Bill Ganahl, South City

Five Minutes with Bill Ganahl of South City Rod & Custom

Bill Ganahl grew up watching his father, hot rod journalist Pat Ganahl, wrench on and write about cars. Bill initially followed his father’s path toward writing by pursuing a graduate degree in English Literature, but a job at Roy Brizio Street Rods steered him to a career building cars instead.

From Brizio’s shop, Bill started South City Rod & Custom and has never looked back. The Hayward, California-based shop has crafted an enviable collection of rods and customs over the past 15 years, including two Goodguys Top 12 winners in 2023 (Truck of the Year, Early and Hot Rod of the Year). To top it off, Bill also received the Goodguys Trendsetter Award at the 2023 SEMA Show.

We figured it was a good time to get Bill’s thoughts on the industry, hot rodding’s history and future, and the process of building cars. For a guy who was planning a career in academics rather than in a shop, we’d say he made the right choice.

GG: 2023 was quite a year for the South City team. Tell us about the past 12 months.

Bill Ganahl: I’m overwhelmed with the experiences we’ve had this year. I’ve been building cars professionally for almost 25 years and have had my own shop for over 15 years. I feel like we just used up all our luck in one year! I’m so grateful for the accolades we’ve received, but reality sets in when you get back to work in the shop.

South City Rod and Custom 1940 Ford Pickup, Greg Tidwell 40 Ford Pickup, traditional custom 40 ford truck

GG: What steered you toward a hot rod career rather than literature?

Ganahl: When I started working at Brizio’s, my intention was to have a fun summer job doing parts runs or cleaning the shop, but Roy let me get involved with projects almost immediately. When I realized I might have the skills, and that working on cars was actually a viable career option, it didn’t take long to decide that wrenching was way more fun than writing or teaching.

GG: Any favorite books to recommend?

Ganahl: That’s like asking what’s your favorite movie – an impossible question! I’d recommend anything by Tom Robbins, maybe Even Cowgirls Get the Blues to start.

GG: You’ve been involved in several historic hot rod and custom restorations. Do you prefer these to new builds?

Ganahl: I wouldn’t say I prefer them, but I really enjoy them in a different way. Studying historic photos and calling up old-timers to ask questions really makes you feel closer to the cars and people who made what we’re doing today possible. It’s like meeting a celebrity – being in the same room as these famous, historic cars, let alone working on them, you almost feel starstruck.

GG: What is your favorite part of a build project? Your least favorite part?

Ganahl: My favorite part is coming up with subtle exterior modifications that improve the look of the car without changing the overall idea of the original design. That’s how I like to build cars; what would make it look better, but still look relatively factory. Sometimes these are extremely complex modifications or alterations that take a lot of time and effort, but don’t look like there was much work done.

My least favorite part is shaking down a car once it’s drivable. Once you start driving a new build, things inevitably start going wrong – parts failing or not working together properly. The amount of troubleshooting that happens when customers think the build is already finished isn’t fun for anybody.

Bill Ganahl 1964 Rivi, 1964 Buick Riviera, south city rod and custom, traditional custom riviGG: Where do you see hot rod trends going in the next few years?

Ganahl: I see them going in multiple directions. Muscle cars are definitely the new ’32 Ford, since the people who were into them as kids can now afford to build them the way they always wanted to. But the pro-touring trend might be starting to run its course?

Many shops are pushing the sudden access we have to CAD drawing and machining and printing our own parts, so that will continue to provide unique options. But I also see (and hope) that traditional influence outlasts some of the trends that have been so prevalent. I see cars now that almost look like they came from a modern production line and it kind of baffles me why you’d want your ’70s muscle car to look like a new Charger or Mustang.

GG: Do you see interest fading for early cars?

Ganahl: There’s a contingent of people, though smaller than before, that are still very much into early hot rods and customs. The problem is there might not be enough to support the aftermarket, so we’ve seen repop parts we used to take for granted not being available anymore. But now we can CAD draw and print, machine, or even cast our own. The big difference is that shops like mine that might have specialized in early Fords now also build muscle cars or later model pickups to fill in the gaps. Which I don’t mind at all.

GG: What’s the best advice you could offer a DIY enthusiast building a car at home?

Ganahl: It doesn’t have to be perfect. Don’t compare your work to your buddy, and definitely not a professional builder. We’ve had years and years of experience, and very high dollar tools that most DIYers can’t afford. Do your research and learn how to do it safely and proficiently, but at some point, just get it done. I see a lot of people piddle around forever and not finish anything. Get it done, you can always go back and improve it later.

GG: What are the most important hot rod lessons you learned from your father?

Ganahl: My dad always said a job isn’t worth doing unless it’s worth doing twice. He was joking, but I really learned my work ethic from him. He also said you should always do a good job and do it quickly. It was that last part that’s very hard to do in this business. The amount of time it takes to build cars to the quality that is expected at shows, and is required to be competitive for awards, is mind boggling. We’re literally spending people’s money while we work, so I always hear my dad telling me to hurry up…

Todd Ryden is first and foremost a car guy and admits to how lucky he is to have been able to build a career out of a hobby that he enjoys so much. He’s owned muscle cars and classics, raced a bit and has cruised across the country. With over 25 years in the industry from the manufacturing and marketing side to writing books and articles, he just gets it.