By Ashley Reyes
The SEMA Hot Rod Industry Alliance (HRIA) named Cool Hand Customs as the council’s latest member spotlight company. In this week’s feature, company owners Edward (EJ) and Amy Fitzgerald share stories about how their business emerged during a time when the odds were set against them, the success of their business and memories from their very first SEMA Show.
SEMA: Tell us the story of your shop. How did you start?
Edward (EJ) Fitzgerald: Cool Hand Customs was born out of the ashes of the recession of 2008. We had been in construction. When the economy turned, like many small operations, we were looking at bankruptcy. We had a two-year-old and a mortgage that needed us to not fail. So instead of bankruptcy, we did the craziest thing we could think of. We closed our construction business took out a loan for $13,000 and started Cool Hand Customs in our 400-sq.-ft. garage.
We didn't have a dime to our name, but if we were going down, we were going down in a blaze doing what we loved. I love motorcycles, could airbrush, and build anything. Amy loves cars and would help build anything. We wanted a way to love our jobs and our everyday lives. That November, we attended our first SEMA Show. That Show gave us even more confidence to pursue our dream of making our shop “work.”
Within the first year, we realized we needed more space. Eighteen months after starting, we purchased our current location—a 4,000-sq.-ft. building. Our shop’s customer base has grown and we have really found our niche working with the classics. We do everything in house, and it is just the two of us. We have the tenacity to learn whatever we need to get the job done. We love it, and really are living the dream. The worst problem we have at the moment is growing pains and figuring out our next step. Don’t get me wrong, not every day is rosy, but that’s just life!
SEMA: What was your breakthrough moment?
EF: I don’t know that we have had a “breakthrough” moment, other than simply becoming part of the automotive industry. Thinking back over the years, I have a very powerful memory of our very first SEMA Show in 2008. Specifically, a moment at the banquet. I remember vividly sitting there listening to the speeches and the awards being presented. I remember the feeling I got in my chest to know that we had arrived. I had this feeling of belonging and it was just the beginning.
SEMA: Tell us about your business now in 2021 and what projects are you working on?
EF: It’s been a tough year. Wisconsin has limited show time to begin with, so with all the events cancelled in 2020 early on, we never got started. We sponsored and organized a few car cruises over the summer as a way to keep playing while socially distant. We are currently working on a ’74 Duster project. We have rescued a 5.7 Gen 3 HEMI and married it to the Duster. The vehicle has had some awesome upgrades to the front end incorporating ’67 Valiant parts. The ride now sits on a complete QA1 K member suspension package, upgraded 8 3/4 Moser rear end. It is sure to be a head turner that will also perform on the Optima track if we are lucky.
The Duster is our in-between customer’s project. We are also restoring a ’76 Cutlass, painting a ’74 TransAm and doing some suspension upgrades on a ’52 Ford pickup.
SEMA: Tell us about a build you are proud of.
EF: Our ’40 Dodge pickup truck is one of the first that comes to mind. The truck was barely a shell of a cab when we got it. We built the entire chassis, box/bed and interior. We pulled a 440 out of a Brave Winnebago, bored it 30 over, added EFI, a custom racing bench seat, flat white paint, a clear bed floor, and raced at Optima Challenge in Vegas in 2018. It is an amazing truck.
SEMA: What advice do you have for young professionals contemplating a career in the automotive aftermarket
EF: Go for it! Surround yourself with those who know more than you. There is always something to learn and there is always someone willing to share the knowledge in this industry.
Fill out an HRIA member spotlight form to highlight how your company is contributing to the Hot Rod industry. Selected candidates are eligible to be featured on HRIA’s and media, SEMA eNews, and future ARMO-member updates