Moal's Auto Body - Steve Moal - Oakland, California

    Luxury car maker has business rolling
Steve Moal

It's easy to draw an impression of Steve Moal, both past and present, as he sits in his office overlooking the spacious production floor at Moal Coachbuilders in Oakland, surrounded by pictures of one-of-a-kind cars.

That's because in his element, the president of the custom luxury automaking company is surrounded by personal and family history, which imbues the two-story, 10,000-square-foot building on East 12th Street.

The shop was built in 1946 by his father, George Moal, who died in 2002, and his late grandfather, Bill Moal. The same year Steve Moal was born, the elder Moals launched a vehicle body shop and collision repair business that became an Oakland commercial landmark for 56 years.

Steve Moal took over the business in 1971, at the age of 25. It has continued as a family affair since then with his wife, Theresa, coming on board to serve as business manager. The pair are high school sweethearts, having met while students at Oakland High School in the early 1960s.

And when their sons, David and Michael, became young adults, they followed in their parents' footsteps by joining the business. Today, Michael serves as production manager and David, who studied mechanical engineering at San Jose State, handles both engineering and design tasks at the company.

For years, the company focused on a lucrative niche of the car repair market, fixing only damaged Mercedes-Benz vehicles. But in January 2003, the family decided that its patriarch's 20-year "hobby" of building one-of-a-kind luxury vehicles in the style of Italian sports cars - from-the-ground-up creations that fetch sky-high prices - was a potentially more lucrative source of income.

"After all those years, it just wasn't fun anymore," Steve Moal said of the collision repair business. "It was a big decision, but it just seemed like the right time."

Moal - a longtime admirer of such precision European sports cars as Ferrari, Alfa Romeo, Bugatti and Maserati - received a big push in that direction in 1999. Having seen one of Moal's custom cars, a $150,000 creation dubbed the California V-8 Special, pictured on the cover of Street Rodder magazine, actor Tim Allen picked up the phone one weekend and reached Moal at his home in Danville.

"He was very nice, very down to earth." Moal said of the star of the long-running "Home Improvement" TV show and "Santa Clause" movies. "He loved the car and wanted to come up and talk with me."

Moal built a car for Allen, who named it the Licorice Streak Special and shortly afterward appeared on the Street Rodder cover himself with his prize possession.

Moal and Allen have since become good friends and Moal is restoring another vehicle for the actor.

"Doing something like that for a celebrity brings a lot of attention," said Moal, who was contacted by a wealthy San Francisco businessman who saw Allen's magazine spread and wanted a custom-made car for himself.

Moal hung onto the collision business for a few more years, but as word of his distinctive cars spread and demand increased, he and his clan decided to take the plunge and kill off the collision repair business. The painful aspect was having to lay off repair staff. However, a year later, he and his new group of employees are working on building and restoring 12 vehicles, ranging in price from $250,000 to $1 million.

While he often purchases V-12 Ferrari engines and some additional parts, such as tires, from outside sources, most of his vehicle chassis are manufactured in the Oakland facility. Because they are tailored to the taste and preferences of future owners, each car can take from one to two years to complete, depending on its complexity.

The car I created for the San Francisco businessman has upholstery made of ostrich hide, which is extremely difficult to find," Moal said.

Moal's highly trained staff includes body makers, fabricators and painters. "We all share a passion for this work and these vehicles," Moal said.

Those who keep his staff busy share that passion, too. While Moal has made the acquaintance of another celebrity car lover whom he hopes will become a future customer - "Tonight Show" host Jay Leno - he describes most of his clients as very successful, very private individuals.

Two are more along the lines of local automotive luminaries: Ted Stevens of Ted Stevens Automotive Network in San Jose and Bob Dron of Oakland's Bob Dron Harley-Davidson. The rest definitely do not make regular appearances in the pages of People magazine or on segments of "Entertainment Tonight."

"These are people who have been very successful in business, usually between 50 and 70 years old," Moal said, noting he now has customers from the Bay Area to Southern California, Arizona, Texas, Tennessee and Ohio. "They want to own a vehicle no one else in the world has and they have the resources to make happen."

While that may describe a small percentage of the population, even larger numbers of that select group may soon be clamoring for their own unique creation a la Moal Coachbuilders. The business will be featured during a program about various forms of transportation on The Learning Channel March 2.

Moal said while he has taken a "very conservative approach to growth" during the first year of his new endeavor, he foresees rich new sources of revenue in, for example, manufacturing unique and stylized auto parts that could be sold through catalogs or online throughout the country and around the world. A company Web site will be ready for operation later this year, Moal said.

But, in keeping with his lifelong focus on family, he and his wife will leave the ultimate decision on that weighty issue to the next generation.

"I really want my sons to decide issues that important," he said. "They are the future of this company."

East Bay Business Times


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