Dave Shuten Customizes the Classics
Galpin Auto Sports' Beau Boeckmann lured Dave Shuten from a Midwest Field of Greens to the San Fernando Valley, where Interstate 405 and US 101 coil their asphalt tentacles. Together they conceived Galpin Speed Shop where Shuten recreates vehicles with names like Grasshopper, Mysterion and The Pink Panthermobile, each rivaling the beauty of a Swiss watch—but in throbbing color. Entering his shiny studio showroom is like opening a popup card where customs cars and design pieces, like mid-century pool lounges and the bluest blue acrylic chess set, rivet attention. I sat down with Dave to ask the how and why.
Gwynned Vitello: Is it true that it all started with the dumps?
Dave Shuten: I grew up near a scrapyard, and every day, I'd hop the fence, throw a bunch of shit over, and drag it home to build things. About every two or three weeks, my dad would get all mad, beat my ass, and I'd take everything back to the dump and have to start all over. So that was my childhood, dragging whatever I could to build mini-bikes and go-karts, bicycles and all those things. By the time I was 14, it devolved into cars.
Besides being busy foraging and making, you also found time for TV.
Yeah, in the '70s, cartoons were my thing, specifically Underdog, Battle of the Planets, Godzilla, Ultraman and then, of course, all the superheroes. I'm still like a big nerd, a comic nerd, and love all that stuff, except for how over-commercialized it is now. That's killed it for me.
Well, it's no understatement to say that you are a perfectionist.
I was always very artistic. Ever since I was a tiny kid, always drawing, painting, sculpting. And I could never leave things alone. I always see what's wrong and want to fix it to make it even better.
I wish I had more of that curiosity, and more of that confidence. In your case, you don't look at something someone else has made and think it's fine as is.
It became almost ridiculous. When I worked at General Motors as a toolmaker for 20 years, I was literally browbeaten into only seeing flaws so we could make perfect panels and stamp in the parts. All I would do was look for things that went wrong so we could perfect a part.
That sounds like it reinforced your own natural inclination.
I worked with these extreme tolerances for so long, so some of the dyes that I would build, some of them were 70, 80 thousand pounds, but with the tolerance of half a thousandth of an inch—and they were moving. That was the tolerance I worked within. So it was gnarly. I was very, very anal.
So you liked building things, enjoyed art, but I'm guessing you didn't go to art school.
I took a couple of courses in commercial art and design, and then I just applied to GM, where they interviewed me and said, “Yeah, we'll bring you in and give you the semi-skilled classification.” After a short time, I applied for skilled trades because I just couldn't do the normal work, and wanted to have more freedom so I could make shit, you know? I did the four-year apprenticeship; went to school for years studying math, machining, die design, Auto-cad, all those things. But I was always building cars at home too. I just took all that I had gained and added it to custom cars, and that's what really tuned me in and made everything like, tight.
Then, literally, you do build things from scratch. Any comparison to Ed Roth?
Yeah, I just build. I don't draw, don't sketch, I just see it and make it. Ed was a very different person in that he didn't have a basic understanding of properly building things, of how to make things strong and functional. He was strictly an artist. With my mechanical background, I know how to make things work, but can also instantly look at something and see aesthetically if it should be one way or something else. I take a look and see it, then change by adding or subtracting, or whatever, until I'm happy.
Did most of your friends in Detroit end up working for car companies?
Their parents did. I was actually the first new hire in 35 years! My nickname at the plant was Junior because I was the youngest person by a million years. At the time, I was a complete dick. I had a blue Mohawk. I was that guy. They didn't know what to think, but when they saw what I could do, they all loved me. Pretty soon I started getting cars in magazines and all that stuff, so I was sort of a local celebrity at the plant. I worked with 800 other die makers, just building things all day.
I can't imagine you working with restraints.
I was still on my own, but now almost completely so. Working with Beau is perfect because he doesn't tell me what to do. He's not on my ass, doesn't check on me. He gives me something and knows it will just happen, and that's brilliant. I can't be managed, if you know what I mean.
Seeing your shop, it's incredible to think that one person does everything here.
It's a control issue. I want the control because I can't control the outcome if I trust it to someone else. I find myself getting constantly disappointed if other people don't follow through with whatever they're supposed to do. People are always on my ass about having an apprentice, “You should be teaching somebody, you should be passing your skills.” But it slows me down and bogs me down with questions with an expectation to instantly be at this level. Most people don't want to work for it. I've been building cars since I was 14, so that's 35 years.
How did you make the move to the West Coast?
Beau tried to buy one of the cars I had built, but he ended up not buying it. I sold it to another dude for a lot more money. When the Orbitron was found in Mexico, he knew I was the only person who could properly restore it, so he brought me out here. I took a leave from GM, and it was a time when things were really shaky—three plants closing and all. Beau was like, “Why don't you come out here and do this?” I was having a lot of trouble in my marriage, so, in a month, I quit the job I'd had for almost 20 years, moved across the country, and filed for divorce. I met Robert and Suzanne Williams when I was here doing the Orbitron and we became good friends almost instantly. My parents died when I was in my early twenties, so Bob and Suzanne are sort of like my parents. I treat them like that, and they treat me like I'm the little brat kid they never had, and I don't go a week without seeing them once or twice.
Beau brought you out here and handed you the keys, so to speak?
Exactly, except that it wasn't that super easy. Originally, I was supposed to work here and be in charge of people, and that didn't work out. Till this day, he bitches because I expect too much from people. Really, you can never be in charge of somebody if you expect what you're capable of from somebody else. And I like to work. I genuinely don't know what to do if I'm not making shit.
I usually stop working a couple hours before I knock out. I'll chill, watch a movie, or grab dinner with the Williams or other friends. But I'm also super obsessive. For instance, with something like the chess set I started a few days ago, I can't let it go until it's done. When I get something in my head, I have just got to do it. I also need the gratification of projects like the chairs to get my head out of building a car with a thousand pieces, where I have to make every one and fit it in with twenty other pieces. It's a lot, and if I'm doing three of those at a time, my head gets spun out pretty quick.
You're answering to customers, Beau and yourself.
It's a lot to juggle, and it's not like taking your car to a mechanic. It's like, “Here's a sketch. Build this and make it work. I want to drive it, and I don't want to die.” So then you have the responsibility to build something that's aesthetically really nice because someone is spending three or four hundred thousand dollars, going to take it to all these places and try to win awards and get in magazines, TV shows and all that shit; and, at the same time, it's got to function, be safe and comfortable. The Petersen people lost their brains when I drove Orbitron in there; it was hilarious.
Do you have a typical customer, and have you built cars for women?
No, I do stuff for celebrities like the comedian Jeff Dunham, Sylvester Stallone, Tommy Lee, all these random people. One of my “secret” goals is to build a car for Lady Gaga. I love that she drives cool old shit. If she saw what I did... All these things are always rolling around in my head, and I'd love to have the opportunity to use them on different things.
Well, I know that you don't need a Pinterest board. You have a lifetime of ideas to work with.
So many influences. If you notice, my whole shop is very, very inspiring, There's stuff everywhere, so I'm always visually stimulated. The way I live is very minimalist. I don't need a lot, and I don't want to live with car stuff. I like real art. I need the separation.
You must need a break once in awhile. Do you enjoy road trips?
I do, and I love to drive. When I build cars for the big shows, I generally haul them myself because I don't trust anybody. With the blue and purple one, I worked for three days solid without going home to finish it, then loaded it in a trailer and drove to Detroit. That's my masterpiece, all that crazy metalwork and clear hood so you can see the engine, all the blue glass. All those were some of the tricks I saved over the years, and they just evolve. Like the chess set. That started off as something simple, and then it snowballed.
But do you think about an actual vacation?
I've never been to Europe, and I want to go to Romania really bad. You can actually stay in Dracula's castle. I want to do that and I want to go for Halloween; that would be so rad. And stay in a hobbit house in New Zealand. But I have a timer, and I can only be away for so long before I'm like, “Okay, I've got to go back to work.” But I've been able to do some amazing shit, hang out with amazing people. If I kicked off today, I would be totally okay with it. Unfortunately I've got too much shit to do to die.