I don’t really remember the first time I heard Cole Foster’s name. More than likely, it was in reference to his father in some way, shape, or form.
‘Hey, you know Cole Foster? Pat’s kid?”
Nothing changes the world more than work and time. Cole has prospered with both and now has a reputation that is every bit as golden and just as independently earned as his father’s. It’s with that in mind that I decided to shoot some questions over to Salinas…
TJJ: I know this is a typical question and I’ll try to be less conventional going further, but how did this all happen? How did you go from son of Pat Foster to one of the most respected metal men in the world?
Foster: Dad and I laugh… and dad has laughed with Chip Foose’s dad, Sam… Now there is “Cole Foster’s dad” and “Chip Foose’s dad.” The kids have taken over the name. I think a lot of that has to do with increased coverage from TV, all the magazines, and the internet. In dad’s day, there was Hot Rod Magazine and Car Craft – that was really it.
Caption: Cole’s pop, Pat Foster, is not only one the world’s great true craftsman and vintage race car restorers, but was also a successful driver in his day. This shot of Pat tearing up the 1/4 mile was taken in the late 60’s.
TJJ: You have pretty much stayed out of the Racing world. Was that calculated or was your calling just else where?
Foster: I was 16 when dad hung it up – I was pissed off. All I ever wanted to do is race cars. Dad always tried to steer me away from racing. He thought that I would live a life of frustration, disappointment, etc… At that time there were no rides for a hired driver – you had to own the car to drive it.
I went and crewed on the “Blue Max” funny car team in 1984. Drag racing was already changing by then – big sponsors, you couldn’t even talk to guys on other teams, etc… I could see then it was not for me. It was a traveling circus. I love the cars (they are amazing) but the magic is gone. Now there are red cars, blue cars… all identical.
Caption: Old Milwaukee paid the bills…
TJJ: Are you competitive at all? Meaning, do you see some other guy’s work and think, “Shit man, I need to do something better than that?”
Foster: More like, “Shit man, I got copied again.” Especially with bikes…
Caption: Clean, simple, and a perfect stance… It’s hard to make a tri-year Chevy stand out, but Cole manages.
TJJ: Most guys have one thing they do really well. For some it’s painting, for some it’s writing, for some it’s building skyscrapers… For you, it has to be building graceful mechanical things, right? When you are done with a project, do you look at it for what it is or do you just stare at the things you would have done differently in retrospect? I guess what I am getting at is – Do you really comprehend your talent?
Caption: The “blue bike” was built for Custom Chrome… It’s short wheel base, low stance, and dirt tracker style made a huge splash on the scene a few years ago. Cole’s ’54 Chevy is in the background.
Foster: I think when I get done with a project, I’ve already made the changes that I thought it needed before I let anyone see it. Nobody knows that I might throw away a few things before I am pleased… I think a lot of people are OK with their first shot and say, “good enough.” I just cant do that and sleep at night.
Comprehend talent? Sure. I’m confident with my skill. I trust my eye. But I always wonder why I’m overlooked by companies for design work… I can’t get a deal anywhere. I’ve only had a few shots at it. Ya know, I BS my way into doing that blue bike for Custom Chrome and when it was done, it rocked the bike world pretty good. I thought I had a good shot at making a line of parts for them, but they made a gas tank off my design and that’s it. They sell very well, but they have not gone ahead with anything else.
I tried to get in on doing a car/truck for the big three auto manufacturers. They wouldn’t give me the time of day, but they have people with zero talent and 10 a year deal. It fucks me up and breaks my heart. I feel I could really do well in those realms. I feel like a kid that could be the leading scorer in the NBA, but I only get to play half court games at the playground.
It’s frustrating as hell. I see my peers doing ads, TV shows, sponsorships, and I have trouble getting anything. It makes me think that big companies have idiots in charge of marketing, and R&D. The little I am exposed to as far as who gets to go to the big show and who stays in the minors tells me alot. The talent pool is small… The companies don’t look very deep and it’s too bad as there is a lot of untapped talent that will never get to do anything.
Caption: Cole built this sinister and well known ’54 Chevy for Mike Ness.
TJJ: Bikes or cars… You can only build one for the rest of your life. Which is it and why?
Foster: That’s like asking what leg I would want to loose… I like bikes right now because I can get through them pretty fast and they repeat in a lot of ways. Plus, the parts are exposed to the world – I have nothing to hide.
As for cars, the bar is so high right now… You really have to have your shit together to stand out.
TJJ: I consider you a traditionalist as just about everything you build seems to be based around traditional principles. The dirt track look of your bikes, the ’36 and it’s Westergard feel, etc… Do you think of history when you style a car or bike or do you just build to the eye and the end result just happens to be something traditionalist folks like me fall in love with?
Foster: Let’s see… I look at a subject, car or bike, and really look at what it is, what it was, what it could be or what it could have been. I don’t polish turds… I’m smart enough to start with a good subject matter. I may not love ‘em always, but I can go steady with it for a while.
Take a Harley. They haven’t changed much in 70 years. You can overlay a Panhead motor and a new Evo and they are so close. Even the Harley manual drawings are just revised off of the same drawings done 50 yrs ago. So its a throw back to start with – it’s an air cooled and archaic compressor motor basically… Low tech as could be. Cool? Fuck yeah. Try lifting the hood on a new Chevy with a small block. You can’t even see the motor, but with a V-twin – its real close.
So I try not to make something of it that it’s not. Why would I try to make a real road racer out of a dinosaur? I keep it between the fences of what it is.
I look at history – racers and what was happening on the streets… and I try not to make any big mistakes. I think staying 100 percent traditional is great and I like it as much as anything else, but I have to build things for customers and they want at least some of the amenities that modern times bring with it. Mixing the old and new recipes is a lot harder than it looks. One wrong ingredient can spoil it.
Caption: “Biker Build-Off” be damned… Bikes don’t get much cleaner or more perfect that this “loser”.
TJJ: Do you have a dream car – a car that you want to build someday for yourself? What is it? You don’t have to give everything away, but give us a year and model…
Foster: One of my favorites is the ’66 Miura and lately I want to do a ’72 Firebird. I want to do my take on a ’31 Lancia Astura cabriolet as well… I am drawn to a lot of those early deco rides.
Caption: Many car guys call the 1966 Lambo Miura the most gorgeous production car ever. It’s hard to argue against them…
TJJ: What’s the most important thing you have ever learned?
Foster: That good things take a lot of time.
TJJ: I assume with the kind of work you pump out that you have a pretty damned talented support team. Who are the other Salinas Boys?
Foster: Over the years my help has run the gammet from baby high school boys to guys that can run right with me. I don’t know which one I like better sometimes. I know one thing – Im really “ON” when my personal life is on track. My new bride has given me a lot of happiness and understanding. Thanks Suzi baby…
TJJ: When it’s all said and done, where are you going to be in the end? A large shop with a TV show? A respected builder with a small shop and a portfolio of greatness? A shoe shiner? What?
Foster: Who knows, I just hope to get through my life healthy and happy.
And then he was gone… When I set out to do this interview, I was aiming to find a chink in the armour. Not in a bad way, mind you, but I know everyone is human and I knew that finding Cole’s insecurities could help make him (who in my eyes is the Michael Jordan of metal men) seem a little more real and my interview… a little more thoughtful.
I first tried the family angle. It can be tough to make your own path in the world when your father has blazed such a wide road before you. Cole’s dad, Pat, is one of our father’s heroes and he continues to do some of the more incredible restoration work around. As you read above, Cole doesn’t seem phased at all by his father’s presence. Instead he cherrishes it and loves his old man. I sort of knew this from previous conversations with Cole and it’s one of the reasons that I just really like and respect him.
I also think this strong family connection is the primary reason that Cole comes across as so grounded. Don’t get me wrong – I think Cole is probably a pretty good self promoter, but he never comes across as a typical “type-a” guy. In some cases this might be to a fault:
“It’s frustrating as hell. I see my peers doing ads, TV shows, sponsorships, and I have trouble getting anything. It makes me think that big companies have idiots in charge of marketing, and R&D.”
Aweee… There’s that chink I was looking for, right? Not in my eyes. There is no doubt that some of Cole’s peers are, in fact, more visible to the mainstream, but there is some elegance to that. Part of Cole’s short (at this point anyway) legacy is that he doesn’t do anything to tarnish the purity of his craft. If someone asks what Cole does for a living, there is only one answer. He doesn’t have a TV show, he doesn’t hustle merchandise, he doesn’t sell motor oil… He builds cool shit.
Obviously, this could be viewed as a travesty of sorts and I am sure Cole looks at it in that way sometimes. But fifty years from now, long after his colleagues’ reruns have stopped airing and long after all of those t-shirts have become used shop rags, all that will be left is the tangible – the cars and bikes. And you know what? It’s those tangibles that make history and make a legacy.