Carrozzeria America: Moal Coachbuilders

Dale Drinnon
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Martyn Goddard

You won't find the place by accident. From the outside, it's just another nondescript commercial building in a nondescript section of Oakland, the kind of area that most cities euphemistically zone as "mixed; light industrial, retail, and residential." None of those three categories seem applicable here. There is no sign on the front of the building, only the barely visible ghost of lettering that once said "Bill Moal and Sons" above the door. Painted over many times through the years, it's now hidden beneath the uniform coat of anonymous gray that at least makes overnight graffiti invasions somewhat easier to rectify.

The atmosphere of the Moal Coachbuilders facility, despite the show-winning all-American hot rods created there, is less like some hackneyed reality-TV speed shop and more like a clever little back-street 1950s Turin garage that could conjure up everything from a trick door hinge to Enzo Ferrari's latest prototype. Walking through this particular garage, you do indeed pass some choice hot rods. Some of them, in fact, were part of a dedicated Moal tribute at this year's prestigious Amelia Island Concours d'Elegance.

You can also see a rather distressed Lister-Chevrolet vintage racer in need of a replacement tail. In the corner, a dusty, late-model Maserati Quattroporte engine waits on a pallet for a future project, and by the back door is maybe Moal's most ambitious undertaking to date, the Gatto, a completely bespoke, Italian-retro-styled, Ferrari V-12-powered, two-seat GT. By reality-TV standards, the company's mainstream hot rods aren't even quite mainstream; for one thing, they're usable transportation devices, not static fantasies. Nothing in here has a Chevy 350-cubic-inch crate engine hooked to a Turbo-Hydramatic.

These automobiles are more likely to wear Borrani wire wheels or period Halibrands than repro Torq Thrust Ds wrapped in 30-series rubber, and you can be sure that no glass fibers were endangered during production. Moal vehicles, regardless of their genre, are made for connoisseurs. Prices begin in the six-figure region, and in that neighborhood, you don't need any signs out front.

An increasing number of connoisseurs are now interested in creating their own genres. They view custom work as a piece of art and craftsmanship and, as in the golden age of the great coachbuilders, a reflection of their individual taste. Take that long-gone Turin panel shop, blend in some Zagato and Figoni et Falaschi, and, yes, some LeBaron, add a touch of sanitary early dry-lakes racer and old-school Indy roadster, and you'll get a pretty good idea of where Moal is coming from -- and of the customers who follow the company.

The traditional coachbuilding heritage side of the equation, by the way, is more than metaphorical. Moal is a family business, with owner Steve Moal, wife Theresa, and their sons Michael and David presently in charge. The founding Moal, Michael and David's great-grandfather William, was a master wheelwright and a carriage maker (the original, horse-drawn kind) from the French seaport city of Brest. He met a Berkeley girl in France and followed her back to California to marry her in 1910, when he transferred his metal- and woodworking skills to the fledgling automotive-repair trade, establishing his first shop in Oakland in 1911. The Moals have been at it in some form ever since.

In the 1910s, '20s, and '30s, William did general collision and mechanical repairs, as well as custom bodies -- the Moal-bodied boattailed 1922 Battistini Buick Sports is still in circulation and as rakish and handsome as anything from the era. He also did some specialty fabrication for the racing community and, during Prohibition, hammered out the odd still. Understandably, no examples of the latter are known to remain.

In 1946, William constructed this building in the Eastlake district of Oakland and reopened the business as Bill Moal and Sons, a true soup-to-nuts operation that sometimes included upholstery, mufflers, and go-karts. In those days, Steve's father, George, was into hydroplane racing. Some of the hottest boats in the Bay Area ran his panel work.

Things really started to cook, however, when Steve assumed the company direction. From the early 1970s, he began to move the collision business upmarket, gradually becoming the de facto body shop for local Mercedes-Benz, Porsche, and Ferrari dealers. As his reputation in the exotic sector grew, he expanded Moal into even higher-end classic-car restorations, the designer and one-off stuff that's strictly no textbook. They're still at it, actually; among the cars receiving attention in the annex across the street are a lovely Lancia B24 Spider and an ex-John Surtees Ferrari 250LM.

But hot rods had always been Steve's personal passion, and in the late '90s, he brought those into the mix. With his experience and background, it was only natural that he would be influenced by the craftsmanship of the Old Masters. ("We did a Murphy-bodied Lincoln once," he says, "and I've never seen better work anywhere.") Steve made quality an equal priority with style, and, presto, the awards started rolling in -- as did the customers. They're a noteworthy lot; comedian/actor Tim Allen took delivery of his latest purchase only yesterday, and this morning he's on the phone waxing lyrical.

Of course, the whole notion of a quality hot rod might sound like so much hogwash if your experience is with typical slap-dash plastic wondercars, some of which would make a Calcutta taxi driver blush. A few minutes in a Moal car, though, and the difference is startling. The little white roadster we chose to photograph, primarily because it looks so smart, turns out to drive smartly, too, exactly like...well, frankly, like a car. Admittedly, it is lacking in ground clearance, but otherwise it's a regular car, designed from scratch for the real world, with no excuses for being "special."

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