Building a Show Car

SEMA News—April 2017


By Chad Simon

Building a Show Car

Young Sport-Compact Builders Sacrifice Personal Lives to Chase Their Passions

big mike

Big Mike was named a top 10 SEMA Battle of the Builders finalist with his ’92 Honda Prelude, which he says combines hot rod, race and show elements.

For this session, SEMA assembled six top young sport-compact builders who live and breathe cars. The moderator was car builder Neil Tjin of Tjin Edition, while the panel consisted of Bisi Ezerioha of Bisimoto Engineering; Ryan Basseri of Rywire; Warren Shim-Quee of Cinemotive Media; Young Tea of Auto Tuned by FRS86; and Big Mike, a 2016 SEMA Battle of the Builders Top 10 finalist. Here’s what they had to say:

(From left to right): Warren Shim-Quee, Cinemotive Media; Neil Tjin, Tjin Edition; Big Mike; Ryan Basseri, Rywire; and Young Tea, Auto Tuned by FRS86, were among the builders that represented the automotive aftermarket’s sport-compact segment at the 2016 SEMA Show.

Neil Tjin (NT):Let’s talk about the ups and downs of the industry—the pitfalls and sacrifices we’ve all made.

Bisi Ezerioha (BE): We brought six builds from Bisimoto to the SEMA Show. Being a car builder doesn’t provide a very good work/life balance. I do have a family, and for the past 1½ months, they haven’t seen much of me. You’ve got to have dedication to see a project through to its completion, because you want to be the best at what you do.

Ryan Basseri (RB): You don’t see much of your actual family unless they’re at the shop with you. Everyone at the shop is your family. You see them more than you see your mother and father. You don’t eat. At the same time, when the car is done, it makes the sacrifices worthwhile. Just keep grinding. It’s not always glamorous, and behind the scenes, it’s blood, sweat
and tears.

Warren Shim-Quee (WS): Jumping in a car right after a build and driving it is one of the most sketch things ever. You don’t know if everything is tight. It’s the worst. You jump in the car and you don’t know what’s going on; you just know you’ve got to be at the SEMA Show. It’s not Hot Import Nights; this is the big show.

NT: We’ve been here for so many years. It’s like the Super Bowl for cars. You’ve got to have very understanding spouses. We all work around the clock, see our wives and families sometimes, but when we get here, the competition is like a sigh of relief, because you stress until you get here. As you get to that point, the big thing is getting sponsors and developing OEM relationships. We’ve all been fortunate to prove ourselves, and sometimes we’ve got to re-prove ourselves, but you get to the Show, and our goals are to over deliver, be here on time and be professional. These are the reasons I believe the guys here on this panel are successful and able to start shops and travel the world.

RB: When I first started my business, I was working out of my house 22 hours at a time. I didn’t have a personal life. I was all about my business. I needed to get as many orders as I could or else I wouldn’t be able to pay my employees. I was stressing out just to pay my guys and make sure everyone else was good, even if I wasn’t. There’s no time to go to doctor appointments. I missed out on key life events because I saw the big picture. And for me, that’s what building a successful business is all about. No one is going to hand you something and say, “Here, sell it,” and when you make money, use it to reinvest. No, you work 22 hours and do not have a life for a couple years, and then maybe you’ll see some light at the end of the tunnel. There are rough years, not just rough weeks.

Big Mike (BM): I travel around the country with different show series. The thing about the tuner demographic is that they are fueled by attention, and if that’s what you seek, it’s a bad thing, because you do whatever you need to get that, which is always in the way of what’s popular. The reason we are up here is because we did what we thought we needed to do even if it didn’t fit anything. We do it with passion, and it is inevitable that people will latch on to that. If you build a car with passion, it’s impossible for people to not feel that. Keep that as your focus in the tuner demographic because that’s what it’s about. If people walk by and they don’t like what you’ve built, you’re still happy, but if you built it for them, you will be unhappy. The point is to have fun and enjoy what you do. We all started as kids who loved cars, and if you don’t have fun anymore, you’ve got to figure out what happened, then go back and reassess.

The sport-compact builders panel at the 2016 SEMA Show featured top builders, including (from left) Warren Shim-Quee; Big Mike; Ryan Basseri; Young Tea; Bisi Ezerioha, Bisimoto Engineering; and moderator Neil Tjin.

NT: It started for myself back in the mid ’90s, drag racing and going to car shows with the guys. We’re going to talk about what we strive for and forging relationships with the OEMs, which has taken time. The next generation is looking at how to build stuff for Ford, Honda and Hyundai. There is a bright side at the end of the tunnel, and we’ve been fortunate enough to have support from our better halves. We work hard and we go against the grain. My brother Gene hates everything I do, but I don’t care. Honda will like one thing, and I will like something else. You’re never going to please everyone. Everyone has a different vision. We want to set a trend for the next generation. The OEMs are coming to us to design vehicles. They want to add horsepower and they come to us and ask how to get it done. Ryan had a car in Battle of the Builders last year that we thought was one of the best cars in the competition. He was up against $2 million cars, and he could have won. He was the highlight for
our generation.

BE: I always had a passion for drag racing. Scouts from American Honda were always at the track. I was approached by agents from Honda based on records I had broken at the time with my single-cam setup. That was the catalyst for my direct OEM relationship. It’s easy to get an OEM; it’s keeping the OEM that’s more of a challenge. They watch everything you do. There’s no opportunity to misbehave. When you’re out there and you dress inappropriately and use words that aren’t very colorful, they hear it. They want individuals who can represent them well. Character plays a huge role. Be unique in your delivery. I feel that’s what has allowed my organization and the people who support me to continue to remain successful.

BM: The Honda Prelude that I built with Rywire for Battle of the Builders, when we were doing the photos, one of the other guys had a hat on. There’s nothing wrong with the hat, it just had a company logo on it, and if you’re going to be in this adult world, it just doesn’t translate very well. We took like 50 photos, and one of the guys came up and told him he needed to take his hat off because they could not use any of the photos and they had to redo them all. He didn’t mean anything malicious, but if you’re going to be in an adult world, you need to behave as such. If you want to be successful at this level, you need to step it up. You can succeed in this world, but you need to understand the world in which you’re trying to succeed.

NT: How did you get from where you started to where you are now?

Young Tea (YT): In 2004, I worked for the world’s largest Toyota/Scion dealership, where we started dressing up cars. After I left there, I started working for a company called Five Axis Design. They do a lot of concept builds, and I got to see how a company like that worked with OEMs. They watch everything you do, whether you know it or not. I started working out of my two-car garage at home; you build a continuous résumé when you’re working with friends’ cars. In 2013, I did the Scion Tuner challenge and took first place, but after that, I couldn’t find a job. Companies said they couldn’t afford me. Eventually my landlord told me I couldn’t work out of my garage anymore. So, I gave myself two weeks to find a small location. In my relationships working with manufacturers through Five Axis and Toyota, they continue to call, but they want the job done tomorrow. Most manufacturers ask if you can get it done within a week; they don’t care what else you’re working on. When you’re lucky enough to work with those guys, you’ve got to do what they ask; just get it done, whatever it takes.

NT: That’s how you get noticed. Sometimes you’ve just got to sacrifice.

BE: The longest time I had to build a car was six months. I also had a demand for seven days. We achieved it. It just shows you how wide that gap can be.

BM: As a teenager, I loved cars. I went to the magazine aisle at the grocery store and read Sport Compact Car and Turbo and all these defunct magazines. In our age, you subscribed to print magazines, waited 30 days for them to show up, and it was amazing. If you made print with a build, it was the greatest thing ever. I was that guy who read Super Street, and now I do print and digital media contributions for them. Magazines that I grew up reading I ended up making the cover of, and now I write for them and my name is in print. One of the cars I was working on was in the Rywire facility, and I live about 40 minutes away from there. I worked until 2:00 a.m., and drove home. I pulled into my driveway and thought I needed to go inside and sleep for a few hours before I had to go to my day job. I woke up at 5:30 a.m., and my foot was still on the brake pedal.
I had to go inside and shower, get back in the car and drive to work. It’s dangerous, but if you want to achieve it, you do what you’ve got to do, and with that dedication will come relationships.

RB: I was living in Northern California, which was where I got started. When I moved down to Southern California, it was a game changer for me. There were five guys I wanted to work with, including Bisi, and I got to work with every single one of them. I didn’t have a home or a place to stay. I just took my business and put it in a U-Haul truck, and figured out where I’d live and sleep later. That was a big sacrifice but a huge payoff. At the same time, I found an awesome source for connectors. I literally felt like I had won the lottery. It opened my world up to start manufacturing wiring components. I’d go to the junkyard and cut connectors and try my best to solder on terminals and do whatever I had to do to make wiring harnesses. Whatever you’re doing, whether it’s welding or fabrication, once you find that source and you think there’s a market for it, you’ve just got to run with it and rush the next guy and beat him to the finish line.

BM: Ryan’s dedication started before that. He would drive 450 miles from Northern California to my house in Southern California on a Friday night, wake up on Saturday morning and work on the last build that we did in my driveway in 105-degree weather in the middle of the summer. He would leave Sunday night at 10:00 p.m. and drive back to Northern California to go to work Monday morning. That’s an example of the dedication it takes to get to where he is now.

Borrowing cues and inspiration from other segments and incorporating different ideas are what make sport-compact builders unique, according to Warren Shim-Quee.

WS: You’ve got to surround yourself with the right people to go far, not only in this industry but also in life. Before I started building cars for the SEMA Show, I would lug around a camera with a tripod and take photos for different magazines. We were a small community, and we would all meet here at the SEMA Show. My photography developed into what I do now for Cinemotive Media, where we make videos and commercials for automotive companies. On the side, we’re always
building cars.

NT: My brother and I started on the Super Street tour at the Nopi Nationals. When we lived in Miami in the mid ’90s, there was no social media. None of us was filthy rich; we worked cutting grass and saved our money by not eating lunch. We had to fly Super Street out just to cover our cars. We used to drive up and down from Miami to Philly and Chicago, and that’s when we started getting noticed. We tried to blaze our own paths because we wanted to be different. I had an Acura TL, painted it bright yellow, and installed a rollcage and a Saleen wing. It got the attention of Super Street and Toyo Tires. That’s how we got started building relationships. We were working with Honda, Hyundai and Ford. The goal every year is to get better. Keep working with the right people, keep trusting in what you’re doing and keep pushing forward. It’s important to over deliver, because they’ll always remember you, so when you go back and ask for an opportunity, they’ll remember what you did for them.

NT: What advice can you offer to others hoping to get into this business?

BE: Forge relationships that last a lifetime, maintain them and treat each other properly. Don’t burn any bridges, and follow through when you commit to something. If you cannot follow through for some unforeseen circumstance, explain why. Continue to remain transparent. I would not be where I am today if it weren’t for the relationships that I’ve fostered.

YT: The people who you meet and work with are either going to help you or hurt you, so positive relationships are a must. I wouldn’t have the Toyota deals that I have if it weren’t for the relationships I have with the individual people who work for their marketing departments.

tjin bros
Brothers Gene (left) and Neil Tjin standing in front of the aLL STaR Performance/Tjin Edition ’16 Honda Civic Coupe, which was unveiled at the 2016 SEMA Show.

RB: In addition to building relationships with OEMs, developing relationships with clients is also important. I have a huge database of clients, and you can’t go anywhere online and read that I ripped someone off. That’s huge for me. There may be something somewhere that says maybe something doesn’t work right, or I didn’t support them well enough. You can’t please everyone. You can’t just offer them something for free in hopes that they’ll go away. Make sure your clients are number one. If something doesn’t work out, sometimes you’ve just got to eat it. I’ve had situations where I’ve had to do things financially that I didn’t want to do to please a customer, but it all works out in the end.

WS: My business partner told me sometimes customers will come in and ask for free work, and I’m thinking, this guy obviously has money, why isn’t he paying us? We shouldn’t be working for free. My partner would always tell me to just close my eyes and do it. It’s going to turn into something else. And 10 out of 10 times, every time we did something, obviously within reason, that was a freebie for us, it always turned into something else. A handful of our accounts that are moneymakers come from deals like that. Just because it looks like it’s not going to be something that’s going to make you a millionaire doesn’t mean it’s not going to turn into something.

BM: If you have a vision of a build, stick to it until the end. Don’t conform. We all started by jacking up a car and sliding underneath it and scraping our elbows. If you’re just starting out, you’re going to hurt yourself, cut stuff open, break stuff but keep pushing, stick to your vision, and you cannot fail.

Audience Question: When will Honda be considered more than just a tuner car?

BM: In the drag-racing world, you have V8 guys who just laugh at a four cylinder. Bisi kicked that door down by breaking records. You’ve got a car like Ryan’s, which has MoTeC electronics—that’s top-tier borderline F1-type stuff that people are starting to appreciate. My car is a Honda Prelude, and I’m using Martini Rossi livery. When we do stuff like that, they have no choice but to say, “Martini livery in a Honda? I didn’t know those tuners know about that. They’re using MoTeC electronics and aluminum paneling, I thought that was Trophy Truck and hot-rod stuff. Clearly they take inspiration.” We are showing that we are inspired by other realms. They think they are so far above us that they would just never even think that we would look at that. We give them no choice by what we build to understand that we are working outside the box.

RB: I have an ’86 Honda Civic, and one day I decided to take it to Cars & Coffee. It’s a very interesting restomod build. I pulled this thing into Cars & Coffee, and it’s really loud with open exhaust. There were a couple of Honda guys there, but those guys are looked down upon; it’s kind of like a Porsche-only deal. But when I brought the Civic, the traffic I got was insane. There were old men trying to see what’s going on because the firewall had nothing on it at all; there were no brakes or throttle cables because it was all electronic based. It’s kind of like a mind tweak of a car; you would never expect that engine setup. I apologized for bringing a Civic to the guy there who was running things, and he told me to bring it back. So, we’re almost there; it’s coming.

WS: I think it’s the other manufacturers that have to catch up with Honda. This year, we built a Focus ST. Who else has a cool hatchback? The first thing you think of when you tune a hatchback is Honda. That’s why Ford is bringing back the Focus with the RS and ST and Hyundai also has got stuff. It’s not just Honda; everyone is going in the right direction now.

Audience Question: How are you able to find a balance between running your businesses and building cars for the SEMA Show?

BE: SEMA is a blessing for our team. I’m fortunate that I’m disciplined enough to save resources earlier in the year. I close my company down for the second half of the year and build a bunch of cars. After we build project cars, it creates huge awareness. The relationship between OEMs and companies like ours is that they help us to promote these builds. SEMA allows us to reach out globally to individuals and entities that we would otherwise not be able to reach. It’s more of a balancing act of having resources earlier in the year and being able to expand them.

RB: I have a few products that are my bread and butter. We’re able to sell those throughout the year to keep the business running. Unfortunately, you can’t just build cars; it’s a very difficult thing to do. We have those part numbers that are always in stock and ready to go, so whatever that part is that’s keeping you running, that’s going to allow you to build SEMA cars throughout the rest of
the year.

  Sport-Compact Builders on the Forefront of Creating Market Trends
The sport-compact builders panel at the 2016 SEMA Show was created to showcase the evolution of this market segment by highlighting builders who push the envelope and create trends. In doing so, entrepreneurs are better able to understand opportunities to grow their businesses through diversification, and aspiring builders get a real-world look at what it takes to make it.
“The builders panel supports the overall mission of SEMA and the education program to help our members’ businesses succeed and prosper,” said Zane Clark, SEMA senior director of education. “The professional development offered at the SEMA Show provides attendees with an unparalleled opportunity to learn from industry and business leaders. Our goal is to provide attendees with thought-provoking ideas and real-world business solutions that can immediately benefit their businesses.”
For the builders panel, in particular, panelists were chosen by their peers. SEMA approached young reputable builders to find out who they thought would best represent the sport-compact community.

Audience Question: How do you help to create trends and opportunities?

WS: Every year we walk around the SEMA Show and look at the highlights. For example, again, the livery on Big Mike’s car is not necessarily Honda stuff. We take cues and inspiration from all over, and that’s what makes us unique.

We’re all creative in our own ways; we don’t stick to the same things, and we incorporate different ideas into our builds. For instance, we walked around and saw a motorcycle with a unique color scheme in one of the booths, so we thought about how we could incorporate that color scheme into one of our builds.

BM: If you do what you love, it just comes out in your builds, and people will appreciate it, whether it’s hot rodding, low rider, Trophy Truck, sand rail, off-road, whatever. That’s why people follow us, because we don’t just continue the same thing over and over. We just do what we do and they can’t help but say, “Look, that guy is successful. Why?” Whether it be our work ethic or styling, they can’t help but take cues.

NT: We’ve always tried to incorporate that less is more, cleaner is better. We take cues from every segment, and I think we’re good enough. We can learn from a low rider and even clothing—we designed a brown Camaro based off colors from Chris Paul shoes.

BM: There’s been an evolution. Honda was the big thing, and then Scion came along and ripped that whole thing apart. Do we just sit back and let it happen, or do we try to keep Honda alive? Scion has manhandled that demographic, and they still kind of do. Guys like Young went from Honda to Scion and are successful in that realm because it’s the new supercar.
I still choose to use Honda as a canvas. I love all types of cars, and I’m going to build all types of cars, but I try to take it upon myself to not let Honda die.

NT: It’s also the evolution of the industry and the client. We started with Honda hatchbacks. Then people went to Nissans, and now they are coming in with Porsches and Ferraris. It keeps progressing. As people get older they start families, and those clients end up coming back.

Register for the 2017 SEMA Show at to gain access to more panels and professional development opportunities.

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