Moal Coachbuilders of Oakland, California builds cars of such artistry and craftsmanship that they’ve been compared to the best known coachbuilders of Europe. Along with his two sons, Mike & David, and a team of talented craftsman, Steve Moal is the guiding force behind Moal Coachbulders. In this interview Steve shares his thoughts on design, the influence of aviation in his cars, and the story behind the Gatto – Moal’s one-of-kind head-turning sports car.
Photos by David Franklin & John McConnico.
– steve moal
Your father owned the shop before you took over, what was that like, and did you come here on a daily basis?
I came here on a daily basis in the summertime, because when I was going to school I couldn’t come here during the day, but in the summertime I did. We lived here in Oakland, not far from the shop, so I was able to ride my bicycle here. And I had a paper route, but I would spend time here. I learned how to weld here, from my dad, before I learned how to drive a car or anything. And I was always intrigued by what was going on, and couldn’t wait to get my driver’s license, couldn’t wait to get my first car, all that kind of stuff. We had go-karts, we raced go-karts as kids. And so, life was good around an auto body shop.
What was the first car you ever owned?
A 1953 Dodge. It was an inexpensive car to buy, and it had a Hemi engine in it. A little 241 Dodge Hemi, and that was a good place to start.
What did you learn from your dad about the coachbuilding business?
I guess what I learned from him was the idea of doing your ultimate best at what you did, and try to do it in an economical way that you could make a profit, or you could survive. That’s the challenge, is supposedly doing something better than your competition, and still making enough money to make a living at it. I probably learned work ethics as much as anything. I was exposed to all the stuff as far as forming metal and welding, that we didn’t even think of as being learning, that’s just what you did.
Who are some of the folks that you look at and say, yeah, those guys are doing it right?
There’s a big shop, very close friend of mine, Roy Brizio, in South San Francisco. He does a fabulous job, probably one of the top builders in the country, and has been for a long time. We sort of compete and sort of don’t. We actually do collaboration, we work with Roy on projects and so forth. We go down a different path, so we tend to hand make everything. And of course we still do a fair amount of restoration, so we’re still heavily influenced by the work of other craftsmen on old cars – old craftsmen and the way they did things. So that influences our work, and some of those influences carry over to our hot rods and some of it carries into our new construction specials.
When you see a Ferrari from the ‘50s or something similar, what are you looking at details wise?
Well, I think it’s fun to look at those cars, because most of those cars were built by hand, much the same that we’re doing here. So it’s nice to look over somebody’s shoulders and see how they did it. Those guys were good at what they did. That’s all they did, all day every day, and they found the quick way of doing things. And sometimes your first impression was it’s a little crude, but it really isn’t crude. They cut to the chase and got the job done. And so there’s engineering ideas that we get from them, as far as body structure, and just the way they form panels. It helps us a lot to look at those cars.
Of those European coachbuilders, who are you most influenced by?
Well, there’s the famous ones – Pininfarina, Zagato, and Scaglietti. Those just go without saying, they all did fabulous work. In this country, too, Murphy Body and various different body companies. In Pasadena, Murphy is one of the best of the world. We’ve been fortunate to be at work on some Murphy Body cars, and their workmanship is mind-boggling, very very good, superb. And so you say, ok, these guys were good.
What is great design in your opinion?
I think great design has a certain simplicity to it. And so if something is very simple, but it still gets your attention, and it doesn’t matter if it’s the side-molding of an automobile or the way a handbag latches. The handle, you say, wow, how cool is that? See, like on a bicycle. You know, the handle grip on a bicycle, the lever on a bicycle, could be just a work of art, but it’s a functional work of art.
So, simplicity. I guess another thing that I like about design, is that design suggests how it might be used. In other words, is it a handle that you pull, is it a handle that you push? Its design sort of suggests what direction it should go.
Form follows function. Can you elaborate a little about how that plays into what you do on a daily basis?
When you’re building automobiles, they have to work. So if you make them function well, and we kind of think of aircraft when we do that. To make things function well, as simple as they can, and serviceable, too. To build a car that you can gain easy access to put hydraulic fluid in the master cylinders, instead of hiding the master cylinders. So good design is having a master cylinder that’s beautiful to look, but it’s also in plain sight so you can service it. So that’s the form following the function. And keeping things light and simple is important.
Can you tell me more about how aviation has influenced you?
Aviation influence, for me, is from my father, because he grew up at the birth of the airplane. And so he loved airplanes, and he watched Amelia Earhart when she left the Oakland Airport and so forth. So, the planes that I love – I love the War II fighters like the P-51’s and the Spitfires, and all that stuff, they’re just hot rod airplanes.
You’ve got to love the looks of those things and the sounds of those things. They’re muscular looking, they just reek of performance.
Also, because of weight consideration, there’s nothing on an airplane that’s superfluous.
Elegant simplicity is hard to do if something’s got to work. So it’s easy to overdo something. It’s hard not to get caught up in overdoing things.
Do you consider yourself an artist?
Well, we’ve been called artists. I always think of an artist as the guy who can get a paintbrush and paint a picture.
That’s what I think of as an artist. And I guess we have the ability to sculpt metal and so forth, so I guess you can call that “artist.” I think that as far as the automobile is considered, we’re probably as artistic as anybody. And that is an art form of this century, is the automobile. And I guess in that sense we’re artists. We’ve kind of never thought of ourselves as more craftsmen than artists, but they kind of go hand in hand, I guess.
Some cars with a certain pedigree from the ‘50s or ‘60s just keep jumping up and up in value and price. Is that something that you saw coming?
Well, certainly I don’t think anybody knew exactly, could say this was coming. Otherwise I’d have one, or would’ve had one.
But I think it’s kind of mind-boggling when you hear of an automobile that sells for $5 million, and the next time you turn around it went for $10 million, and then all of a sudden it’s at 15 or 20 or 30 million dollars, and where is the end? So I guess that means that there’s not enough of these cars to go around that are considered pieces of collectible art. And there’s more wealthy people in the world that want them than there are cars to go around. If you want to belong to that exclusive club that owns one of those, you’re going to have to step up, and that’s where their value comes from.
I almost feel sad that some of these cars are going to be put in museums and never run again…what’s your take on this?
It depends on the owners. There’s a lot of owners that run them real hard. They vintage-race them, they drive them in rallies, they cross-country drive them. And then there’s others that stow them away and they’re not to be seen again. I guess there’s different reasons for collecting these art objects, and not unlike somebody collecting a violin or a painting, one guy will put it in a museum for the world to see, and the next guy’s going to put it in a vault. I guess collectors are somewhat eccentric.
I think that they generally have – they put their twist on the beauty of something. So you take the same automobile that’s in possession of three different owners, and they’ll all look at – one guy will talk about the way the moons were lined up when this car was designed, the other guy will talk about its craftsman, the other guy will talk about its value. They’re sort of all over the place on what they think of them. And I guess there’s a lot of reasons for collecting these things. You know, some people are interested in the previous owners and the history of them, some are interested in the performance of the automobile or how many races it won.
What single detail or design element do you obsess most about on your builds?
I think basically the profile of the car. The scale of the car, relative to the people. So it’s not out of scale to the people, because you can make a car too small, or appear to be too big. So, it should look good with the people in it. Its stance is very important, how it is relative to the roadway. And the stance is different for different styled cars. So I think its general shape, its outside profile, its proportions, and its stance, those are the critical things. The details are kind of like the cake, they’re just the decoration.
You’ve talked before about the soul of a machine…
Well, I think the soul that I referred to is a soul that these things develop from the hand craftsmanship that took place during the creation. That’s been going on for a while. I’m not saying that the guys that make molds for carbon fiber casting cars aren’t artists, because they are. It’s not fair to say they’re not. They’re very talented and very gifted. But it seems like if you have the ability to make a hundred parts exactly the same, it doesn’t have the same soul as one that the guy made a hundred of them, and they’re all a little bit different. Because he hit one a little harder with the hammer than he did the other, bent one over a little bit more, the weld’s in a different place. I think the hand craftsmanship, whether it’s leather craft, woodwork, or metalwork – I’m referring to it as the soul of something, and I think you connect with the craftsman. And I don’t think you don’t get that with mass-produced parts. And that’s not saying the people that are involved aren’t artistic, because they are. But the soul of those is down a lot deeper. It’s not on the surface, you can’t see it.
So I guess that leads me into a couple people that you have on staff. I’ll ask first about Jimmy Kilroy. He’s an expert metalworker. Tell me how you found him, and his role at Moal?
Jimmy was introduced to me by Patrick Otis, who’s a Ferrari specialist in Berkeley. He was sponsoring Jimmy to come to this country, and told me of Jimmy’s skills, and brought him over here. That’s probably over twenty years ago, and Jimmy’s been here ever since. I would say Jimmy is as good a metal craftsman and body maker, but he’s more than a metal panel maker. He’s a body maker, engineer, and car maker. He’s probably as good as anybody in the world. He really is good. He has a lot of experience building complete automobiles…hand-making complete automobiles. And a lot of those, he’s done right here. He’s done a lot of restoration, but he is the old world, real time craftsman. He’s the man, he can do it. He doesn’t want to be anybody else, he’s happy being Jimmy Kilroy. He’s good at his craft, he’s very modest about what he does. He just kind of plays it off as just a job. He eats and sleeps it. He won’t let that show, but he does.
So what sets him apart?
I think his work ethics, which must go back to his childhood, working with his dad on a farm or something. So he has incredible work ethics. He puts in long, hard days, every day. He works every day of the week, he doesn’t necessarily take off weekends or anything like that. He works all the time, and as a result he’s done a lot of work and accumulated a lot of experience. He has a lot of experience. And I think he’s just naturally gifted, you know the eye-hand coordination, all that kind of stuff. But there’s probably people as gifted as him in that respect who don’t want to work as hard. And they certainly won’t accomplish what he’s accomplished. So, hard work – and what he does is very, very hard, strenuous work. It’s very hard work.
I thought it was really unique that you have a professional designer, Alberto Hernandez, here as well. I think that’s unique for your industry…at least in this country. Why hire Alberto, why have him on staff?
Well, first of all, Alberto works for us to one degree and not another degree. He’s basically a freelance artist here, and his studio happens to be here in our building, so that gives us a great advantage to have his services here. Having a professional designer around allows you to do things better than you did before. We’ve built a lot of cars without the assistance of professional designers that were looked upon as being nice cars. And I think that’s maybe one reason Alberto is here, because he recognized that we were doing okay. Our dream is that in the future, we’ll do much better as a result of being together. So he’ll probably have the opportunity to design cars that get built in a good fashion, and we’re going to be building cars that are designed in a good fashion.
Some in your industry might say – if it’s easier – why not just design all of your cars on CAD?
I think that it would be like comparing a CNC milled part to a wooden mold that a pattern maker made. The part that you would make on a CNC mill can be a precise radius that you call out on the computer. The radius that the craftsman might put into a corner might be the size of his finger. And there’s a certain softness, there’s a certain blending of surfaces, of all these changing radiuses, and they may not be something that you can calculate. They’re changing and so forth, and it’s kind of like the clay models – they rough out the armature for a car model, and then they do it by hand, because those surfaces are so critical. I think drawing’s the same. He has CAD equipment and he does some of that stuff here, but I think to get the real feel you’ve got to do some of this stuff by hand.
The computer is too fast…it doesn’t allow you to sit back and say, let me take a look at this?
I think they seem to be very predictable…It won’t think for you, either. I mean, he may take a swipe with his pencil there, and decide that that’s not the right radius, and change it with a second swipe. And with the computer, you may settle for it because now it’s on the screen and that’s the way it is. Or he may say, oh, it looks better with more radius or whatever. I just think the hand stuff is very important to good surface design.
So there’s three Moals working at Moal?
There’s three. Well, my wife’s here, too. So there’s four. Michael pretty much is in charge of managing and billing, and keeping track of the hours, and so on and so forth. Kind of shop managing. And David, as my youngest son, he does the CAD work and the CNC machining. He’s a mechanical engineer, and he does some engineering stuff and what have you. And then they both get thrown in anything, and they’re liable to be doing anything, from working on a car to drawing part for a car. Who knows, or chasing a part for a car. You do what you got to do to get through the day.
And your job is to manage this process?
That’s sort of been my job, to orchestrate all of this and keep everybody happy and getting along. Because with these talented people, there’s a range of personalities, too. Some are easier to get along with than others, and so forth, and that’s to be expected.
Just like any creative team.
That’s right. It’s like any creative team. I’m probably the diplomatic one, and I can kind of dance with everybody, and so we kind of try to connect everybody in the best way we possibly can. And obviously all of these people have specialties. And probably my job is to make each one aware of the other guy’s contribution and value it. So the guy with the CNC mill, he can’t go out and beat out a panel, so they go back and forth. So when Jimmy’s building a body over there, he may want a drawing from Alberto, and then they may ultimately have David make the part on the CNC machine. It may be a door hinge or something. And so you kind of need each other. They can all work around that, but that’s not the best way to get the job done. It’s to take advantage of each person’s specialty.
How did you learn all of these skills?
Just seat-of-the-pants kind of stuff. Just being here, it’s been my life. I guess out of sheer desire to survive. I mean, you learn how to swim. Someone throws you in the deep end, you just learn how to swim. I don’t know how you do. Either that, or you drown, so I guess I learned how to swim by getting thrown in the deep end.
What I find fascinating is that you have a garage at home, and you do some of the work there. Can you tell me what that does for you, or at the end of the day you’ve worked around this all day long and you come to a garage? So what are you doing on the weekends and at night?
Well a lot of times, I’ll work all day long and never do any work.
Sure, sure. Running a business.
That’s right. And so it’s fun to go home and make a bracket, or think you’re going to make a bracket. Or cut one out and tag it together, and have one of the guys come here and bring it to work and have them weld it up, or whatever the case may be. But yeah, I do have a complete functioning shop at home. I can build a car at home, and have built cars at home. So I have welders and an English wheeling machine, and all the necessary tools – a very nice shop. And that’s sort of my, you know, sort of my little dream – a man cave kind of thing. If I don’t do anything else on the weekend, I’ll go out there and sit. Look at one of the projects, which I have several going at all times.
How do you work with clients? Collaboration wise…
Each client wants something so different, that we have to take a read on what they want and who they are, and so forth. And I guess the best way, what we pride ourselves on, is being very good listeners. So you’ve got to listen to what they want. And try to steer them if you see they’re going in the wrong direction, from our experience. But also listen to them so you can deliver what they want.
That leads me to the Gatto, which has received a ton of press…been written about in the New York Times…how did the Gatto come about?
The fellow who owns the Gatto, his name is Bill Grimsley. He’s a friend of Erik Zausner’s. We had built about four cars for Erik Zausner, and he introduced Bill to us and talked about the idea of building a car. And at that time, my head was kind of wrapped around the idea of doing a semi-monocoqued car. And Bill liked that. He likes cars that are light-weight, have good performance. He likes Italian sports cars. And so it started to come together. We did a few drawings, and we took off. We built him a car.
In this excerpt from our interview, Steve tells the story behind the building of the Gatto. Built with a Ferrari engine, and a nod to Italian design, the Gatto has been getting worldwide attention ever since its debut last year.
How did that process work with Bill Grimsley and the Gatto?
Well, we were interested in knowing what he really likes and doesn’t like about cars. There are some things he likes about cars and some things he doesn’t. In his case, he doesn’t like things over-embellished. He likes things on the subtle side, not over-embellished. And so what I tell people, and what actually happens if there’s a fair amount of trust, is you do discover the design throughout the build. So how do you tell someone, go ahead and trust me and it’ll be fine?
In a way, I tell people, don’t worry, you’re going to have a beautiful car. And it will have these things that you love so much about a Maserati or a Ferrari or an Alfa. It’ll have those things on there. We don’t want to make a copy of anything, I’m not really into that at all. But it’ll obviously be influenced by all that stuff. And I think the way that you discover the design – there’s more than the designer, there’s more than the manager, there’s more than the client involved. There’s a craftsman involved. They bring stuff to the party – hey, what about doing it this way? Oh, hadn’t thought of that, ok. And so then the design starts to unfold, it starts to develop its own life. And cars can do that. I mean, if you say, ok, this is where the engine goes, this is where the people go, this is the wheelbase, this is the track, this is how much head clearance I want. And we start to see our car.
And the Gatto started with a Ferrari engine as the foundation…
Bill wanted the Ferrari engine. He loves Ferraris, he’s collected Ferraris over the years. And that was him. He wanted something relatively special and exotic. Something that had the look and sound that the Ferrari does. So we work well with Patrick Otis in Berkeley and so does Bill, so, that was sort of natural.
Where did you find the engine?
Bill and Patrick found it somewhere. I don’t know where it came from, [Laughing] but it dropped into our lap, and we built a car around it.
Tell me some of the details that you personally like about the Gatto.
I think there’s a lot of delicate details that are inspired by things Italian. Doorhandles, very elegant looking mirror brackets.
All made here. This beautiful riveted fuel tank looks like a jewel box. The riveted interior, which has a metal finish, its natural color. Anodized surfaces and things like that. Perfectly spaced rivets, five thousand of them.
Five thousand of them?
Yes. And it’s aluminum body, so there’s a lot of these delicate – little brackets that hold the headlight lenses are little things of beauty. All that kind of stuff. That’s what I look at – I look at door handles and little brackets and tabs, and things like that.
The interior looks like a cockpit, but still elegant at the same time.
The idea of that car in the beginning was to keep its weight to a minimum. Bill likes things lightweight, and so that car is relatively lightweight. It has a heater and an air conditioner, and it’s well insulated, and it only weights 2300 pounds, so it’s not bad. And it’s still relatively stiff, it has a lot of torsional stiffness.
Was that a frustration point for him, that he didn’t have an everyday car he could take out?
No, he has every everyday car. [Laughing] He’s fortunate to have owned some of the most fabulous cars on Earth, and probably still owns some of them to this day. I think that he was interested in doing something special. And I think he’s aware more of how special it is now, than during the process of building the car, because there’s been a lot of attention from that car, that car has received from all over the world. It’s his baby, it’s a pretty cool thing.
What did you learn from building the Gatto – as far as your design and building process?
Obviously it’s a big task, and so you have to engineer and plan in the beginning how you can shorten the duration of the build. So it teaches that time is of the essence from day one. So if someone gives you a whole sack of dough and says go build this car, it does matter how long it takes to get done. And there’s no such thing as unlimited budgets, unlimited time frames. That doesn’t exist. So it taught us that time is of the essence, and you’ve got to gas it right at the very beginning. We have the experience of building that car and cars similar to that, so we’re good at managing the mechanical things, like how do you keep the heat out of the cockpit, where does the fuel load go, the ergonomics, can the people get in and out of this car, is it comfortable, can they reach the pedals, can they see out of it, the mirrors, are you comfortable when you’re driving these cars. And so you have to do all that, as well as figure out how we’re going to do it quickly.
The hundreds of design decisions that have to happen, to make a car just right.
That’s correct. And then you have to sort out the little issues. It is a prototype, and so it’s the final one. So with prototypes, there’s going to be issues. There’s going to be something that’s wearing too quickly, there’s something that’s too close to something, there’s something that rattles. You’ve got to go through all that. And we sorted that car out as recently as – we had a little glitch with the windshield wipers, so we just recently corrected the windshield wipers.
So, the Gatto has opened up some doors for you?
I think so. I think it’s opened up the doors of the concept of being able to do this. We were recently invited and took eight cars to the Amelia Island Concours Show in Florida. Which was huge for us because they were all new constructed cars. And that was a big thing. The Gatto, and obviously other cars, the Torpedo, Aerosport, all those were part of the reason we were there. The Gatto is one of them. And it shows people that, like the ‘30s, you can have a dream car built. You can actually do it, you know?
And I see a lot of influence of some of the earlier, the Bugatti’s, as far as the rivets and the aerodynamic…. For that time, to leave the rivets showing – are you influenced a lot by the Bugatti’s…when Bugatti’s son was still alive?
Yes. And instead of hiding the means of attaching things, you embellish the means of attaching. So instead of using an aluminum rivet on an aluminum panel, they’d use a copper rivet on an aluminum panel. You could absolutely see where the rivets are. And that becomes part of the beauty.
Part of it’s character. It’s what you look at. And the Gatto’s that way, people love the riveted interior. They look at it and they’re like, look at those rivets.
As far as the next custom car that you want to build…what’s your sense of when that will be built, and the challenges?
Well, we’re constantly looking for another client to commission us to build a car. My next personal dream car, I’ll build myself, if nobody comes along…hopefully we’ll build it for someone who comes along and says, ok, here’s what I would like, and why don’t you throw some of your dream car in, and let’s go do this.
You definitely think that it could be the collaboration, when it comes to the dream car?
And the Gatto is a little bit of that. My head was wrapped around the monocoque type thing. That thought process was for a different car, and we offered it up in this car. And I think it’s a major part of this car. It’s a major part of the car’s charm.
For those who don’t know, can you explain what a monocoque is?
A monocoque, it’s like an egg. In other words, it strengthens from its skin. It doesn’t have a chassis per se. That doesn’t have tubular chassis frame rails. The aluminum skin is bonded – that is the structure of that car. And that’s how airplanes are made.
And they do that because they’re extremely stiff. A fuselage of an airplane has all these ribs, and the skin is riveted – that’s it. There’s no frame rails going through there, they weigh too much. There’s no steel tubing, it’s all extremely lightweight. So that car, in its floor section, what we call half-sections – and the panels are riveted to make these extremely stiff sections. And so these rivets are structural in that car.
So that was one of the major engineering challenge with the Gatto?
Yeah, and I think that makes that car relatively unique. And one of the things was, we wanted to build an Italian influenced sports car that’s not an Italian sports car. So, if you know much about those, you’re going to say, wait a minute, this is not a Ferrari, this is not a Maserati. They were never built that way. And that’s what makes it so special. It’s not a clone.
So if you were to take the Gatto, and say you had done it a more traditional way, how would that have changed it?
If we built it the other way, the old traditional way, it probably would not have cost as much. And we could have built it quicker. It would not be as stiff, which means it wouldn’t handle as well. And that car is so rigid, the doors don’t pop open, it doesn’t squeak and rattle. It’s solid, it’s like a little vault. It’s extremely solid considering it’s really lightweight.
At what point did you know it was done?
Probably never will be done in some respects, you know? It’s kind of always a work in progress. I think when you do something like that, it is part of the hobby. So one guy is going to be happy and take his car to car shows and put it in his collection, and he’s done, he’s happy. The next guy is saying, you know, I’ve been thinking about changing the spring, I’d like to see if a softer spring would work better, I’d like to change the tire pressure, maybe we’ll try a different tire. So they’re kind of never done, if that happens to be your hobby. So under this umbrella of these cars, one guy shows, one guy drives, one guy tinkers. Bill, the owner of that car, is a performance-minded guy. So he’ll get it out on the road. We just put a spoiler in front of that, because we felt that it was lifting a little bit at speed.
At what point?
We were at over 100[mph] and the steering seemed to be a little lighter. So we’ll see if that worked or not, and there may be other modifications made to make it function better.
We’ve talked about having a business in the East Bay…what does Oakland bring to the table?
Well, it’s a little bit of nostalgia for me because I’ve been here my entire life. I mean, my father and grandfather built this shop in 1946, this building. And I’ve been hanging around here my entire life, so there’s a lot of memories here, of them working here and growing up here. So that’s a good reason to stay. And I think Oakland’s like a lot of old towns. They get a bad rap, there are some fabulous parts and just depends on how you want to look at it. But I think these old cities were here for a reason, so the good things can’t be touched: the climate, the location relative to the Bay and estuaries, the beauty. You can’t get that in the suburbs.
No, not at all.
You know, you live in the suburbs, there’s no sailboats. There’s no bridges, and there’s no night lights like that. And so this is important. These old towns struggle with crime, and on and on, but maybe the answer is not just for everybody to leave.
So, certainly there’s people that work on that all day, every day. So we’re surviving here, there’s a little edge to it. We get comments when people from other parts of the country come here. They like the nostalgic part of our building, just the light, and the fact that it’s an old surviving building.
What’s next for Moal?
I guess what I’d love to do, and what we have to do to survive, could be two different things. [Laughing.] There’s still a lot of beautiful cars that need to be built. I don’t think that the surface has been touched yet. I think that there’s room for fabulous looking automobiles – elegant, delicate, fabulous looking automobiles – and I guess we dream of doing more of those. We’ve been fortunate to do some, and we have some on the drawing boards now for potential clients, and I just hope we get the chance to build them, because if we do, the world is going to see some pretty automobiles.
+ Source: Moal Coachbuilders
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