Carrozzeria America: Moal Coachbuilders

July 12, 2012
Steve And Michael Moal
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."
It turns out to be Michael Moal's daily driver and isn't, strictly speaking, even quite finished (no mechanic's vehicle ever is). Nonetheless, it's commendably solid, without scuttle shake, suspension crash, or body boom over irregularities, and the brakes and steering feel sorted. The powertrain is an authentic Chevrolet 327 with three Stromberg 97 carburetors and a correct Muncie four-speed; the suspension uses Moal's preferred torsion-bar springing with adjustable dampers. The central bodywork came from a '29 Ford Model A roadster pickup; both the track-nose front and the combined trunk-and-fuel-tank rear are of hand-formed aluminum.
On paper, it's all very simple, and you'd think anyone could do it. In actuality, too many builders sacrifice function to form. The Moal secret seems to be that, like the original hot-rodders, they make function the first principle. All of the firm's cars start on a surface plate, a perfectly flat, rigid assembly table used in precision engineering to ensure that the frame is laid out accurately, and their chassis geometry is drawn up by a suspension engineer (Moal also markets a prefab '32 Ford frame as part of its regular retail product line). Each car is properly corner-weighed, in race-car fashion, to achieve optimum weight distribution on all four wheels and adjusted as needed to eliminate handling imbalances. Designer and stylist Alberto Hernandez, who works directly with the clients' input, is also an automotive engineer and has extensive experience with both one-off and major manufacturer design.
Perhaps most important, Steve and the family are extremely hands-on, and any key practical decisions are very evidently group affairs. Planning the accessory layout on an unusual new engine installation the day we visited became an impromptu half-hour meeting between the engineer who will design and machine the parts (David), the production manager who will schedule the work flow (Michael), the technicians who will turn the wrenches (Bob Munroe and C. J. Pullman), and the man with the ultimate responsibility (Steve).
A really good year's output may, consequently, be only three or four complete cars, but they'll be superb. There probably isn't a great deal of dramatic conflict or tool throwing in the process. Some projects demand more time by virtue of their sheer complexity, and the more personalized machines, naturally, tend to fall into that classification. If a "normal" hot rod takes eighteen months to two years, a unique car built to detailed customer specifications can easily take three years.
Eric Zausner's amazing aircraft-inspired Aerosport, one of the Amelia Island exhibits, is a case in point. Zausner is a regular customer and a longtime collector of fine automobiles who now takes great pleasure in developing fine automobiles of his own. He also likes each one to have a distinctive concept and habitually starts from that novel perspective. "Before I think about the car itself," he says, "I imagine the guy who would build it and what kind of car that guy would want to have."
For the Aerosport, he envisioned an imaginary American pilot and former California dry-lakes racer who came home from World War II with a new knowledge of aerodynamics and lightweight materials -- and an idea of combining his love of cars with his love of aircraft. The result is a pure piece of automotive theater, reminiscent of the great French streamlined customs of the '30s in its voluptuous pontoon fenders and sweeping, windblown lines.
It's also a stunning example of consummate metalwork and innovative detailing. The roof, with gull-wing windows, is removable, as are many other body panels. The trunk lid interchanges with a vertical stabilizer similar to the tail of the famous 1932 Gee Bee air racer -- Zausner is a historic airplane buff, as well -- and the interior positively bristles with equipment Michael collected from a nearby aircraft surplus yard. Technically, perhaps, you might still call it a hot rod; it did begin as a 1936 Ford, and the engine is a '55 T-Bird 312-cubic-inch V-8, double supercharged to 400 horses. Spiritually, however, the line between rod and design-house custom feels perilously thin.
That line disappears altogether when you turn to another Amelia car, the Gatto. Of all the total scratchbuilds that Moal has done, cars that carry no donated coachwork whatsoever, the Gatto is the most uncompromising and impressive: all it retains from the donor 1963 Ferrari 250GTE is essentially the engine, and even that has been uprated by specialist Patrick Ottis to 250GTO specs. The body is an original Moal design, along a Zagato double-bubble premise and hand formed by in-house genius Jimmy Kilroy; suspension engineer Michael Arnold created the new chassis as a semi-spaceframe augmented with bonded and riveted aluminum panels.
Because owner Bill Grimsley was "more interested in driving than showing," the Gatto also has full road amenities, including air-conditioning, comfy long-distance seats, and storage space (if you travel lightly). With 300 hp, a Tremec five-speed, and barely 2300 pounds of finished weight, it, not coincidentally, goes like the hammers of hell, and the noises when you let it scream in third gear are straight out of a '60s Le Mans newsreel. A week after these photos at Moal, it cruised through the 1000-mile California Mille without so much as a short breath.
It suits Grimsley's priorities utterly. As yet another veteran enthusiast and collector, he'd had his share of beautiful but delicate cars and wanted something with Italian style but also "a reliable driver's car. I knew I wanted a GTO motor, and I liked Steve's reputation for quality...he took care of things like interior heat before it even occurred to me to ask."
Which is why these two cars, however dissimilar at first glance, also may point the way forward for Moal -- and for any other small coachbuilder, anywhere, of similar circumstances. The common thread, really, is in something Steve Moal said about the Gatto, but which surely applies to everything Moal builds and explains why the company is still around after a century when so many others are gone: "What I like about the Gatto is we had a concept to meet, we engineered it, we built it, we met the customer's criteria, and there it is in front of us. It doesn't really matter to me if it looks like a '30s race car or a '60s sports car; it's exciting to have people give us the freedom to do that.
"It's great that some people see these cars as art objects, and in the future I hope we're going to continue to build cars that are artistic and exciting. That's really as good as it gets for us; that's what it's all about."

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