By Steve Gravelle for the Cedar Rapids Gazette, January 13, 2019
CEDAR RAPIDS — The low building on a nondescript commercial cul-de-sac in northeast Cedar Rapids is easy to overlook. It’s the art created inside that’s drawing notice nationwide.
“We joke around that we’re one of Cedar Rapids’ hidden secrets,” said Eddie Pettus Jr.
But recent years have brought Eddie’s Rod and Custom to the custom-car world’s attention.
“We’ve been getting a pretty good reputation across the nation,” Pettus said. “We’re competing with, pretty much, the top 10 percent of builders in the nation. So we’ve been blessed.”
Growing up, Pettus, now 36, always knew what he wanted to do. “I wanted to do hot rods, old cars, for a living,” he recalled. “My dad told me if I did good in school, he would help me start a shop.”
Ed Sr. knew a bit about the business, owning and operating the long-running Interstate Import Repair shop in northeast Cedar Rapids, with Lee Kratz. After graduating high school in 2001, Pettus Jr. went to Wyoming Technical Institute in Laramie, which specializes in technical training for the auto industry. In addition to high-performance engines and chassis, Pettus learned the industry’s business and management sides.
After Wyoming Tech, Pettus worked for a Cedar Rapids body shop while he and his father located property and built their own shop. After Eddie’s opened in 2004, it took whatever work rolled in the door. “We’re a very conservative community. A lot of people don’t throw a lot of extra money at cars,” Pettus said. “So we did a lot of rust repair, maintenance, things like that, for 10, 12 years before we really started getting known.”
A family friend commissioned the shop’s first custom project. “A longtime friend of my dad’s had his father-in-law’s 1949 Chevy coupe,” Pettus recalled. “His father-in-law was out of town, so we went to the barn in Amana and snuck the car out in the middle of winter, brought it back here and, on Father’s Day, we brought him in here to show him we were doing a custom on it. That was pretty cool.
We’ve spread word-of-mouth since then.”
It helped in the early days that Ed Sr.’s customers came along. “He still services and maintains Toyota, Honda, Acura, Lexus, Nissan, Subaru,” Pettus said. “He has 3,000 regular customers he services. He does oil changes, brakes, tire rotations, timing belts.”
After years of steady growth, 2017 brought the completion of Split Second, a modified and improved 1963 Chevrolet Corvette. It took 18 months and 30,000 hours to turn a wrecked car into a thoroughly modern classic boasting a 500-horsepower engine, a modern six-speed manual transmission, upgraded brakes and a new interior with touch-screen controls.
Split Second — the name comes from the car’s split rear window, an iconic one-year-only Corvette feature — put Eddie’s on the custom-car world’s map.
“We took it to a show and it was the first one we got really recognized at,” Pettus said. “We went to Chicago to the Legend Cup and we took Top Six in that show, so we got invited to go to the SEMA show.”
Sponsored by the Specialty Equipment Market Association, the trade group for automotive aftermarket suppliers and manufacturers, the SEMA show is held every November in Las Vegas. One of the hot rod world’s signature events, it receives significant coverage, including on such cable TV networks as the Velocity Channel.
“The outcome was phenomenal, the media, the people’s attention,” Pettus said. “‘Where’d you come from, how’d you get to this?’ Little did they know we’d been hiding in Iowa for 15 years, fixing rust. It’s been kind of cool.”
The run continued at the 2018 SEMA show, where Lowstandard was named Top Truck and Top Four overall. Ed Sr.’s personal project, Lowstandard is a 1932 Willys sedan that became a tractor-trailer rig powered by a Nissan diesel.
“He wanted to make his interpretation of a hot-rod, fuel-tanker semi,” Pettus said. “He likes airplanes, he likes cars, so it’s all airplane-themed. It looks like a little miniature semi that would refuel your airplane back in the ’30s.”
The shop started with three employees, and now boasts 13, including Pettus’ younger brother Michael and his mother, Kathy. His wife Lani helps out at least one day a week.
One thing’s certain: Eddie’s won’t become one of those custom-car-building “reality” TV shows.
“We actually shot a trailer with a TV company,” Pettus said. “They came in for a week and filmed us, but we’re too kind. We get along too well, we’re too Midwestern. They kept saying, ‘Be a little more arrogant, be a little more cocky.’ We just said that’s not how we roll.”