Inside a large machine shop off Rutherford Road, Tommy Pike stood next to a 1937 Dodge pickup truck, now completely restored and customized with a fresh coast of electric blue paint and enough horsepower to win a street race.
“There was a lot of blood, sweat, and tears put into this truck,” he explained. “The frame was completely rusted over when I found it.”
Last year, Pike was commissioned by Pennzoil Shell to find and restore the classic pickup truck to help celebrate the 80th anniversary of Fiat Chrysler Automobile’s Mopar parts and service brand. Now it features a full custom chassis for the body and bed, a fresh set of tires, a 5.7-liter HEMI engine, leather seats, stickers, and more.
Pike considers the truck a “career highlight,” but it’s just one of many vehicles that he’s work on during his time as owner of Tommy Pike Customs.
“The industry is full of companies that only work on expensive vehicles. But we’ve never been picky,” he said. “We’ve worked on everything from Ferraris to Jeeps.”
Pike’s passion for automobiles can be traced back to his childhood, when he would spend afternoons watching his father tinker with cars. “My dad was an aircraft mechanic, so it was second nature for me to take things apart and put them back together. I actually spent more time breaking my bicycle down than riding it.”
Over the years, Pike graduated to cars and even started a small shop in his parent’s garage, offering oil changes and window tinting. After high school, Pike got a full-time job at Automotive Accents, where he performed introductory accessory work.
He purchased the company in 2005 but struggled to turn a profit when customers began buying their accessories from online retailers. That’s when Pike started to shift his company’s focus to restoration and customization services instead.
“I knew that we had to take things in a different direction to survive. But I couldn’t bring myself to commit,” Pike said. “My mom was the one who actually convinced me to get into customs. She knew it was going to be an industry, because she watched car shows on television. Luckily, I listened to her and things worked out.”
In 2007, Pike decided to relocate the business from North Pleasantburg Drive to a 30,000-square-foot building on Rutherford Road to accommodate growth. Now it houses hundreds of cars on a yearly basis, according to Pike.
But Pike doesn’t run the company alone. His wife, Stephanie, helps out and handles the finances. The two met while working on a project to customize and give away a truck for charity when she was with Charlotte Motor Speedway.
“Stephanie was in the motor sports industry for years and knows everybody, which helps us in the corporate world,” Pike said. “She’s definitely the brains of the operation.”
The duo’s ability to leverage their skills and grow the company has led to numerous corporate partnerships over the years. In 2014, for instance, they partnered with Shell Oil to promote Quaker State, Pennzoil, and Rotella.
As a brand ambassador, Tommy Pike Customs not only receives free products on a monthly basis but also gets to participate in special projects. Last year, for instance, Pike and his team partnered with Quaker State to customize a Dodge RAM 1500 for Jimmy Houston, who was celebrating his 50th anniversary as a professional angler.
“Most of these big companies think we don’t have running water or working roads here in South Carolina,” Pike said. “But we’re relevant to their business and really good at getting their product and message out there in front of people.”
Pike and his team attend 12 major events a year to showcase their work and demo Shell products. That includes the Motor Trend South Carolina International Auto Show, NHRA 4-Wide Nationals, Pennzoil AutoFair, Coca Cola 600, Quaker State 400, and more.
“We don’t go to compete against other shops. We go to build relationships with our customers. That’s probably why we’ve been so successful over the years,” Pike said. “We listen to our customers and know what they want.”
But the job hasn’t come without challenges, including a shortage of mechanics and technicians. The New York Times reported earlier this year that there will be over 25,000 unfilled positions in the next five years. Now Pike is working to connect with students at local high schools and community colleges to prepare for the shortage.
“I don’t want to see the industry crash and burn. But it’s going to happen if we don’t plan ahead and take action,” Pike said. “I’m talking with Greenville Tech and several other schools to figure out ways to get students out of the classroom. Flipping through a book is helpful, but it’s not going to keep students interested.”
Since 2015, Pike has also partnered with Quaker State to serve as a mentor and judge for the Best in Class Challenge. The six-week automotive training competition requires students from five high schools across the country to restore and customize a fourth-generation Ford Mustang. The winning school is given the opportunity to sell their vehicle at the Barrett-Jackson auction in West Palm Beach, Fla.
Pike said auction proceeds are donated to the winning school’s automotive training program. Last year, students from Atlanta’s Jordan Vocational High School sold their car for $50,000 before it was donated to a second auction in Connecticut. It was then sold for $65,000 and donated back to another auction. Now Pike and the students will travel to Arizona in January to auction the car off for a third time.
“Their eagerness to get under the hood and get their hands dirty reminds me a lot of myself at their age,” Pike said. “I have to give so much credit to the instructors of these programs. The guidance, encouragement, and training they provide often go unnoticed or unrecognized. The next generation of enthusiasts are dependent on these programs, and it has been a privilege to partner with them and mentor these students.”
As for the future, Pike plans to focus on his company’s newest initiative to provide custom vehicles for law enforcement agencies and veterans.
The initiative began last month when Pike and his team unveiled a new recruitment vehicle for the Greenville Police Department at the TD Center. The vehicle, a Ford-F150, will be used to recruit officers and promote the department at community events, parades, and other happenings around the city, according to Chief Ken Miller.
“It doesn’t matter what your political views are,” Pike said. “Our police and military haven’t been treated well lately. If there’s something we can do for them, we’re going to do it. They need all the support they can get right now.”