Rod Emory On Inventing Outlaw Porsche Culture and Carrying On A Legendary Legacy
Tucked away on a nondescript industrial block in North Hollywood, California is a parking lot without a sign, behind a gate with no marking. Driving through this gate and about eight spots down on the left is a small door (with an even smaller sign) that reads “EMORY Motorsports”. Open this door and you’ll be greeted by a man named Rod Emory, whose handshake is as strong as his smile.
“Hi! I’m Rod!” he’ll say, as he greets you in front of some of the most exquisite Porsches you’re likely ever to see in your life. He’s a third generation automotive visionary, but don’t take my word for it—read on to hear how this man has shaped So Cal Porsche culture with his family over the last 40 years.
Ted Gushue: What’s the first car that you remember driving?
Rod Emory: The first car I remember driving was a 1956 VW Baja Bug that my father built. It was the very first original Baja Bug. I was 5 years old at Pismo Beach. Every year my family and I would take a trip to Pismo on Labor Day and lots of other holidays at Ocotillo Wells and the first time that I actually got behind the wheel and drove a car solo was driving the Baja Bug, ripping through the dunes at Pismo.
TG: Not too much to run into there.
RE: No, not too much to run into, but a whole lot of fun.
TG: Now, had you been practicing how to drive stick shift prior to that?
RE: No, that was my first time. I rode little dirt bikes and motorcycles and stuff, when I was about 4, 5 years old and so had some of the basics but hadn’t driven a car. Also a little Honda ATV 90 that I was riding at about 4 or 5 years old. Then my dad put me in the Baja and put this really, terribly ugly gold-colored shag pillow behind my back. Essentially my legs were straight, from my butt straight to the pedals, and I’m holding on to the steering wheel. I can send you a photo of me, actually, throwing rooster tails that exact day when I was 5 years old, and all you see is my little long-haired brown head sticking out the window, just above the side door. That was the first car that I ever drove was the original Baja Bug out at Pismo Beach.
TG: At this point, your father had already gone whole hog on Porsche Parts Obsolete, correct?
RE: Yeah. My grandfather had Valley Custom Shop in Burbank from 1948 to 1961. He was one of the pioneers that really started customizing hot rods and was the guy that really mastered the art of channeling and sectioning cars. When everybody else was chopping tops, my grandfather was channeling and sectioning them.
He ran and operated his shop with his brother-in-law Clayton Jensen. Then in ’61, Chick Iverson, a friend of my grandfather’s, had just bought the VW Porsche dealership in Newport Beach, California and asked my grandfather to relocate his family and change up his life and come and run the body shop at Chick Iverson Volkswagen Porsche.
At the time, that’s when custom cars had really shifted from metal work to cosmetic work. In the ’60s, it was more about paint and lots of crazy paint jobs. It wasn’t really that it was anything that really excited my grandfather, so he figured changing it up would be a good thing. My grandfather ran the body shop and my father worked in the car lot at first, cleaning the Cosmoline off the Porsches as they would come off the boat before they bring them into the dealership.
Back then, they were just barged over and so they actually coated the entire bottom of the cars with a thick waxy oil called Cosmoline, so my dad would clean all of the underneath of the cars then detail them and get them ready to sell. Then from there he started working in the parts department and eventually in the mid-’60s became the Parts Manager at Chick Iverson Volkswagen Porsche.
Then about 10 years later, my dad had realized that Porsche was taking all of their parts from their parts departments and if the car was two or three years old or older, they were sending all those parts back to a big warehouse, because the parts departments were running out of space. They had these big distribution warehouses all over that started filling up, at which point the parts were considered obsolescent or obsolete parts.
As those warehouses were filling up, Porsche and Volkswagen were actually throwing the stuff away and crushing it and destroying it. As soon as my dad realized that’s what was happening, he went to his boss Chick Iverson and said, “Hey, we need to do something about this. I think we need to make a deal and buy as much of the obsolescence as they’ll allow us to buy.”
They struck a deal with Porsche and Volkswagen of America that they bought all of it. They couldn’t cherry-pick it, they had to buy everything and that’s how Porsche Parts Obsolete was born in about about 1972, ’73. My father and Chick got a warehouse, started inventorying all of Porsche and Volkswagen’s distributed obsolescence, and started then selling parts to everybody to supply stuff for their 356s and 911s. Most of the Volkswagen stuff they sold it off in lots but they kept all of the early 911, 356 Spyder parts, all that stuff, and then created Porsche Parts Obsolete.
TG: When they did this, did they feel like that they were building something for the future or was it just a savvy business move at the time? Did they see the future value that these cars were going to be as classics?
RE: Well, I think if they would have seen deep into the future, they probably would have put it into a tomb and just warehoused the stuff and never sold it, because obviously now the prices are just insane. They had pallets of fog lights and pallets of roof racks and pallets of engine parts and engine cases and fuel injection pumps. They were just being a service provider to everybody that had a vintage Porsche. Obviously, they were selling it for quite a bit less than it would be selling for today. Maybe 5 cents on the dollar, but at the time it was a very lucrative business for both Chick Iverson and my father. Technically it was Chick’s business and my dad worked for him.
Then in about 1985, ’86, my father bought Chick out and became the owner of Porsche Parts Obsolete, so I grew up, from when I was 3, 4 years old, going to work with my dad and hanging out, then being at Porsche Parts Obsolete and also going over to the Porsche Dealership because it was all the same company technically at the time. I spent most of my early life in a Porsche Dealership parts department in Porsche Parts Obsolete and then going and bugging my grandfather and my uncle and learning to do body work and paint.
While I was in my dad’s shop digging through Porsche parts, he’d have pallets and pallets of stuff I’d have to put away. I was like a kid in a candy store. For me, where other kids were playing with Legos and Tinkertoys, I was putting Porsche parts together that probably weren’t ever intended to fit together. Just building random stuff, whether it was a go-kart or trying to build an engine out of shelves full of parts, and then decided to start doing some restoration work, which is when I ended up getting a356 myself.
TG: How old were you then, when you got the 356?
RE: I was 14. I started my first restoration when I was 14 years old and I finished it when I was 16, which is a 1953 Coupe that I built as a vintage race car and that was really the start of my business, because when I was 16 years old I got my racing license at Willow Springs Raceway and then started racing. Prior to racing that, I had raced ATVs and was on a drag race team so I had learned a lot of skills and race mentality but then when I was 16 I started racing my vintage Porsche.
Did that for a couple of years and then when I turned 18 and graduated from high school, I moved to Seattle to help another guy take care of a car collection and I brought my race car with me. One of my first stops was at Portland International Raceway in 1992 for the Portland Historics, and that’s where I met who became my first Porsche customer, a guy that started Kettle Potato Chips and I started working with him to build cars for him and then provide at-track services and support.
TG: Was Kettle Potato Chips as big of a thing then as it was now?
RE: It was a small company. In 1992 it was a small company baking nuts and making potato chips but it wasn’t the large corporation that it is now.
TG: You guys are still close, yeah?
RE: Yeah, definitely. Absolutely. He’s since sold the company but I’ve built six cars for him over the years I’ve been working with him. I still talk to him a couple times a week, I guess 24 years later I’m still building cars for him. I started my business building vintage race cars and providing at-track support and taking people like him racing all over the United States but with that, people also came to me and wanted me to start building these little hot rod street cars and little 356 Outlaws and then what I call my Emory Specials, which I did my first Emory Special in 1998. A 356 Outlaw is a 356 that still has stock body lines but more GT or rally inspired, race inspired look and performance and handling.
TG: Tell me about the moment when you guys coined the term “Outlaw”. Was it only something that was built by the Emory family, or could it be something that lived up to the standard?
RE: In the ’80s, when my dad and I were working on cars in the back of Porsche Parts Obsolete, building my ’53 Coupe and his ’65 right-hand drive car, all of his parts customers and friends would come around saying, “Oh, you guys are outlaws. They’re never going to let you bring these cars to the car shows. How can you go and think that everybody is going to like these cars when you’re drilling holes in them and putting fog lights on them?”
Our attitude at that point was hey, it doesn’t hurt these cars to personalize them and customize them and have some fun with them. If they won’t let us into those events, the heck with them. We’ll go to different events or we’ll do our other thing. A buddy of ours that owns a jewelry shop in Orange County made a badge for us that we started putting on the back of our cars that said “356 Outlaws”; that was just our way of, not really starting an official club or anything like that, it was just a little badge that we put on the back of the cars that we built or that we gave to our friends that customized or hot-rodded out their 356s.
TG: It was more of a merit badge, not necessarily the mark of something that you guys had made personally, which created a sense community as opposed to a, “You can only get this through us,” sort of thing.
RE: Right. For my dad and I it was, this way of saying that we’re going to build the cars the way that we want to. We’re not worried about picking lint out of our air cleaners or cleaning our defrost vents out with Q-Tips. We’re going to build the cars the way that we want, have them handle the way that we want, choose our own wheels and tires and lower them and we’re going to put this little badge on the back of our cars and then for our friends around us that do cars that we feel are in that same spirit, we’ll gift you a badge for the back of your car.
It wasn’t something that we decided, “Oh, let’s create a brand and do something where it’s exclusive just to us”. It was more of a badge of honor that we put on our cars and our friends’, and it was not something that we’ve ever sold. Even to this day, certain individuals that we feel live to that spirit and standard of building cars for fun, we’ll gift them a badge for the back of their car. That’s where the term Outlaw first started attaching itself or originated as it’s associated with Porsches.
We weren’t the first ones to customize a Porsche. I mean, you look at the car back in the ’50s to Dean Jeffries, it was a 356 Carrera that he restyled. He customized his car. James Dean, he took the hubcaps off and put numbers on the side of his car and went racing. We weren’t the first ones to do that, but the term Outlaw as associated with Porsche originated from our little shop in Costa Mesa when we did that little badge that we started putting on the back of our cars.
TG: Some of these original ones are still on the road today obviously, and they’ve reached almost ludicrous value in the secondary market. Some of them go for insane money.
RE: That’s correct, yeah.
TG: How do those original cars stack up to the ones you’re building today?
RE: The cars that were done back in the ’80s were cars that my dad and I built together. I was building them in the shop. My dad is an extremely brilliant design guy. He knows how these cars should look, he knows how these cars should feel. He doesn’t weld, he doesn’t do necessarily the physical side of building cars but he’s a brilliant designer and so for me, I was fortunate because I grew up in a family that had both. My grandfather was this craftsman that could shape metal and weld and do body and paint, and also design cars and knows the way that they should look.
My dad, being around him my whole life growing up, he’s got this amazing eye for how cars should look. Together in the ’80s and ’90s, my dad and I were creating cars together with all the right look, all the right feel and some of our early cars that are still around still have some really, they’ve got great value. They don’t have the performance and handling that current cars do because obviously we’ve evolved the development of how these cars handle and feel now, but they definitely won on style points back in the day.
TG: What are some of the defining characteristics that make up an Emory Special today?
RE: I think that when you look at the cars that I call an Emory Special, basically I’m redesigning and reshaping essentially every line on the car. Raising the wheel arches is one thing that I do on all of them and rolling the rockers and doors under, or making the body appear a little bit thinner and giving the car a look and feel as if it’s in motion when it’s standing still.
For example, the black ’58 Coupe. Changed the B-pillar and got rid of the drip rail and raised the wheel arches and gave the car just a much lower, sleeker profile. My 1964 Cabriolet, the Emory Special that I did, same thing. I leaned the windshield back, leaned the nose back. Really, an Emory Special is a car that has refined lines or that I’ve changed the lines on the car but I try to do it as if Porsche would have evolved that design and taken a 356 a little further into the future but still making it all look as if every piece, every part, and every component on the car is something that Porsche intended to be on that car.
TG: When you actually spend time with people from Porsche, what do they think of the work?
RE: I’ve gotten some great compliments from some of the modern-day Porsche designers that have visited my shop and see what I’m doing. Some of the modifications and changes that I’m making to the car look as if they could have been done in the factory. I guess that’s the best way to put it. I’ve gotten some great compliments from some of those guys on the some of the stuff I’m doing. They find it’s in the true spirit of the way Porsche styled cars.
TG: What are you working on now?
RE: I’m continuing the restoration on the 1951 356 SL [Gmund Coupe] that won Le Mans in 1951, should be wrapping up the restoration towards the end of this year. I’m also doing a 1965 356 Coupe that I’ve integrated all 964 suspension into, including a 996 twin turbo differential, so it’s an all-wheel drive 356 with a 2.6-liter engine…so that’s really evolving the suspension and handling characteristics of a 356. I’m doing another car for the company Momo that is a 356 with a restyled aluminum nose and tail that will be 964 coilover-type suspension with a twin turbocharged 4-cylinder 911 engine and then…”
TG: What’s the engineering challenge to shoehorn 964 parts into a 356?”
RE: Well, the biggest challenge is that the width and wheelbase is different, so I have to shorten the chassis components of the overall wheelbase of the 964 in order to get the length right. Then I have to play around with hubs and wheel offsets to be able to get everything underneath the fenders from a width standpoint, but I utilize technology to be able to help me fast track that by 3D scanning both the 356 tub and then also the 964 tub and then merge that data together to be able to give me a better understanding of the intersection points where the two chassis will meet, and allowing me to minimize the amount of, what I’ll call bridge material between the two chassis. Because we have to then build panels that bridge the unibody of the 356 to the unibody of the 964.
TG: That couldn’t possibly be a better marriage of your grandfather’s engineering skill with your father’s eye for design. With the computer involved, but it sounds like they would have done the exact same thing, had they had the technology at their disposal so many years ago.
Special thanks to Rod Emory and Emory Motorsports for taking the time to lift back the curtain on the origins of “Outlaw” Porsche culture in California.
Photography by Ted Gushue // Historic photos provided by Rod Emory