The Unparalleled Skill of Rod Emory
Neil Emory started a detail business as a kid, keeping cars clean. Eventually he transitioned into doing basic customizing, changing wheels and lowering cars, in fact many of his clients were big shot Burbank studio execs. Eventually WW2 came around and Neil joined up, being stationed at Alameda where he learned the art of paint, body work and fabrication. Once the war was over he came back to the San Fernando Valley and along with his brother-in-law, Clayton Jenson, he started Valley Custom Shop in 1948.
Valley Custom Shop quickly built a reputation for being one of the elite body and paint shops specializing in customizing. Neil and Clayton became pioneers in the field of channeling and sectioning cars, a process that involved taking sections out of the body and lowering/narrowing it. They ended up building some of the most elegant and understated cars to come out of the Southern California customizing scene. But, if we learned anything from SE Hinton, it’s that nothing gold can stay and eventually Valley Custom Shop closed. In the early 1960s, Neil was offered a position at Chick Iverson VW/Porsche in Newport Beach, CA as a body man. Eventually, Rod’s father Gary joined his father Neil at Chick Iverson, though in the parts department and thus was the family’s history with Porsche truly begun.
Gary Emory worked his way up to the position of Parts Manager at Chick Iverson and noticed that a huge number of “dead stock” parts were being ordered to be destroyed or thrown away. Seeing an opportunity, Gary began purchasing these parts at a steep discount, eventually negotiating the right to purchase these “dead stock” throw-aways for pennies on the dollar with the proviso that he buy everything, VW and Audi parts included. With this ever-increasing stockpile of rare and exotic parts, Gary started Porsche Parts Obsolete, a company which serves the Porsche community to this day.
Of course, a young Rod Emory grew up surrounded by all this Porsche ephemera, something which set the fires burning early and informed his taste in cars in a way that would change the Porsche community forever.
“I grew up rummaging through my dad’s parts as a kid. It was my toy box. Instead of playing with Legos and tinker toys I would play with Porsche parts. I love that Porsche evolved their design which allows me to mix and match parts from all year and models,” said Rod Emory. “I love the 356 platform because it is one that challenges you to innovate to be able to increase the performance and handling and the body is not easy to repair and customize which is why there are a select few that take on the challenge.”
As a kid, Rod spent a great deal of time around his father learning to appreciate the look and design of Porsche. He also spent a lot of his time with his grandfather and uncle learning the dark arcane secrets of metal shaping, body work and paint. During high school, Rod worked with a man named Tom Topping who ran a Top Fuel dragster, and it was here that Rod learned about the mechanical side of working on cars, as well as how to machine parts.
Over time, Rod began to modify his own cars with his father, both of them applying classic hot rod techniques and knowledge gleaned from Porsche’s own history with racing to make their funny little bathtub-shaped cars go faster, stop better and corner flatter. The Porsche community, then stuck in the grips of the concours craze, rejected their ideas initially. A family friend once told Rod and Gary that they were outlaws and that they’d never fit in with the rest of the community. Encouraged by this, the Emory’s dove headlong into their way of doing things and embraced the “Outlaw” label.
Fast forward to the late nineties and Rod began work on a project that would go on to define his work with Porsches. This project, which would eventually be the first car to earn the title “Emory Special”, started as a particularly clapped out 1964 356 Cabriolet. Rod, his father, and a small team worked around the clock to finish it in time for the 1998 Monterey Historics, the featured marque of which was Porsche. Rod and his team left no stone unturned, no panel untouched on the Special. They changed the angle of the nose so that the headlights could be leaned back. They removed the upper horn grilles and turned the lower ones into brake cooling ducts. They added a front mounted oil cooler. They changed the rake on the windshield and completely replaced the dash. They changed the side profile of the car by continuing the curve of the bodywork underneath the car, giving it an incredibly smooth and slippery shape.
The work on the Special was unbelievably extensive yet, despite all the changes, it is still very clearly a Porsche. It looks like something that the engineers at the factory might have built had they wanted to create an intermediary between the 550 Spyder race car and the Speedster. The Emory Special is like that character actor. You see him in everything and his face is so familiar, but you can’t pin down one specific role that they played though you know they’re always good in everything they do. Working frenetically, Rod and his team finished the Special in time for the trip from Oregon to Monterey. He topped off the fluids, hooked up a U-Haul (oh did we mention that the Special has a functional trailer hitch?), loaded up his wife Amy and their infant son Zayne, and embarked on what would be an almost 4000 mile road trip. The legend that is the Emory Special was born.
“I try to pull from design elements of various Porsche’s. In particular, I love some of the Spyder design elements and love to seamlessly integrate them into a 356. My goal is to always try and make people question whether it was something that could have come out of Porsche special projects department back in the day,” said Emory. “I also pulled from some of the customer and styling elements that my grandfather put into many of the custom cars that he built.”
So, Rod and Gary set the stage for people like Magnus Walker and the members of the pseudo-secret R-Gruppe to modify their cars with impunity, but what makes them different is the degree to which the Emory cars are modified. There are very few people left in the world who have the ability, talent, and wherewithal to shape metal like Rod Emory. Walking into his shop is almost like stepping back in time. There are ancient, brutal machines everywhere that want to crush your extremities or lop off your fingers. Rod is there, flitting from one car to the next, doing easily half a dozen things at once, a blur in a black shop apron. There is obvious passion in what he does and it’s easy to see as he saws away at the English wheel, shaping a piece of aluminum that will at some point be a deck lid. This man loves what he does and he’s excited to share it with others.
Despite being in production on nearly a dozen cars, and trying to finish the detailing on a car that was set to leave in an hour, Rod took the time to show my cameraman how the English wheel worked. He explained it calmly and rationally, never once seeming like his attention was elsewhere. He demonstrated the way the wheel could be used to stretch and curve metal as well as polish out many of its own tool marks. It’s clear that he loves to share what he knows. That pride of craft seems to be contagious too. His crew, all decked out in black t-shirts with the family’s Outlaw crest on the back, seemed to be fixated on their tasks, each taking the greatest care in what they were doing, seemingly knowing that what they were doing whether it was trimming panels or banging out clearances on the body for modifications, it was for a greater good.
When asked about his favorite tools to work with, Rod told us rather excitedly, “My favorite tools are the English Wheel, Pullmax, CP Planishing Hammer, Eckold Kraftformer and Erco shrinker and stretcher. With these machines I’m able to shape just about any piece of sheet metal to replace a crash or rust-damaged area or customize a shape for one of our projects. I really enjoy doing things like custom louvers for deck lids and quarter panels.”
One of the most notable projects going on at Emory Motorsports during our visit involved a 356 Coupe body on a lift, and a bearded man poking at it with his Faro Arm. When I asked Rod about the car, his face lit up. He pointed out what looked like the floor pan, trans tunnel, and suspension mountings of a 911.
“That’s basically the bottom half of a 964 C4. I took almost five inches out of it and we’re going to mate it to that 356 body on the rack. It’s going to be an all wheel drive 356.”
At this point in the conversation, my jaw hits the floor and the room starts to spin.
“We’re going to use the coilover suspension from the 964, the 5-speed gearbox too. Instead of the 964 center diff or the viscous coupling from the 993, we’re using the center differential and driveshafts from the 996 Turbo. The guy I’m building it for lives in the Northeast and loves 356s but wants to be able to drive it year round.”
He tells me this like it’s the most normal thing in the world. It’s projects like this and the Specials that set Rod apart from the rest of the Porsche tuners, and even many other hot rod builders. To do what he does certainly takes skill and a great deal of vision, but it also takes passion that isn’t common in any field. Rod and his family have proven to be some of the best ambassadors the Porsche community has ever had and that ambassadorship is more important now than ever.
“The Outlaw movement is becoming more widely accepted and it is my goal to continue to innovate and further develop my cars. I can appreciate many types of modified Porsche’s and I hope that over the next few decades that we can continue to excite the next generation of Porsche enthusiasts,” said Rod Emory.
We at V3llum have been fans of Rod’s work for a long time and whatever rolls out of his shop is guaranteed to blow our minds and haunt our dreams. We can’t wait to see what he does next.