Titan of Tennessee

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Rick Spears is accustomed to his customized 1999 Mitsubishi Eclipse attracting admiring fans. But he never expected someone to approach him at a Nashville car show and declare, “Oh my god, I want to be buried in that car!” Spears, who co-owns Knoxville, Tenn.–based Malibu Collision Repair Center with his wife, began customizing cars just five years ago after attending a Number One Parts Inc. (NOPI) car show with his son. He was so impressed with the skill and complexity of the customizations that he added the Malibu Customz department to his body shop. Now, Spears has successful relationships with sponsors and is racking up awards faster than you can say “car show.”   


After buying the Eclipse from a former customer, Spears spent four years perfecting its customization—and learning from mistake after mistake. “In custom work, there are no books,” he says, “just a huge learning curve.” Spears began by disassembling the entire car and purchasing a body kit. He had originally planned to mold the kit into the car, but he ran into problems early on: The front bumper didn’t fit. “It had to be cut into three pieces and refiberglassed to fit the car properly,” he says. The bumper wasn’t the only snag. After pulling out the original dashboard to paint it, Spears discovered that the new paint wouldn’t stick to the Eclipse’s OEM dashboard. Back at square one, “I went to the salvage yard to get a new one,” he says. Spears had better luck customizing other areas of the car. Chroming the plastic on the washer reservoir, overflow bottles and fuse box covers didn’t present any major problems.


One of the most difficult—but unique—customizations was the addition of vertical doors. “For the first two years, the car didn’t have any vertical doors, and we kept getting second place in the shows,” Spears recalls. “We wanted first, so we put in the vertical doors.” That did the trick. Spears went all out for the car’s hood design, too. Rather than using regular paint, he opted for dye. “[Dye] is not as easy to use as paint. You can’t overlap it, but it gives a very deep, pretty color.” The richer hue, he says, comes from urethane in the dye. That adds shine, and “it draws people all the way across the parking lot to look at it,” he says.

A $20,000 Kicker stereo system rounds out the Eclipse’s flashiest customizations. The stereo was so big, Spears had to redesign the whole car to make it fit. “We had it up to 157 decibels at a car show, and that was only halfway,” he says. “[It’s so powerful that] bolts pop out of the spoiler. We have to use an inverter to run it, because otherwise it would kill the battery.” All these fancy extras quickly added to the value of the car, running up an $89,000 price tag. Fortunately, Spears’ sponsors have covered the most expensive customizations.


When Spears is prepping the car for a show, he and three team members from the customs department work tirelessly. “We work on it for two weeks, day and night,” he says. “There are pictures of me sleeping on the tailgate.” The long hours paid off big when Spears won “Best of Show” in the Asian Division at the 2005 NOPI Nationals. “That was our goal,” he says. “It’s hard to win, because there are celebrities there who can spend a lot of money on a car and people who spend $35,000 just on tires.” The five-foot trophy and cash prize payoff couldn’t have been sweeter. But Spears isn’t one to rest on his tailgate: “Now, I’m ready to move on to the next one!”

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