less than 3000 pounds, power assist is not necessary. The brakes, front and rear, have huge 14-inch vented rotors with 6-piston Baer Monoblock calipers. Stopping those big Pirelli shod Foose wheels was not a problem.
Chatting and tooling around Huntington Beach, otherwise known as Surf City, was a pleasure but short lived this time around because of our fear that the battery would die. Chip and I have always got on well and we were reliving our carefree time together at Hot Rods by Boyd when making money was Boyd's problem.
Back at the shop, Chip was assaulted from all sides by his staff needing answers to dozens of problems. A car needed to be finished. His licensing guy Carson Lev had a dozen more questions. Assistant Lynne needed a signature. Somebody else needed some technical advice. The phones were ringing. It was back to business as usual for Chip Foose.
Story: Tony Thacker
Photos: Tony Thacker & Chip Foose