South City Rod & Custom – Bill Ganahl (left), Donnie Welch (center), Kyle Greenhaw (right)
Bill Ganahl may be the son of hot rod historian Pat Ganahl but he’s been carrying his own place in hot rod history, thanks to the unique cars he’s building at his shop in South City Rod & Custom.
When you look in the hot rod history books, it’s likely that you’ll see the name “Ganahl” come up quite frequently. Whether Pat Ganahl was writing about hot rods or the industry’s happenings in one of a number of the industry’s biggest publications, or sitting in the driver’s seat himself, he’s ingrained in the history of the hobby.
Over the last decade or so, however, another Ganahl has been blazing his own trail into hot rod history. Thanks to his multiple award wins and a growing reputation for recreating iconic and historical vehicles, Bill Ganahl is no longer known as “Pat Ganahl’s son.” These days, he’s being recognized for the incredible cars he and his team are creating at his South City Rod & Custom shop. But still, his family’s hot rodding legacy follows him.
“When I first started in this industry, no one knew who I was,” Ganahl said. “I would be introduced as Pat Ganahl’s son. It’s transitioned now, and I’m starting to develop a name for myself. People know the name Ganahl, so they will ask me about it. But I think my name is starting to stand on its own in the industry.”
It helps that Ganahl’s creations have won some of the industry’s most coveted awards in recent years. A radical 1951 Mercury custom he built for Nick Rogers took home the Goodguys Custom of the Year award in 2013, as well as the Custom d’Elegance crown at the 2013 Sacramento Autorama, just to name a few.
Unlike his father, Ganahl never planned to work with cars. Although he was surrounded by cool cars growing up, Ganahl had no plans to go into the “family business” of working in the hot rod industry.
“I took cars for granted as a kid,” he said. “We raced nostalgia dragsters. It was all just normal for me. It never dawned on me that I’d be working on cars for a living. I think my parents assumed I wouldn’t go into automotive stuff because my dad did. They assumed their kid would rebel and do something different.”
In fact, Ganahl planned to spend his days in front of a classroom, instead of under a car.
“I studied English literature in college and then I came to San Francisco to go to grad school,” he said. “I wanted to be a writer and a college professor.”
By 2000, Ganahl was in grad school and looking for a part-time summer job. When his dad suggested he check out nearby Roy Brizio Street Rods to see if they had any openings, Ganahl did.
“I walked in the shop to see if I could get a job pushing a broom or something,” he said.
Although many would assume that Ganahl got the job with Roy Brizio thanks to his dad, Ganahl says that couldn’t be further from the truth.
“I got the job because of luck, plain and simple!” he said. “The day I happened to walk in there was the same day that the shop’s parts guy quit. That’s the only reason I got the job! They needed a parts-getter and someone to drive the shop truck.”
Good luck would shine on Ganahl again when he noticed o ’50 Ford sitting inside the shop. Ganahl had worked on his own shoebox Ford and knew a little bit about the car.
“I knew enough to work on them to keep them running, but I didn’t know about metal shaping, and [my work] was certainly nowhere near the level that Brizio’s was doing.”
Still, Brizio let Ganahl help him work on the ’50 Ford.
“He allowed me to work on cars right away, which I wasn’t expecting,” Ganahl said. “That lit the spark in me.”
When the summer was over, Ganahl went bock to school but decided to stay on at Brizio’s.
“I started taking classes an welding and metal, in addition ta going grad school,” Ganahl said.
After finishing his thesis and graduating, Ganahl realized he had a big decision to make.
“I had to decide whether I’d go back to writing and become a professor or build cars for a living,” he said. “I was glad I got my degree, but I was having a lot more fun working on cars.”
By the time Ganahl decided to build hot rods for a living, he’d already been working for Brizio for several years. In that time, he had the opportunity to work on several incredible historic cars.
“Some of my most memorable and historic builds were at Brizio’s,” said Ganahl.
Ganahl had become the shop’s go-to guy for restoring historical cars brought to the shop. The first of these cars was Jack Calori’s 1936 Ford coupe.
“The fact that Roy let me to take on most of that build myself was incredible,” he said. “We took it to Pebble Beach in 2005 and we won our class with it. I don’t think I have ever had a better feeling in hot rodding than that.”
After winning big with the Calori coupe, Ganahl played a major part in other historical builds, such as the resurrection of Sam Barris’ chopped ’49 Merc and the famous ’32 Ford roadster belonging to Tom McMullen.
By 2000, Ganahl decided to start working on his own in his off-hours.
“People would ask me to do side work for them, so I started my own little shop,” he said. “Roy knew all about it. In fact, my first shop was next door to Brizio’s! I would sign out of Roy’s shop at 5:00 and be at my shop at 5:05 and work at night.”
Ganahl began to get more and more work, and eventually had to cut down his hours at Brizio’s. He is, however, quick to add that this was all done with Brizio’s blessing.
“He would actually send me a lot of work!” Ganahl said. “We are still friends, and he still sends work my way. Roy is in large part responsible for me being where I am. He’s one of the greats in the industry and he’s a friend and good business partner to have. There’s no way I’d ever do anything to upset him.”
With Brizio’s blessing, Ganahl opened South City Rod & Custom in 2008. The shop — named to honor its then South San Francisco location — had no trouble getting enough business to survive.
“That was the benefit of having worked at Roy’s,” Ganahl said. “My reputation from working there helped a lot, and those cars I did there helped get my name out. I was involved in some pretty exciting and odd stuff during my time there.”
“I like every part of building a car,” he says. “Out of necessity, I had to learn to do literally everything.”
Ganahl’s reputation for being able to handle rare and random cars helped him gain his shop’s first paying gig.
“My first paying job was thanks to Phil Linhares,” Ganahl said. “He brought me a ’41 Graham Hollywood, which is a very unique car. He’s into weird-looking stuff in general.”
That car was a big hit, ending up in Rod & Custom magazine in 2008.
With more and more work pouring in — Ganahl was known for his ability to do air ride conversions in cars from the ‘5Os and ’60s, in addition to doing full builds — Ganahl made the choice to go full-time at his shop, leaving Roy Brizio Street Rods for good in 2013.
“My first year on my own was a seamless transition,” Ganahl said. “I never felt like I took a huge leap off a ledge because of how Roy allowed me to transition.”
Ganahl continued to get o variety of cars to work on, which is how he prefers it.
“The Graham Hollywood set the precedent for [my career],” he said. “A lot of businesses really pigeon-hole themselves after building a car like that. They develop a reputation as someone that does a specific [type of build]. I’ve really kept an open mind on what I’ll work on. If I have gotten a reputation for anything, it’s for doing restoration-type builds and history cars.”
Recreating historic and iconic vehicles is no easy task, but Ganahl knack for it has garnered him a lot of business.
“The history cars are why we’re here now; early-style hot rods are really in right now,” he said. “People are looking for old historical hot rods that were in magazines in the ’40s, ‘5Os, and ’60s. I’ve gotten to restore a lot of those cars, and people want them to be how they were back when they were new. It requires a lot of patience. I’m on the Internet and the phone as much as I’m in the shop, trying to figure out how it was done.”
The candy blue ’51 Merc that Ganahl built for customer Nick Rogers in 2013 was a big hit in the industry. The car raked in a slew of awards that year, including a first-place finish in its class and the Triple Gun Award at the Grand National Roadster Show, the Custom d’Elegonce at the Sacramento Autorama, and the 2013 Goodguys Custom of the Year award, an accolade that Ganahl says made him realize he had made the right career choice all those years ago.
“That was the award that allowed me to think that I could be good at doing this,” Ganahl said. “I never pictured putting cars I built at my shop in a show at all. There were so many talented builders who were in the running for the Custom of the Year award that year. Having someone like John D’Agostino in the running for the same award as me was such on honor. When they announced that Nick’s car had won, I was completely flabbergasted.”
After that, it was full speed ahead for Ganahl and his team (which now includes two full-time employees and a partnership with Joe Compani of Compani Color, who paints all of the South City Rod & Custom cars.
One of the shop’s latest cars is a recreation of the Bob Pierson ’36 coupe. The car, which is now owned by Jim Bobowski, was restored to how it looked in the 1940s.
“The Pierson ’36 coupe is the hardest build I’ve ever done,” Ganahl said. “It is similar to the ’36 Calori coupe I did when I was al Brizio’ s. They are both street-driven hot rods that are good-looking custom, historical cars. To be able to do the actual Pierson car in my shop was an incredible experience though. To have a history car of that prominence in my shop was a pinch-yourself moment.”
The car made its debut at the 2015 Grand National Roadster Show and is currently doing the California show circuit.
South City Rod & Custom was also responsible for recreating Bill Breece’s famous ’32 Ford three-window. The clone car was a big hit, so it’s no surprise that it garnered a lot of media attention. When The Rodder’s Journal came calling to do a story on the car, Ganahl was surprised-and delighted-to find out that it would be his father, Pat Ganahl, writing the story.
“To have my dad be the journalist that writes a story on my car is synergistic,” he said. “I worry a little bit that people assume nepotism, but really, it’s not that at all. I didn’t learn much of what I know about building cars from my dad, and I didn’t get my job al Brizio’s or start my own shop because of my dad.”
He did, however, get a few things from his father.
“I think I got my appreciation of style from my dad, and my ability to know what makes a good hot rod or custom car,” Ganahl said. “Anyone can customize a car, but knowing when to stop, that’s something that can’t be taught. Maybe I inherited it from him.”
While he’s happy to have paved his own career path, Ganahl says he doesn’t mind when he’s occasionally still introduced as “Pat Ganahl’s son.”
“I’m proud to be associated with him. I’m proud of what my dad’s done. But I am proud that I am now known for my own accomplishments too.”
Originally published in Goodguys Gazette October 2015 issue