Pensacola's Renegade Performance Center beefs up Mustangs for customers nationwide
As a young boy growing up in rural Michigan in the late 1970s, James Klok was immersed in the auto-racing culture. For Klok, souped-up cars with massive rumbling engines, aerodynamically modified bodies and exotic paint jobs were as normal as any vehicle seen on the highway. It couldn’t be helped. He lived adjacent to a drag strip — and a thin property fence couldn’t muffle the day-in-and-day-out staccato roar of the behemoths scorching the pavement. Hot cars were imprinted on Klok’s mind. Now, at 40 years of age, Klok operates Renegade Performance in Pensacola, customizing cars with a particular focus on the Ford Mustang. His is one of only five businesses in the United States authorized by Ford to modify the Mustang for dealerships.
Hopped Up on Horsepower James Klok has found the remaking of a sports car classic is a cottage industry where he’s at home By Scott Jackson Originally published in the Aug/Sep 2010 issue of 850 Magazine
As a young boy growing up in rural Michigan in the late 1970s, James Klok was immersed in the auto-racing culture. For Klok, souped-up cars with massive rumbling engines, aerodynamically modified bodies and exotic paint jobs were as normal as any vehicle seen on the highway. It couldn’t be helped. He lived adjacent to a drag strip — and a thin property fence couldn’t muffle the day-in-and-day-out staccato roar of the behemoths scorching the pavement. Hot cars were imprinted on Klok’s mind.
Now, at 40 years of age, Klok operates Renegade Performance in Pensacola, customizing cars with a particular focus on the Ford Mustang. His is one of only five businesses in the United States authorized by Ford to modify the Mustang for dealerships.
Starting His Engine
When he was younger, Klok did some of his own racing He competed in bracket racing, a form of drag racing that allows for a handicap between the predicted elapsed time of the two cars over a standard distance, and some auto-cross, a timed competition where drivers navigate one at a time through a series of traffic cones.
Klok arrived in Northwest Florida in 1990 when he was assigned to Eglin Air Force Base as an Air Force calibration technician. For five years he worked at the base’s Precision Measurement Equipment Laboratory, practicing metrology — the calibration and repair of test equipment. The work honed his penchant for precision and quality, skills that would carry over in his civilian life.
“I left the service in 1995 to go work for Roush Fenway Racing, a NASCAR team, performing engine development work for one year,” he said. The Roush team’s cars were no slouches by any measure, garnering 260 NASCAR wins over the team’s history.
The following year found Klok doing brake development work at the General Motors proving ground in Arizona for legendary auto designer Larry Shinoda, who is credited with creating the Boss 302 Mustang and doing development work on early models of the classic Corvette Stingray.
Shinoda died of kidney failure that year, leaving Klok with his stockpile of Mustang customizations. Admitting he wasn’t always a Mustang fan, Klok said, “I got into the Mustangs primarily because I took over for Larry in 1997.” He subsequently formed his own company, Renegade Performance, and continued to focus on Mustangs.
“We have always specialized in the Mustang, but that is not to say we don’t do other vehicles,” Klok said.
A Unique Relationship
Klok brought his company to Pensacola in 2001 and set up shop in a converted filling station.
Renegade Performance now is one of only five customization shops in the country that have a direct link with Ford Motor Company.
“Ford delivers directly to our facility via a car hauler,” he said. “We modify them and send them back to whichever dealer ordered the car. Normal turnaround time is anywhere from 30 to 90 days, depending on how extensively they want it modified.”
The markup for customized cars is considerable — a $30,000 car can get close to $60,000, depending on the amount of work.
Klok admits he doesn’t always know who the car’s ultimate owner is but acknowledges that he has his share of high end customers.
“The yellow car belongs to Mark Nally, CEO of Flex Equipment in California, which manufactures all the exercise equipment for Gold’s Gym,” said Klok, pointing to one of two vehicles undergoing modifications. “The white one is owned by Charmed Limo Service in Long Island, N.Y. We also have one for the CFO of Baltimore Gas & Electric. We deal with people all across the country.”
Although his customization business has been exclusively for clients in the United States, Klok has garnered international attention.
“We haven’t had any overseas customers yet, but we have had people show interest,” he said. “We send parts overseas to Japan, Puerto Rico and Germany. We have a guy from England that comes in about once a quarter to pick up parts.”
The most exotic customization Klok has done seems more like a rocket ship than a car.
“We put in a twin turbo-charged, 4.6-liter, 1,100-horsepower engine for a car that is now in Ohio,” he said. By comparison, a typical non-turbo-charged NASCAR race car produces upwards of 750 horsepower, and a 2009 Ford F-150 truck tops out at 392 horsepower.
It’s not just about engines, either. Klok’s shop also does all of the graphics, spoiler, supercharger, upholstery, suspension and brake work involved in its customizations.
The cars themselves are an amalgamation of technological miracles; with aerodynamic styling and powerful engines, they represent the cutting edge of technological design.
Riding Out the Recession
America’s love affair with the automobile is so strong that it had to take the near-total financial collapse of the auto industry to appreciably affect the customization industry.
“That is why we are doing more local stuff now, when we used to not even be open to the public,” Klok said. He attributes Renegade’s survival to unique licensing arrangements and a small, flexible team, which is unlike most of his competitors.
“We are lean and mean, and that is why we are still in business,” he said. “In 2005, there were approximately 20 businesses modifying Mustangs across the country. Now there are basically five major players: myself, Roush, Saleen, Shelby and Steeda. We are small enough that there isn’t any red tape. Most of the larger companies have a board of directors and some managers, so by the time it gets down to the person who is doing the actual work, you will have gone through four or five tiers of people to get it approved. With me, if the job comes in and we like it, we simply do it.”
And being small allows Klok to adapt to unique requirements.
“We get a lot of projects that nobody else has done,” he said. “For instance, the yellow car we are building for Mark Nally in California is a 5.4-liter engine swap into a 2006 Mustang that still has all the California emissions equipment. We have to make the modification and preserve the emissions equipment as if the factory had done it.”
Klok also has a license from Ford to use the “Boss” nameplate, which designates a special customization that is allowed for only a limited edition of race-ready Mustangs.
“I am the only guy licensed to use that name on a Mustang,” he said.
Noting his niche of themed cars, Klok points to a poster of a Mustang on his wall that features Blue Angels paint and design. He likes to compare his shop to the popular Orange County Choppers group whose television series showed custom-built motorcycles with unique themes.
“We did an Auburn-themed car, as well as a Georgia Bulldog car, for possible licensing by the NCAA, but are still working on that,” he said.
Industry Group Rides Shotgun
The industry trade organization that is at the hub of the customization business is the Specialty Equipment Manufacturing Association. It consists of a diverse group of manufacturers, distributors, retailers, publishing companies, auto restorers, street-rod builders, customizers, car clubs and race teams. The 46-year-old organization performs services for its members to protect consumers’ rights to drive accessorized, customized and vintage vehicles; it also monitors legislation at the state and federal levels.
In an October 2009 survey, the member manufacturers were asked by the association for their sales outlook compared to the previous year. Not surprisingly, the results show a tentativeness about the near-term future of the auto industry. Forty-one percent predicted that sales would be flat compared to one year ago; 37.3 percent predicted sales would be up; and 21.7 percent said sales would be down. Of the manufacturers that predicted sales would be up, the average increase was 13.9 percent. Of the manufacturers that predicted sales would be down, the average decrease was 18.7 percent.
Even though the auto industry is struggling, there is evidence that people appear to be keeping their vehicles longer, according to a Specialty Equipment Manufacturing Association report, and that may eventually bode well for specialty equipment manufacturers and customizers such as Renegade Performance. As vehicles age, consumers are more likely to repair or refurbish them rather than buy something new.
Klok is optimistic.
“I feel that it is coming back,” he said. “I think as long as companies like Ford are as healthy … They appear to have turned things around.”
Renegade’s close ties with Ford also allow Klok’s business to make approved modifications to other vehicles, such as conversion vans and police cars.
Klok hopes to move into a larger and better-designed facility where he can add an auto-parts consignment element to his business. In view of the considerable transaction volume for auto parts on Internet forums such as Craigslist and eBay, this would allow customers to store their parts, for a fee, at his warehouse.
“Sellers will be able to have a place to display their parts after they post it on the forums,” Klok said. “This way, nobody would have to come to your house, but they could still inspect the merchandise.”
Klok and his three employees are assisted by two of his three children on a part-time basis. His 18-year-old son helps with the multimedia aspects and 15-year-old daughter works the counter during the summer.
As for the future, as long as Americans continue their love affair with the car, Renegade Performance will most likely continue playing Cupid to the passionate mix of style, power and ride that makes up the Ford Mustang.