Mike and Jim Ring of Ringbrothers are skilled craftsman and accomplished businessmen who’ve won nearly every industry award, been featured in all the major car magazines, and are sought after by the world’s most elite collectors.
From their headquarters in Spring Green, Wisconsin, the siblings have built some of the most highly acclaimed street machines in hot rod history — including the 1969 Camaro Razor, 1966 Mustang Bail Out and 1971 De Tomaso Pantera ADRNLN.
Without a doubt, the Ring brothers are industry role models, celebrities—even royalty. Every project they complete conquers the industry, pushes the boundaries of what’s possible and inspires a legion of aspiring top-tier builders.
Like every car guy, they also love to talk shop — which is where The Hog Ring comes in.
We had the opportunity to interview Mike and Jim while in Las Vegas, Nevada, for the 2014 SEMA Show, where they debuted their latest project “Recoil” — a 1966 Chevrolet Chevelle that’s so far outside the box it forged a whole new category of hot rod: the refined racecar.
Mesmerized by Recoil – especially its sparse, yet immensely detailed interior – we sat down to chat with the guys about the project, their thoughts on the aftermarket industry and, most importantly to us, what they think about the craft of auto upholstery.
Despite all their success, we discovered that Mike and Jim are two modest, down-to-earth guys who not only have a passion for cars, but a profound respect for our craft.
What follows is a transcript of our interview:
1. Car builders and owners often focus the majority of their attention and budgets on vehicles’ exteriors and drivetrains at the expense of interiors. In your opinion, how important is the interior of a car compared to those other elements?
Mike: I think from our first car, we were all about the interior and you nailed it. Everybody’s out of gas, everybody’s out of money and the poor interior guy gets… But to me, it makes or breaks the car. It separates a really nice build from one that’s just a cut above. It’s all about the interior in my mind.
Jim: You know, I would agree with that. He’s right. Everybody, by the time they get to the interior is out of money.
Especially this build [Recoil] and in several of our other ones, we’ve actually spent a lot of time and paid a lot of attention during the early stages of the build on what the interior was going to be and had already started funneling the money into the inside of the car before we really ever got to the outside of the car to make sure that the budget was going around like it should.
Otherwise, you get to the end, the owner is frustrated, you’re out of money, you’re out of gas like he said and it suffers.
Mike: Let’s face it, everything’s pretty well been done on the outside of a car. The inside’s a whole new world.
2. How early in the design process do you plan a vehicle’s interior? Do you consult with an upholsterer or come up with the ideas all on your own?
Jim: We’ve got a guy, Steve Pearson [of Upholstery Unlimited in Clinton, Iowa]. He’s phenomenal. The guy is very, very creative. He’s an impeccable sewer, he can do anything. He, through all of our builds, has been a big part of our interiors and he’s very clever and very creative.
Let’s face it, as builders, not paying attention up front and relying on the back side, it’s good to have somebody that’s creative and is covering your back because you get tired on these builds and you get wore down.
Steve’s been a big part of it and this Chevelle that we have out here today, we spent a lot of time early on knowing we were going to burn the candle at both ends. The problem most of the time with interior shops is, you don’t give them enough time to do what they need to do.
Mike: Nor money. It kills me that a builder will just send a car to an upholstery shop, which is very common, and say, “Do what you think.”
We talk [to our upholsterer] every day. Hopefully I don’t drive him crazy but we just want to be involved in the interior. We don’t mark up the interior because honestly, we are so proud of the cars we do. We can’t afford to mark up and take at the end that money out of an interior’s pocket.
That’s the truth. We’ve never marked up anything on an interior job. Because we are a builder, but we do consult and stay involved through the whole process for no fee, but just because it’s such a big part of who we are.
3. We’ve seen you guys do body work, mechanical work and metal fabrication. Can you do upholstery? Have either of you ever tried sewing?
Jim: You know, it’s funny you say that. We had hired a young guy named Jeremiah to just help around the shop. You know, clean up, things like that. He had mentioned that his mom was doing upholstery work for couches and other stuff.
It didn’t work out and they had these sewing machines, so I said, “You know what? I have always thought about trying to figure out if I could sew,” so I ended up buying one of them sewing machines.
I can tell you one thing, I can’t sew straight. I gave it a shot. I’d play around a little bit but…
Mike: He’s not done.
Jim: I’ll keep after it and see if I can make something happen.
4. We’re constantly inspired by the amazing build projects that shops – whether they do body, paint, mechanics or interior – complete. In your opinion, what, if anything, does the automotive aftermarket lack?
Mike: We were interviewed by, I think it was the Hot Rodders of Tomorrow. They said, “What do you think the industry needs?” I said, “Interior. People that have a passion to create interiors” because I think it is the biggest downfall in our industry, without a doubt.
Jim: And a lot of them are going away. You can’t find … I mean, there is an old guy that we grew up with building cars in our [town] … Thank God he was down the road from us. He was incredible.
He could sew. People would come from all over Wisconsin to have him put their top on their car or their headliners. Great guy and now he’s taken all that knowledge with him and he’s pretty well done and it’s sad.
5. Your latest project, Recoil, has been described as a “refined racecar.” For me, the aspect of the car that most defines that refined racer look is its interior. Can you tell me the inspiration behind it?
Jim: I guess what I would say about that is, I’ve never seen a racecar with a whole lot of stitching in it. We knew that whoever was going to sew the stuff up wasn’t going to get rich on this one.
There’s definitely more bolts than stitches in this one. We try to use the material at a minimum, just to be able to pad your body where needed on both seats and maybe where you grab the handle to get out of the car.
Like I said, I’ve never seen a racecar with a whole lot of interior in it. We knew we had to take that avenue and use water transfer on the panels to create texture instead of all paint and just doing it a different way. I think it worked out.
6. Recoil’s interior doesn’t feature many soft-trim parts, but in many ways you did mimic a traditional interior. For example, the floorboard rises to connect to the roll bar behind the seats, creating the look of a waterfall center console. It does the same in the rear, connecting to the package tray and splitting the back cabin down the center to create the impression of bucket seats. What’s more, the carbon fiber roof was designed to look like a one-piece headliner with sail panels. I especially like how the floorboard dons a weave pattern to make it look like there’s carpeting when, in fact, there isn’t at all.
Mike: Oh, you did look at it!
Yeah, the attention to detail really blew my mind. You’re definitely blazing a new trail with this “refined racecar” look — which, to me, actually seems more difficult to pull off because there aren’t many examples to reference. How did you come up with such an innovative design?
Mike: That’s exactly what we wanted to create. The pattern was hard because we wanted simple. With water transfer, you can make any pattern you can think of, but we didn’t want a carbon fiber look. We wanted something to be like a texture of a material where [you touch it and think to yourself] “what is that?”
That is so cool that you picked up on all that!
7. Had you trimmed Recoil with a traditional hot rod interior – leather seats, door panels, headliner, console – do you think the car would have stood out from the crowd the way it has?
Mike: Do I feel that the car would have had the same reception? No. I think that interior in that Chevelle put it over the top and separated us from a lot of cars here.
Not that I feel like we built a better car than anyone. I don’t want to sit and bang our chest like we’re the best car builders because that’s not the case. What I feel we did is trend a new thing and that’s what we intended to do.
Jim: I actually think you are going to see a lot more of this now. It always tends to happen and I think that’s kind of cool.
8. Let’s talk about Recoil’s seats. They’re definitely a one-off design. What was your inspiration and are they comfortable?
Jim: Shawn, one of our fabricators in our shop, made the seats from scratch. He is a phenomenal craftsman. We mocked this car up with a Recaro Expert M style seat.
Basically, we built them seats off of all of the geometry of a Recaro Expert M, but did it all in metal instead of material. That’s really how it came about with the bolsters, all of it ends up in the same spots of your body.
They are actually relatively comfortable except for the bottom cushion. We have obviously not had enough time to get it all done so there are some tweaks, but they’re pretty dang comfortable seats. They hit you all in the right spot.
9. I take it that you guys know a lot about the technical side of upholstery then — right? Because if you’re fabricating seats from scratch, you have to know about allowances, angles, heights and clearances.
Mike: We have learned a lot of that through Steve, yeah. Because we want to know the thicknesses of the door panel and how will we shut the door. … I mean, we don’t want to get where the door doesn’t shut or it hits the dash because they didn’t leave you enough room to clear the dash when they built it.
Jim: I think all car builders have been there. I mean, we’ve been there.
Mike: Every build we try to get smarter by addressing…those issues because they can become huge at the end. To [not] make clearances for that really can hinder the style of an interior because it looks like, “Oh fuck, I’ve got to cut the whole door panel out so the door can shut in the dash.”
10. Do you guys have any favorite upholsterers or upholstery shops? Are there any trimmers you haven’t worked with that you would like to work with in the future?
Jim: You know, we are very happy with the guy we got. He became part of our team and as long as Steve can continue to do it like he does I think we are pretty content.
We don’t see the grass being greener, we’re happy where we’re at and honestly I think we’re more on the leadership side of the interior of the cars than the following side, so I’m pretty happy where we’re at.
Guys, we really appreciate your time.
Mike: Oh, it was good.
Jim: That was good!
To learn more about Ringbrothers and see additional photos of their projects, visit: Ringbrothers.com