Bennett Coachworks – ‘A touch of California in Milwaukee’

Last updated on May 13th, 2019 at 02:28 pm

Bennett Coachworks – ‘A touch of California in Milwaukee’
By David Niles, SBT Editor
Bob Bennett proudly calls it “a chunk of California from the 1960s right here in Milwaukee.” It’s Bennett Coachworks, an automotive fabrication business just north of downtown.
In an unassuming building off the one-block Court Street, Bennett and his team are turning out some of the most prized auto fabrications and restorations in the nation.
“When our cars are entered in shows, it’s not our cars versus other cars, it’s between our cars,” Bennett says. “The only way you can beat one of our cars is with one of our cars.”
Take the long ramp up to his second-floor, 7,200-square-foot shop, and you see what he’s talking about. A Ferrari he worked on sold for $1.4 million. But the company is focused on more than just high-priced sports cars. The day a reporter visited, the range of vehicles in various stages of work included a number of Datsuns, Cobra reproductions, an Olds Toronado, a Chevy pickup truck and a Volkswagen Karmann Ghia. (You can see work on the various stages of those vehicles in slide shows at the company’s Web site,
He’s done 40 Cobras inhouse, having been involved with Cobras since the mid-1970s. His work included being the inhouse R&D engineer for Arntz Engineering of San Francisco, the first company to replicate the 427 Cobra. He also worked as an independent contractor for former West Allis auto manufacturer Excalibur, designing the prototype, building the prototype, constructing the fixtures and tooling and personally building the first 10 chassis for Excalibur.
It’s meticulous work, in many cases involving exactness down to clamps and the type of fabric in the trunk. For the 1966 Chevy pickup, he acquired the last-available bolt of original fabric to restore the interior seating.
The Karmann Ghia is being transformed from a worn-out, puttering, low-powered machine to a gleaming zippy, high-powered sportster. “We like building hot-rod street cars,” Bennett says.
Born in Indianapolis in 1955, Bennett has long been surrounded by mechanics and autos. His grandfather was an R&D machinist for Schweitzer Turbo. “I can remember him telling me how turbochargers would be the way of the future,” Bennett said.
By the time he was 8 years old, he was writing down car facts in a pocket notebook. By the time he was 12, he had a car to work on – and he’s had about 200 cars since then. His eighth-grade class voted him “Most Likely to Race at Indy.” The family moved to Wisconsin, but the love of autos came with them.
He did get into auto and motorcycle racing, “but turn No. 5 at Elkhart Lake ended that,” he said, referring to a spill he had during a race at the popular Sheboygan County racetrack.
Upon graduation from Mukwonago High School in 1973, he set up his own shop, with income helping pay for classes at UW-Waukesha and UW-Milwaukee.
He started a shop in the old Weber Brewery in Waukesha, but closed it and worked on World War II airplanes for five years. When he reopened his auto shop in 1996, “the customers were waiting in line,” he recalls.
He’s controlled the growth since then, not wanting to lose control of the quality his shop has come to be known for. Even in the recent slow economy, his business has seen 10 to 15% revenue growth. “When the economy turned sour, we were pretty worried,” he said. “But it only got better.”
Customers – some who are repeat clients – put money down and then pay for time and materials as work is being done. As restoration or fabrication can take many months to years, the financial plan keeps the business solvent. “When we switched to that method of business, our financial problems disappeared,” he said.
While there is room to grow in the Court Street building, bigger isn’t necessarily better, Bennett says. While he’s had as many as nine employees, he’s now at four, in addition to his wife, Janell, and him. “Six people in the shop would be fine,” he says. “Bigger than that can be too much of everything – too much government, too much managing.”
Dec. 26, 2003 Small Business Times, Milwaukee

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