Joe and Paul Van Nus and Their Dutchboys Hotrods Team Craft Custom American Muscle Cars and Hot Rods in Michigan
When your hot rod shop is located just a couple hours from Detroit, it’s natural to have a strong reverence for the muscle cars and classics that have rolled out of Motor City through the decades. That respect can be seen in every build that comes from Dutchboys Hotrods in Vicksburg, Michigan. The shop has built a great reputation for crafting muscle cars and street machines that blend modern performance with enhanced classic style.
Dutchboys is owned by the father-and-son team of Joe and Paul Van Nus. For the past 13 years, their driving force has been to build the shop’s brand. Those efforts have paid off, as Dutchboys Hotrods has grown to 17 employees and 20,000 sq. ft. of space.
Joe Van Nus worked in collision shops before he and Paul ventured out on their own in 2010. While Paul says he always wanted to build hot rods, the early jobs involved primarily paint and body work. “We did a couple of turn-key builds and as we added fabricators, we started doing more hot rods,” Paul says.
While the bulk of the shop’s work these days involves full builds (they have a two-year waiting list), a portion involves putting modern drivetrains in older cars.
“We definitely like the performance side of things,” Paul says, “making an old car drive with new-car amenities.”
“We have a lot of customers who’ll pick up a car that has that dated hot rod look,” Paul continues. “It’s still a nice car – paint and body – we’re preserving the exterior of the car, using what parts we can. Then we’ll install a Roadster Shop chassis, driveline, new wheels, and it looks like a new build.”
It’s the full builds, though, that have fueled the shop’s growth and helped it earn a strong reputation for crafting top-quality rides. Additionally, the paint side of the business – led by Joe – has become a resource both for in-house builds and outside projects. The shop recently added a second paint booth to help handle the growing volume of and demand for high-quality paint work from other shops.
“They’ll deliver a raw roller,” Paul says. “We’ll prep it, epoxy it – all the way up to shiny paint. Wet-sand it, buff it, hang all the panels on it and ship it away.”
Meeting Management Challenges
Juggling long-term projects, quicker performance upgrades, and paint-only customers can be a challenge, especially in terms of finding and keeping skilled employees and adding the necessary equipment to service the various jobs. That means investing in important management positions to help projects stay on track.
“I never thought we would be at this point, but we have a full-time general manager who works on scheduling, talking to customers, helping me manage the shop,” Paul says. “We have a full-time parts manager as well who just researches and orders parts.
“Still, getting deadlines met is tough,” Paul continues, “keeping guys on track in the shop when you’re juggling a large amount of cars and people. There are so many variables, whether you’re waiting for parts or waiting for a customer to make a decision.”
No Small Jobs
Even shorter shop projects – like as LS upgrade – often require close monitoring as what starts as a relatively simple job can often expand into a more involved project.
“The problem we’ve run into is that a lot of those jobs turn into more,” Paul says. “Customer comes in and we schedule for an LS swap. Then the customer stops by and says he now wants to change the rearend, too. Or let’s do a separate set of wheels and then you’re waiting for the wheels. It evolves into so much more.”
All this work has resulted in steady growth, both in the team and in the scope and size of the shop and equipment. “I remember when we bought our first TIG welder, our second TIG welder. Now we have four or five fabricators, and everyone has their own welder,” Paul says.
While Dutchboys has plenty of work, finding skilled people to tackle those projects is a consistent challenge.
“If you’re good at what you do, you’re slammed,” Paul says. “I never thought that we’d have 17 employees. If the right one (a potential employee) walked in the door right now, I’d hire them. It’s crazy.”
Over time because of repeat clients and exposure at car shows and through magazines, both potential and existing customers have come to know the kind of rides that Dutchboys builds. That can help when it comes to matching the owner’s desires with your styling advice.
“We don’t want to make all of the decisions, but we try to steer him in the right direction.” Paul says. “The quality of cars today; there are so many great shops. If you build a car and it’s in your style and someone sees it, that’s how you advertise your work. It’s not that this is a better car, or that is a better car, it’s that everyone has their own style.”
For repeat customers, that can sometime mean Paul’s team has the latitude to make big decisions like picking the color. “I have one customer now, who we’ve done a handful for, that we have a Chevelle that’s ready to go into the paint booth who doesn’t want us to tell him what color we’re painting it. He allows us to run with it.”
The Epic Grand National
Dutchboys is like many shops – plenty of obvious projects like Camaros, Mustangs, Corvettes. But you’ll also find a few rides that are more unusual. Two ’69 Ford Torino street machines are almost complete. But the build that will be a major head-turner when it’s finished is an ’80s Buick Grand National. It’s an all-out custom. Hand-formed sheet metal abounds. The wheel flares were custom fabricated, the front and rear plastic facia were reworked in new steel, and the one-off hood is all new steel.
In addition to a custom chassis, the car will be powered by a twin-turbo LS V8. It will have modern elements like an ABS system and traction control, too.
“We’ve had guys working on that car for the last year-plus,” Paul says. “That’s the biggest metal work job we’ve done.”
What does the future hold for this father-and-son duo and their team? First, getting the second paint booth up and operating will allow for more custom-paint-only work. Adding more skilled fabricators will help move the full builds more quickly. Even building a line of spec-built cars could be in the future, Paul says.
One of the lessons that Paul has learned helps form his view of the coming years. It’s also good advice for anyone in this business.
“Stay with what you’re good at,” he says. “Don’t get caught up with what other people are doing.”
Photos by John Jackson