'Pimp My Ride' car customizer moves on to his next gig

CORONA, Calif. -- Spend a little time around West Coast Customs and you'll learn the price of fame.

Insane deadlines. Routine 60-hour workweeks. A demanding, want-it-now celebrity clientele. And a self-described micromanager CEO who doesn't mince words — including expletives.

"It's a lot of pressure," says Ishmael Jimenez, 36, an upholstery expert and one of the handful of managers who work for CEO Ryan Friedlinghaus. "I can make no excuses, because West Coast Customs has a worldwide reputation."

That reputation is borne of an automotive customization business that gained national fame thanks to its outrageous hip-hop designs and appearance on the MTV show Pimp My Ride.

For four seasons of that show, West Coast Customs transformed broken-down jalopies into outrageous, urban-oriented rides with wild paint jobs, humongous chrome wheels and ground-pounding stereos.

Friedlinghaus, probably the most heavily tattooed CEO in America, says he yanked the shop's participation because he thought Pimp was too gimmicky with its ugly duckling-to-swan format. Nowadays, he's more stoked about his latest ventures and another TV series that the staff did for cable channel TLC. He says that show Street Customs, now out of production, was a more realistic portrayal of how a custom car shop really operates.

The crew does things that would make most car owners wince. Like sawing the roof off a Land Rover to install smoked glass or turning the off-road luxury vehicle into a two-door, instead of four-door model. Those tasks, along with fancy paint, wheels and all the glitz, were accomplished in about a month.

At any given moment, the shop is working on about 20 vehicles. Recent jobs have included cutting the roof off NBA star Shaquille O'Neal's $145,000 Mercedes-Benz S600 to make it a convertible. The artists and technicians also are adding speakers, paint and goodies to skier Bodie Miller's 1992 GMC Typhoon SUV. These vehicles share garage space with a Dodge Nitro SUV, Ford F-250 pickup and a vintage 1950 Mercury, among others. Each is getting its own unique makeover.

Creativity on the clock

It's not all about the flash. Digital clocks hanging above the garage floor tick off the seconds until each project is due to be turned back to its owner as a sparkling show car. The business makes deadlines.

"I just get it done. My word is everything," Friedlinghaus says.

The busy garage is only the most visible element of Friedlinghaus' burgeoning automotive business that now includes:

•International. The first franchised West Coast Customs shop opened six months ago in Dubai. The deal came after West Coast received a commission to convert a Hummer as a birthday gift for a sheik's 14-year-old daughter, he says. Now similar arrangements are in the works in Russia, Japan, Germany and Malaysia. The shop has gained worldwide exposure from syndicated episodes of the original Pimp shows.

•Merchandise. West Coast has its own co-branded stereo systems, wheels, paint and leather kits. It already has an extensive line of T-shirts and other apparel with its distinctive graffiti-like designs. Next will be its own shop-inspired clothing line called Wrench, due to go on sale later this year.

The company also is developing a line of automotive graphics that can be wrapped onto any car.

•Live shows. Friedlinghaus is trying to develop a newfangled community car show near his factory in Corona, east of Los Angeles, later this year. It would include car-themed family entertainment, not just rows of tricked-out cars on display, he says. Among other things, his crew would rebuild a car on stage — then give it away. West Coast Custom's crew already gives demonstrations of their customizing techniques at industry trade shows.

"We have grown up," Friedlinghaus says. "We're doing real stuff."

West Coast employs 35 at a $4 million plant decorated with graffiti art and at a design shop nearby across the train tracks in Corona.

Most of West Coast Customs' jobs are $25,000 to $50,000 conversions, though some are far more complicated, and costly.

Lately, the company has specialized in building entirely new chassis for vintage muscle cars. For instance, West Coast attached the body of a 1968 Chevrolet Chevelle sedan to the guts of a 2007 Chevrolet Corvette, creating the "Corvelle." The goal is a vintage look with modern-day reliability and performance.

Friedlinghaus says revenue at the privately held company now exceeds $10 million a year.

Not bad considering that the company started only 11 years ago with a $5,000 loan from Friedlinghaus' grandfather.

A false start in 'the OC'

Friedlinghaus, 32, grew up in Las Vegas, as the family renegade who developed an early appreciation for baggy low-riding pants, hip-hop music and tinkering with cars. He says his straight-laced father used to tell him, "You're never going to get anywhere wearing your pants like that, listening to that kind of music and driving those stupid cars."

When the family moved to the affluent south Orange County, Calif., enclave of Laguna Niguel, Friedlinghaus opened West Coast Customs as his first car business in 1997. But it didn't click. His clientele was "a bunch of spoiled rotten kids who didn't know what they wanted," he says.

Then, he says, they would send their raving parents to the shop to protest how much they had spent on their cars.

Instead, Friedlinghaus followed the advice of a friend. He moved the business to Compton, a hardscrabble, inner-city community. Though Compton isn't many miles from Laguna Niguel, culturally and economically it is a world apart.

Big break from a big client

It's there, Friedlinghaus says, that he got his first big break. O'Neal, then the star center of the Los Angeles Lakers, heard about his ability to soup up cars. Shaq handed over his Lincoln Navigator to Friedlinghaus to install a new suspension.

Now, "I've built him 38 cars," says Friedlinghaus, including the latest Mercedes and an International truck that he's converting into the "Dunktruck," a promotion vehicle for O'Neal's sneaker line.

O'Neal, in comments relayed by spokesman Todd Brooks, says he's not sure how many vehicles that West Coast Customs has done for him, but it's "probably enough that we should be partners."

Friedlinghaus is someone who "understands what I like, and he always delivers on what he says. He has earned my trust," O'Neal says. "Ryan always outdoes himself. That's why I had him do my Dunktruck. … There's more pressure for Ryan on this one."

West Coast has done promotional vehicles for other businesses. One was for Rockstar Energy Drink, which commissioned a truck and recreational vehicle. "It was a natural fit," says Mike Kelso, Rockstar's marketing director. "They get where Rockstar is coming from."

After a succession of moves around urban L.A., Friedlinghaus brought West Coast back out to the suburbs, moving the company nearly two years ago to its factory a few minutes' drive from his house. His Pimp My Ride days, which ended in 2004, brought him enough fame that he says he is still recognized in public. Thanks to worldwide syndication, he says he was once chased by fans through an airport in Germany.

The Pimp show continued after West Coast Customs ended its involvement, utilizing a new shop in L.A.'s San Fernando Valley.

West Coast soldiered on, business as tough as ever.

"It's stressful," says Sean Mahaney, the metal fabrication chief, because of the compressed schedule for finishing vehicles. The hip clientele "want what's cool right now." Then there is Friedlinghaus, who lords over every project.

"He's his own worst critic, and he's your critic, too," says Scott Voinovich, 35, the general manager.

The stressful milieu made for "good TV," says Street Customs executive producer, Craig Piligian.

"Ryan has his own special brand of building cars. He's the best at it."