Intro by Bret Voelkel: In the hot rod and racing market, it is common to use the term friend and competitor to describe the same person or company. This is certainly the case with Brent VanDervort from Fat Man Fabrication. Brent is an engineer, innovator, author and an all-around good human. He is one of the best ambassadors that hot rodding has ever known. The Hot Rod Industry Alliance rewarded his accomplishments by inducting him into the HRIA Hall of Fame in 2010. I greatly value his friendship and wisdom, and am proud to use his parts and sell him ours!
RideTech: What inspired you to start Fat Man Fabrication?
Brent VanDervort: Simple survival! In 1982, IBM had just pulled out of Upstate New York [where I was living] and took 14,000 jobs with them. I could stay, starve, and freeze…or head for warmer weather and job prospects. I landed in Charlotte, NC and started doing some freelance hot rod work.
RideTech: Where did you go to school and what did you study?
Brent VanDervort: I started my college career in New York State with a degree in business administration. I moved to Charlotte in search of work and to continue my pursuit of an engineering degree. I found an engineering position with Texaco. Shortly afterwards, they were bought out and I was downsized out of a job. Once again, I was back to relying on my hot rodding skills to eat.
RideTech: What was your first product?
Brent VanDervort: My first product was actually an alternator mount for small block Chevy engines installed in hot rods. I discovered that there was a lot of casting thickness variation on SBC water pumps. I designed an accessory mount system with different thickness spacers to accommodate the casting variations. After that, I started solving problems with already popular Mustang II front suspension. My combined engineering education and hot rodding experience allowed me to incorporate some real improvements in that OEM Ford design.
RideTech: Who is your most famous customer?
Brent VanDervort: Probably Billy Gibbons from ZZ Top. We have parts on a couple of his cars. When Billy did the 3 window 49/50 coupe, he sent me a nice bracelet with the name of the car along with a nice letter. It’s pretty cool.
RideTech: In the early days, what were Fat Man Fabrications’ main challenges?
Brent VanDervort: Trying to get known — getting credibility. It was a backyard operation, literally. There was always plenty of work, but it’s hard to turn a hobby into a profitable business. You don’t go into the hot rod industry to get rich. If you went to trade school, think you can build the next Riddler winner and plan on making 200k a year, it ain’t gonna happen! Most hot rod businesses exist to support the owner’s car habit. We can’t stand doing anything else. We’re doing something we love. Hot rodding is a “people” business. It’s very rewarding! There are so many intangible benefits that are more important.
RideTech: What are your biggest challenges now?
Brent VanDervort: Trying to figure out where this thing called hot rodding is going next. The greying of the hobby is an indisputable fact. The focus is on what types of cars people are building, how they get info and how they choose products. The revolution is in social media. I know RideTech does a very good job. My very good friend Bret has tried to educate me about that, I don’t even have a Facebook account. I don’t do social media, but I understand that a lot of people use it. The other thing is competition. Every town has a person with a CNC laser machine that can make cheap parts. That used to be really hard to get done in quantity. It’s easier than ever for small guy to get started. The internet allows small guys to have the same identity as us big guys. When you’re a big guy that doesn’t really work in your favor.
RideTech: If you would have not started your own business or gotten into hot rodding what kind of work would you be doing?
Brent VanDervort: I would have robbed banks. After 20 years, they let you out and that’s where they keep the money! Just kidding. I don’t know what else I would have done for a living. I love airplanes. I probably would have just taken a job to support the family and pay the bills. I would have still been involved with hot rods on the side. There was no avoiding it.
RideTech: What would you consider your greatest professional experience so far?
Brent VanDervort: It’s hard to single out one experience. I would say just learning about suspension in general and being able to teach others with seminars and writing. I’ve really enjoyed writing articles for Goodguys. It’s been 20 years that I’ve been doing their tech column and that really came out of not thinking I’m a know it all but rather hearing questions in the booth that suggested to me that the strengths that people didn’t understand that maybe I could help them. It’s a lot easier to clear up a misconception ahead of time than to fix it after time.
RideTech: What’s your next new product or product line?
Brent VanDervort: Well, we just started doing lower control arms for the Crown Victoria front end, which have become really popular particularly for classic Ford trucks. That front end is an easy install, but they are 7 inches wider than stock, so we build control arms to help. There’s always been a junkyard alternative to OEM suspension and chassis including S10’s, Volares and Camaros. Every swap has a downside. We are always trying to fix that downside. I want to be the guy that helps you do a swap the right way, rather than the guy telling you to NOT do the swap. I understand you’re saving money by using junkyard parts. My dollars are the same size as anyone else’s but if there a way to get it done, we try to build stuff that helps.
RideTech: Anything else you want to add?
Brent VanDervort: I love this business …love these people! If the day ever came that I had to get out of this business, there would be a lot of dear friends I would miss. I’ve been through good and bad times and met a lot of friends. It’s been a wonderful experience. The people are the thing I will miss… the cars are just the reason to get there.
For the Fat Man Fabrication website, click HERE
For CarTech books, click HERE
For SEMA Hot Rod Industry Alliance and other council awards, click HERE