By Tori Tellem
2016 SEMA Hall of Fame
Matt Agosta, Chip Foose and Gary Hooker
By definition, the SEMA Hall of Fame was created to recognize outstanding persons in the automotive specialty industry whose creativity, dignity, integrity, industriousness and accomplishments, on a national basis, have enhanced the stature of, and significantly contributed to, the industry’s growth. Established in 1969, the award is the automotive aftermarket industry’s highest honor.
However, if you ask an inductee what the SEMA Hall of Fame means, you may receive a slightly different answer: It is a collection of my heroes. It represents innovative people with passion and dreams driven by fear and hope. It is a symbol, that we built this.
SEMA Hall of Fame members have transformed the automotive aftermarket industry, but their outreach has also extended to both the SEMA community and charitable causes, with their true selves revealed in their deeds and actions. Throughout their careers, their innate ability to inspire others and to create opportunities will be a constituent element of their legacies.
In 2016, the SEMA Hall of Fame inducts Matt Agosta, Chip Foose and Gary Hooker—three outstanding persons in the automotive specialty industry.
Matt Agosta—A Volunteer Leader
Matteo Agosta was born in Trapani, Sicily, Italy, before moving to a location in the United States that was a foreshadowing of his future: Detroit.
“As a kid, I was always interested in cars,” Agosta said. “You couldn’t help it, being in Detroit.”
He recalled that his paper route took him past a Jaguar dealership, “and I looked lovingly at the XKE.” As a teen, he made going to auto dealerships on October 1 a regular routine in order to see the new lines of cars. “But my dad was always a Packard lover, so up to 1961, we had only Packards.”
Agosta eventually bought a Fiat 850 Coupe as his first car, and since there was always something going wrong with it, he had to learn to do the repairs himself. “I called it my Fred Flintstone car, because in three short years, it had developed huge rust holes in the floorboard,” Agosta said.
By the way, the paper route was Agosta’s idea of a way to get out of working at his dad’s cement construction company over summer vacations, but that plan didn’t work out too well. He ended up doing both jobs. “But getting up and going to work taught me responsibility and also built up my character,” Agosta said. “I never had a summer vacation, but I’m glad for the lessons he taught me.”
In high school, Agosta took college-prep courses, “and was teetering between business or becoming a doctor.” But in senior year, they had career day at Wayne State University School of Medicine. “A roomful of cadavers changed my mind, and I didn’t want to be a doctor anymore, so I switched to business administration and marketing.”
As he was transferring to the University of Detroit—“I still didn’t know what exactly I was going to end up doing”—he met Carolyn, who would later become his wife. “When you meet a woman that you think you can have a future with, you start studying,“ Agosta joked.
At the time, Carolyn’s father, Lynn H. Steele, had a tool and die shop and was also making rubber parts for classic cars. When he went off to places such as Hershey and Carlisle for car shows, Agosta began going along to help. The rubber parts became a more successful business venture than tool and die, so Steele moved from Farmington, Michigan, to Denver, North Carolina, to open Steele Rubber Products.
Because the company was in a rural area, Steele had trouble finding employees. He also needed someone to help with marketing and running the business. Agosta and Carolyn were married by this time, and Matt was working for Hertz Truck Leasing as a rental salesman and agency manager. Steele invited him to come to North Carolina, and he stepped up to the challenge, despite being slightly nervous.
“I had done some business management, but Lynn also needed help in the tool room and I’d never done that,” he said. “On the first day, he had me operating a milling machine and making molds.”
Before long, Agosta was managing production and customer service as well as handling marketing for swap meets and car shows, and the business began adding more employees. Today, Agosta is the president/CEO of Steele Rubber Products and has been since 1985. His youngest child, Danny, is the new-product R&D manager, and his oldest, Joanna, is currently vice president but is transitioning to president, “which will make it the third generation working in the business.”
Agosta attended his first SEMA Show around 1991. At the time, the restoration industry was dealing with trademark licensing issues with General Motors and its licensing group.
“A lot of us vendors knew each other and were wondering what we were going to do,” Agosta said. “I remember having a meeting with several other companies about it. Jim Wirth, who was part of our group and a member of SEMA, met with Chuck Blum, then the president of the association. From that meeting, the Automotive Restoration Market Organization [ARMO] was born, bringing restoration companies together to address issues. Another rising battle was the proposed ‘clunker bills’—crushing old cars for pollution credits. It was David fighting Goliath for our survival. SEMA helped even the playing field.”
Agosta became an active SEMA member at the forefront of legislative issues, and he opened dialogues with the automakers and developed educational opportunities for SEMA members. He also volunteered his time as a board member, chairman of the SEMA ARMO council, and a founding member of the SEMA Political Action Committee and President’s Club, as well as participating in task forces and chairing a variety of committees.
“One of the most satisfactory projects was the two years in which we presented the National Educational Conference,” he said. “We had some real superstars that were presenting business seminars.”
Agosta has received both the Chairman’s Award and the Person of the Year Award from ARMO, and also the SEMA Ambassador award.
“The thing I like about SEMA is that it has brought my main competitors into the group, and we have gotten to know each other,” Agosta said. “Though we furiously compete, we have become friends and respect each other. When it’s an industry issue, we all come together.”
“I enjoy being involved,” Agosta said. Which is why he was “blown away” to be named to the SEMA Hall of Fame.
“I always see myself as a worker bee, but I can’t think of any one thing I did that was enough to put me in the same company as many of the others whom I look up to in the Hall of Fame,” Agosta explained. “It’s a matter of, I got involved, whether at the board level, educational, legislative or whatever I thought was worthwhile to do. I did it because it was the right thing to do.”
Chip Foose—A Born Builder and Designer
Chip Foose isn’t writing his autobiography (yet), but if he were, the first line might read, “My career is an extension of my father’s.” That’s because the earliest memories this well-regarded designer and acclaimed builder of custom vehicles has are, of course, car-related.
Douglas Sam Foose was born in Santa Barbara, California, and had “huge cheeks.” That made his mom instantly begin calling him Chipper or Chip, like a chipmunk; it wasn’t until day four that “Douglas” appeared on his birth certificate.
His first memory of the automotive industry was linked to his father, Sam, whose career in the ’60s and early ’70s took him from building high-profile Hollywood studio cars and hovercrafts to a company that did government safety testing and developed safety equipment, including airbags. Sam eventually went on to open his own shop, called Project Design. By the age of 7, Chip was already a fixture there.
Age 7 was also a big year in Foose’s life, because he met Alex Tremulis, designer of vehicles such as the Tucker. Tremulis was working with Sam, and when Chip saw his designs, “even at that age, I knew I wanted to go to ArtCenter College of Design and design cars for a living. I didn’t know who he was, but I absolutely fell in love with his artwork.”
Drawing was actually nothing new to Foose—he was already at it by age 3.
“My father was a talented artist himself, and he would draw at home and I would sit next to him and copy whatever he was doing,” Foose recalled. “When he was finished, I would copy it and draw it over and over. My goal was to be as good as him.”
By age 14, he was that good, so when Sam had a design idea, he had Chip draw it.
As Foose got older, he became more hands-on at Sam’s shop, as an apprentice to various employees and also doing “lot of sanding for years and years. And I remember I’d waste so much paint just making colors, because I loved mixing.”
Foose did make it to ArtCenter on a small scholarship, but had to leave halfway through because he couldn’t afford the tuition. He was still working with his father, but he had also started his own business—a design studio, doing illustrations for magazines, until one of his part-time clients became a full-time job: Stehrenberger Design. While Foose worked for the company, he also began dating his future wife, Lynne. When the topic of marriage came up, she said he had “potential,” but she wanted a husband with a college degree.
Returning to ArtCenter, Foose’s senior project was creating a Chrysler-sponsored niche-market vehicle.
“I did something completely taboo at ArtCenter—looked at the past,” he said. “We were taught to only look forward. In this case, I blended hot rods and musclecars to create what I called the Hemisphere.”
That taboo design became the inspiration for the Plymouth Prowler. Foose was only 26. Boyd Coddington saw his potential, too, and hired him to do some work.
Soon, he had a job offer from Ford and another from J Mays, who wanted Foose on the Beetle’s redesign team.
“I was deciding between Ford and Volks-wagen, and I let Boyd know I was leaving, but then he made me a better offer than both of them did,” Foose said. He worked with Boyd for eight years until the company folded.
“I remember the final day, we had just loaded everyone’s toolboxes, and I had made sure the customers’ cars got to different shops and that everyone at Boyd’s shop had a job,” Foose said. “I was the only one who didn’t have a job. I had $700 in the bank and a $1,500 house payment due. That same day, my wife handed me a paper bag, and inside was a tiny T-shirt that read, ‘I love daddy,’ because she was pregnant. So that was the day we started Foose Design.”
Foose Design had been building cars for about two years when Foose was approached about doing a new reality show called “Monster Garage,” starring Jesse James. “They told me the first car was going to be a Mustang turned into a lawn mower,” he said. “But I’m trying to build rolling art, so I didn’t see the value. It was the best ‘no’ I’ve ever given.”
The Discovery Channel then decided it wanted to do a show about Foose building a new ’02 Ford Thunderbird for the SEMA Show.
Out of the experience was born the TV show “Overhaulin’,” which debuted in 2004.
Foose has always made time for charitable work, whether it’s to sign a T-shirt for auction, build Pinewood Derby cars or volunteer with Childhelp and Victory Junction Camp. Also close to his heart is raising funds for Progeria, a disease that took the life of his younger sister Amy at age 16.
Foose has won the Ridler award, the America’s Most Beautiful Roadster award, the Goodguys Trendsetter award, and inductions into the Grand National Roadster Show Hall of Fame, the Detroit Autorama Circle of Champions, and the Hot Rod Hall of Fame—its youngest inductee at the time.
And now, he’s being inducted into the SEMA Hall of Fame.
“It’s quite an honor, but it also makes me feel like I’m getting old! But to be honored in the SEMA Hall of Fame—that’s where all my heroes are,” Foose said. “If you look at the inductees, they followed their passions as well. They didn’t get into this for the money. They got into it because they loved it. We all have that in common.”
And what might the final sentence of his autobiography read? “Thank you,” Foose said, “to everybody who gave me the opportunities.”
Gary Hooker–A Manufacturing People-Person
You may not know very much about inductee Gary Ronald Hooker, which is a bit remarkable, given that Hooker Headers is one of the aftermarket industry’s most iconic names.
Hooker’s story began in Sioux City, Iowa, but the family moved to Pomona, California, when he was about 5 years old. His father was a lay minister, so Hooker grew up in a very religious household. Because the family was poor, he didn’t have much to play with, but a neighbor usually had copies of Hot Rod or Popular Mechanics magazines on hand, so he
was very interested in cars from the earliest age.
“At 8 years old, I could name any car,” Hooker said. “From when I can remember, I was also always mechanically inquisitive.”
Proof in point: At age 10, he bought his first bicycle for $10 and had to rebuild it, which “was a natural thing.”
His high school had an industrial-arts department that included auto shop and machine shop, “so I took advantage of that.” He also began to rebuild engines for friends—although his real passion was sports. He played baseball, football and basketball. (As an adult, he has been an avid skier, a dirt-bike rider, a cross-country runner, a multisport endurance athlete and an avid backcountry explorer.)
Hooker also had an affinity for design. “I drew cars a lot,” he said. “I’d even make up cars. I was always modifying them in the drawings.”
From that, an interest in race cars was born. His first car was a ’40 Ford with a Flathead engine fitted with a ¾-race cam. He paid $175 for the car, thanks to a part-time job. He tore it apart and did a full restoration.
After high school and junior college, Hooker volunteered for the draft but was talked into joining the National Guard, where he did six months of active duty. After that, around age 20, he went to work as an electronics technician for General Dynamics, which meant that he could afford a new ’62 Chevy 409.
Two hours after he brought it home, the cylinder heads were off. And then history happened: Hooker couldn’t afford to buy headers, so he made his own. His secret was to make the headers longer and tubing larger than what was already available.
Prior to racing the car, Hooker took it to Jack Bayer to have it dyno-tuned, and when he arrived, Bayer had just finished with the dyno on a customer’s car he had built—with the same motor as Hooker’s. But Hooker’s car made more horsepower.
“Jack said to me, ‘It’s got to be those headers,’” Hooker said. “‘Can you get me some of those?’ I told him, ‘No, those are the only ones I’ve made. But if you give me a ride home, we can take the headers off my car and put them on your 409.’”
That night, with Hooker’s headers, the customer’s car raced a couple of mphs faster and a tenth quicker.
“I more or less went into business right then,” Hooker said.
He sold the car to buy equipment to start building headers—while still living at home. But he rented a small shop in 1964, and racer Elwin Westbrook came in to share the space. Elwin built race cars while Hooker built headers. Within a few months, “six of the top 10 Super Stock racers had my headers.”
This was also around the time when he had a booth at the first SEMA Show. His wife, Gail, was eight months pregnant (they went on to have three children) and worked the Hooker Headers table, even though they didn’t have catalogs yet.
“We weren’t really even in business,” Hooker said. “We went by the finance company and borrowed money so we could go to the Show.”
Not long after that, Gil George knocked on Hooker’s door asking for a job.
“Gil and I were collaborators and did some amazing things with designing and building headers,” Hooker recalled. “These rich guys would drive their Jeeps out in the morning, and Gil would take the right side and I’d take the left side, and we’d be done by noon. I charged them $150, and that kind of fed our families for a week.”
In the summer of 1965, Hooker rented a larger shop, but faulty welding cylinders exploded one night, and it burned to the ground. Hooker had no insurance. His neighbor, Bill Casler, who was already known for his racing slicks, “came to my rescue and we formed a partnership. He put in money and bought half the business.”
From 1966–1969, Hooker Headers grew from a $100,000 business to $3 million.
“By about 1970, we had established ourselves in our industry,” Hooker said. “I think I was successful because I changed early on from having an emphasis on racing to an emphasis on building the product. It was always a customer-driven company. We tried to have direct contact with the customer. That was a philosophy that was developed early, and we stuck
Hooker sold Hooker Headers to Holley Performance Products in 2000.
Gary Hooker is a man who will constantly reference others in the industry and within Hooker Headers who helped him find success. “Collaborating energy” is what he calls it.
“A lot of people in the industry don’t even know there’s a Gary Hooker,” he said. “People know about Hooker Headers because of many skilled people who were there at the right time. This SEMA Hall of Fame award is a salute to those people who worked together each day to do the thousands of jobs that led to the success. People come into your life, and they aren’t always necessarily friends. But they touch your life. I feel like I don’t deserve this honor. But those people do.”