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Shop Tour: Art Morrison Enterprises

Meet the early bird among early birds. Art Morrison knows about a hard day’s work. At 3 a.m., while most of us are deep into our REM cycles, conjuring images of our ultimate hot rod, Art is powering up the shop and readying the place for a day of making those dreams come true.

Based in Fife, Washington, Art Morrison Enterprises manufactures custom chassis and suspension components for street rods and drag racers. Art, who is a vibrant 70 years old, forged his passion into a highly respected metal fabrication empire.

Like many of us, that first car sealed the deal. So we asked Art about his first ride. “Oh balls, that goes back to when I was 15. I found an old ’30 Model A for the exorbitant price of $150. It had an Olds engine in it. The engine was junk, it wouldn’t run, but I had it running before I turned 16. It was a wreck but I did everything on it… reworked the mechanicals, built the headers… oh balls it was just atrocious! Never got pictures of it, there’s just memories of it… One of the best memories was when I got stopped by the state police and tallied seven different counts of faulty equipment. I distinctly remember the officer saying… “son, normally we give you seven days to fix faulty equipment but there just ain’t no way in hell… just promise me you’ll keep it off the road until its street worthy.” I was like “yes sir, yes sir.” It had open headers, no emergency brake, no headlights, no fenders… the guy must have gotten writer’s cramp making out the ticket but he was great… I still have the ticket.”

Art Of The Wheel-stander

Art was drafted in July of ’66, and after a tour in Viet Nam in the army infantry he went to college. That lasted two weeks. He worked with his dad for a short time, then met a guy named Chuck Poole who drove a wheel-stander. “We hit it off right away and he asked if I knew anyone who had a welder and I said yes… me…”

“So in ’68 I started doing all his repair work and luckily those wheel-standers were hard on chassis and suspension parts. I eventually started travelling the circuit with him. In 1970 he hooked me up with a wheel-stander… a Volkswagen pickup. I drove that until the fall of ’70, travelled all over the place, as far away as Miami. Then another wheel-stander, Richard Schroeder, approached me to build him a new car and drive his old one. And that old car is how I got where I am today. There was an old dragstrip up in Puyallup. And as they say, ‘one fateful night’ I was running Richard’s car. It was a bear to drive. I had to look out the window and steer by the distance between the car and the guardrail. Further, wheel-standers were steered with the brake lever. Pull the lever out and you go right, push the lever and your steer left.” Except for Schroeder’s AMX.

“Well, the car was really wandering bad on this night. And I was pushing like mad on the lever, saying ‘why isn’t it going over?’ I got to the top end of the track and I realized the error of my ways and there was no getting it back at that point, so I set the car down but it was off the track already, in the dirt. I remember saying to myself, ‘go easy’ so I nudged the car back toward the track and it just traded ends immediately. The rear tires caught and I started flipping. Balls, it was a tough day at the office. I was knocked unconscious after 100 feet or so. When they got to me the car was just a tangle. My helmet was almost ground through on one spot so they thought I had a serious neck injury. Schroeder was 6′ 8″ so I had to sit with a pillow under me and have the harness unbelievably loose so I could see out of the car. This guy got a spectacular 8mm movie of the whole thing… you could see my head scrape on the pavement. I was already building cars on the side so I went that direction.”

Fabricating A Future

Art moved from his home garage into a dedicated building in 1972… actually it was half a building as he had a 30×30 foot work area. There weren’t enough race cars or street rods to make a living on at the time so he wrenched on anything automotive. But in some ways it only takes one.


“A guy in the area had a ’64 Corvette drag racer and he showed up at my door because he’d heard of my welding. He wanted me to put this trick rear suspension in his car and I did. He promptly went out and set a record in the A Modified Production class and that opened the gates as other guys came looking for me.”

“In 1975 I built my first rear-engine dragster for a local guy. I asked him who’s doing the body for this? Guess who? I’d never built a dragster body before. That’s how I jumped into aluminum work, forming panels, making the seat and fuel tank… the whole shebang. I had maybe three guys working for me at the time. This project really helped cement our reputation on the drag race circuit.”

Building A Building: A Christmas Miracle

Art established a real footprint in 1977 when he got his own building. But it almost didn’t happen. Art took his life savings of $7,800 and put it down on a one acre property in Fife. He went to the bank to fund the building and was asked for collateral. He needed a signed deed release to qualify the property as collateral.

After hearing “no one is ever going to sign off on this” from his bank and even his own attorney, Art pressed on. “I figured I needed this to happen so it would. I met with Mrs. Murphy, the property seller, on Christmas Eve, explained my plight, and she says ‘oh, will it change the way I get paid’ and I said ‘no mam’. She said, ‘well I can’t stand in the way of that’ and signed on the spot. So the first working day after Christmas I ran to the bank, slammed the release on the table, and all the banker could muster was “you’re blanking me.” That got the building up. It was one of the many times I had to hustle to keep the dream alive.”

Make Or Break, Again

Art was back at the bank in 1983, this time to fund the production of a catalog and start advertising. Again, the stakes were high. “The banker toured the property and he said, ‘if this thing goes bad I am going to kick you out of this building. It’s mine. I will take it back.’ I said ‘Ron you do what you gotta do, I’ll do what I gotta do.’ I just know in my gut that this is what’s right. I wrote out six months of projections and we starting running ads in June… in the following years we found June, July, and August are the worst months because for drag race guys everything was running, they didn’t need parts. Every month was short but finally in September we saw a bump and in November it went nuts and we actually met the projections… we had squeezed by once again. We didn’t go back to the bank until the next building had to go up. Then I got the money on a handshake… that’s when I knew I had truly made it. Ron remained my banker until he retired in 2015.”

Taking It On The Road

To better get the word out, Art and company hit the NHRA circuit in 1985, became a NHRA sponsor, and did the truck-and-trailer thing. Went from the trunk of a rental car the first year, to a fifth wheel, then to a semi-tractor setup. Started with 12 events and soon increased the schedule to 31. Art said his gypsy days peaked in 1990. “It was a wonderful business on the highway. We must have done $300,000 out of the rig alone. It peaked, so we advertised more… threw all kinds of money at the NHRA and just didn’t see the returns. So we went to more events. We went to other drag events and some street rod shows. The street rods seemed to be where the action was so we started steering the whole mess toward the street rod market. In the mid ’90s we got the tooling to bend 2×4 rectangular tubing and that machine became an ATM. We used it for street rods and quickly developed a reputation in that field.”

The Coddington Effect

“One of the big breakthroughs was Boyd Coddington getting wind of who we were. He called and ordered a chassis for one of his creations. He wanted the entire thing TIG welded. I said we could MIG weld it and it would be beautiful. He stood his ground so we TIG welded and charged accordingly, and he was so taken with the frame that from the late ’90s until he passed away in 2008 every frame he used for something other than a ’32 Ford, we built.”

Framework For Success

“In 2002 my son Craig graduated from college with a degree in marketing. He pleaded for us to offer a full frame, bolt-on frame and I resisted at first. He proposed the ‘1955 to ’57 Chevy, saying there were 4 million made, they were iconic then, and looked to only grow in popularity. You talk about hitting the nail on the head. I had a ’55 sitting in the shop… Talk about meant to be…. It was bone stock with 45,000 original miles on it. We used it as a template and as they say, the rest is history. We sold the first one in April of ’03 and sold a total of 22 in the balance of the year. The next year was 90, the next year was up to 140… off just that frame. It’s a bolt-your-body-on setup… all the customer does is paint the frame, we supply it with the third member, all the front suspension, sway bars, coilovers… almost every one of them goes out with disc brakes and axles, so it’s a true roller. Seeing the success in that we decided to do another one, the ’53 to ’62 C1 Corvette, and now we have 12 or 13 bolt-on frames with more in the works.”

Moving Forward

To date, the company has sold 1,500 Tri-5 frames. When you stop and think how many that is… many of us have been to shows that have had fewer cars in attendance than that. Art Morrison Enterprises still sells between 90 or 100 Tri-5s a year. And its C1 Vette and A-Body Chevelle/GTO frames round out the company’s top three sellers.

The shop has two or three universal fixtures and more than 50 custom chassis builds waiting in the queue. They say with a solid foundation you can build something that lasts. For the last 47 years Art Morrison Enterprises has provided a solid foundation for custom builds that create cars that will be handed down for generations to come.

 

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