Tim McClellan will be the first to tell you he didn’t grow up around cars.
“I never learned the ‘right way’ [of building cars],” he told a visitor to his latest business, Cowboy Customs Speed Shop, in Cottonwood, Arizona.
The designer was born in West Virginia and raised on a 100-acre farm. He won a sewing and cooking contest at age 14. His family moved to Maryland, where he graduated from Winston Churchill High School in 1987.
He was accepted into the honors program at the University of Maryland but instead moved across the country to Seattle, where he got his start building beds and started Western Heritage Furniture. A few years later, he fell in love with the quirky mountain town of Jerome, Arizona — which sits on a mountain above Cottonwood — and moved his furniture business there.
For those keeping score, none of this has to do with cars. Yet.
McClellan didn’t get involved in the vintage automobile world until years later, when one of his clients asked him to customize a 1940 Ford. The designer had already filled three of the client’s homes with custom furniture, but there was a problem: McClellan had never built a custom car.
Like many do-it-yourselfers, he turned to YouTube.
“It’s the only college I’ve ever been to,” he said. “I’m so grateful for the people who teach.”
McClellan discovered that he liked working with metal more than wood and jumped into the custom truck build with both feet. It took him one year — the owner spent about $150,000 — and by the end of it, he had built what is likely the only four-wheel-drive, 4-door 1940 Ford pickup.
“There’s not two of them on the planet and probably never will be,” he said.
In the middle of the build, producers from the short-lived Ellen’s Design Challenge came calling. McClellan was originally lukewarm on participating. He interviewed for the show, but admitted he had a secret agenda.
“I might be able to sell her (Ellen DeGeneres) a truck,” he said with a laugh, adding that he did the Skype interviews in his garage while covered in grease and smoking a cigar.
McClellan went on to win the show but was disqualified after a claim was made that he copied another designer. To hear him say it, it’s simply not true. His fans attacked HGTV, the network that carried the show. DeGeneres later brought him onto her talk show to tell him she didn’t think the copying was intentional.
After the show, McClellan went back to the garage and started creating some of the craziest cars he could dream up and breathed life into some projects left for dead.
“I repurpose junk, in a sense,” he said. “Something that has no value right now, I can turn it into something.”
He said he views his shop as a big experimental sandbox, with one addition: “We have a beer cooler in the sandbox,” he said with a laugh.
When I visited the shop, McClellan was working on what he calls the Cowboy Corvette: The body of a 1963 Chevrolet C10 pickup mated with the engine and suspension of a C4 Corvette.
“The C4, in my opinion, is the ugliest Corvette ever made,” he said, but he’s turning it into something incredible and doing the work himself.
McClellan chose the ’63 pickup because of the steel dashboard’s “double hump,” which looks similar to the dash of a ’63 Corvette.
Instead of the stock engine, the truck now has a 350cid 5.7-liter V8 and the rest of the drivetrain pulled from a 1989 Corvette. The heads were ported and polished, and offset roller rockers, larger injection, a high-flow fuel pump and performance headers were added. The engine was also lowered and moved back for a better center of gravity.
Oh, and he custom-mounted two Garret GT30 twin turbos that sit underneath the bed.
Inside, the truck has Corvette C7 tan leather seats that are heated and cooled. Outside, some custom fender, bumper and grille work was done.
The restomod Cowboy Corvette was expected to be in the owner’s garage by Christmas. It should make at least 550 horsepower at the wheels when it’s finished.
The so-called “super truck” wasn’t the only vehicle getting McClellan’s hands dirty. He was putting the finishing touches on a custom 1956 Chevrolet Bel Air and, among other projects, was working on a custom gelato van for Tool lead singer Maynard Keenan, who lives near Cottonwood.
McClellan also has nearly completed a 1964 Chevrolet Nova II with a Toyota Supra engine under the hood, something he termed the “Supra Nova.”
The designer will take some time away from building cars soon, as the second season starts filming of Boomtown Builder, his DIY Network television show that focuses on renovating old homes in Arizona. But until then, McClellan will be in the garage building his next Coyote Custom.