John McLeod, Classic Instruments

5 Minutes With John McLeod

Like many hot rod business owners, John McLeod of Classic Instruments is a lifelong car enthusiast whose hobby became his profession – or, more specifically, one of his professions. Prior to purchasing Classic Instruments and moving the company to Michigan two decades ago, McLeod was an officer with the Boyne City Police Department. Working the night shift left his days open and McLeod found himself working with Mike Stowe to run Great Lakes Motor Works, a hot rod and restoration shop.

Managing the shop helped satisfy McLeod’s passion for cars and his knack for business; he grew up helping his parents in their nursery and floral shop. “I’ve always wanted to be in business for myself and love manufacturing,” McLeod says.

McLeod eventually left the police department to focus on Classic Instruments full time but returned to the force five years ago. “I retired once and just failed at it,” he jokes. “My old department needed some help. I still have some skills that were needed and I’m still young enough to do it.”

We took a few minutes from McLeod’s busy schedule to talk to him about gauges, business, and the trends he sees coming in the hobby.

Goodguys Gazette: What was your first car?

John McLeod: ’68 Plymouth Fury. I was 14 or 15. It was my father’s car that he brought brand new. I hounded my dad until he’d let me buy it. I tried to improve a little bit of everything as money would allow. Back then you had to have the yellow spark plug wires, the better distributor.

GG: What led you to purchase Classic Instruments 20 years ago? What was appealing about the instrument business?

McLeod: The gentleman I was running Great Lakes Motor Works with – he thought it was a good idea for me to own my own business. He gave me the courage to go out and do it. I’d always had a thing for gauges. It just happened it was for sale. We got to meet [Classic Instruments founders] Frank and Shirley Hettick and Frank and I hit it off. He was only going to sell it to a person he thought was the right person.

GG: What’s the biggest difference in building instruments today compared to when you first bought the company?

McLeod: Technology. The changes in engines, controllers, ECUs. We were still dealing with 350 motors and 350 transmissions then; now you’ve got a Hellephant motor with a Chevy transmission and a Ford rearend and seven different companies making a controller. Keeping up with how the instruments work with all the technology has clearly been the biggest change.

John McLeod, Classic Instruments

GG: In addition to selling production gauges, Classic Instruments upgrades and retrofits vintage gauge clusters. What percentage of the business is retrofit compared to production instruments?

McLeod: I’m guessing it’s about 25-30 percent. We call it the ICU – the Instrument Customization Unit. It’s actually a separate part of the company. It’s a much different animal. Every one of them is still hand built. A lot of time and thought has to go back and forth. That is where we get new product. It’s probably my favorite part of the business.

GG: Boyne City, Michigan is not exactly a hotbed of aftermarket manufacturing. What’s the best part of doing business there?

McLeod: It’s the people, 100-percent. This is my home. One of my criteria when I bought a business was not leaving Boyne City. I have the best team in the industry, and it’s because of the area I live in.

GG: What skills from your law enforcement career serve you well in business?

McLeod: It’s all the people skills. It’s dealing with crisis. Working with people and trying to maintain a level head.

GG: Classic Instruments helped make face shields during the early days of the pandemic. How did that come about?

McLeod: Just necessity. A company up the street started making shields. We started to make a part for them. And then another company asked if we could start making shields and parts for them. Because of our molding capabilities we started molding a bunch of stuff, and then started 3D printing stuff. All of a sudden, we were in the shield making business. It was a fun project. It was a new challenge. And it kept our doors open.

John McLeod, Classic Instruments

GG: What’s a current hot rod trend you’re happy to see?

McLeod: Trucks. I absolutely love this new truck craze. I’ve always been a truck guy. They’re taking it in so many different directions. The kid down the street can go find a farm truck and have a really cool truck and not break the bank. And then Troy Trepanier is going to be building a truck soon – you can go that whole gamut from one level to the next.

GG: How do you see the old car hobby evolving? What changes do you anticipate in coming years?

McLeod: I think you’re going to start seeing the ’32 Fords again, the hot rods. They’re going to make another surge. I’ve heard all the stories that hot rods are dead. I don’t believe it. When you look at how many axles Pete & Jakes chrome plate every month, where are they going? I’m building a ’32 right now. I don’t think it’s ever going to go away. I think that nostalgia is going to still be cool.

Lead photo courtesy Wheel Hub Magazine

Editor, Goodguys Gazette

Damon Lee began snapping photos at car shows when he was 10, tagging along with his father to events throughout the Midwest. He has combined his passion for cars and knack for writing and imagery into a 20-year career in the automotive aftermarket, writing for titles like Super Chevy and Rod & Custom and, more recently, working for respected industry leaders Speedway Motors and Goodguys Rod & Custom Association.