Q&A with SEVEN82MOTORS
To many a motoring enthusiast, Ben Atkinson has the dream job. Through his Gold Coast-based business, SEVEN82MOTORS, it’s a job that sees him travel the world in search of classic vehicles; buy, sell and restore incredible classic cars; and customise some truly astonishing and unique vehicles for clients with a taste for the extraordinary.
Tucked away on the outskirts of the Gold Coast, in a couple of ordinary-looking industrial units, is a place that would make many a petrolhead drool. For it’s here, in this unassuming place, that Ben Atkinson and his team at SEVEN82MOTORS are weaving their rather special kind of motoring magic.
Unit one is the workshop, the place where skilled technicians are busy restoring, customising and building stunning vehicles. Unit two is the sales showroom - a treasure trove of classic cars and trucks that Ben has found on scouting trips abroad and across Australia, or have been handed to him by clients looking for his help to sell their piece of motoring history.
No matter where you look, there's something special staring back at you. There’s an XC Cobra, an XY Fairmont,
a 1956 Pontiac Catalina, a 1961 custom VW Karmann Ghia and, amongst many others, an eye-catching orange and white 1968 Chevy Camaro. Built by SEVEN82MOTORS’ mechanic Adrian Woodley, the Camaro has its bonnet up to reveal a glistening 510ci big block twin-turbo motor that wouldn’t look out of place in the sculpture wing of a posh museum. It really is a thing of beauty.
This is the domain of Ben and his small crew of talented techs – Chris Langtry, Adrian Woodley and Shaun Wallace – who, over the past 12 years, and along with others who have come and gone, have sold, built, customised and restored hundreds of cars and helped SEVEN82MOTORS build a reputation so solid it has 33,000 followers on Facebook (yes, you read that right, 33,000), and a long list of 5-star reviews so impressive you wonder if Ben’s been writing them himself.
Motor Trader went to meet Ben to find out the secret to his success, how it all began, and where things are headed.
What products and services does SEVEN82MOTORS provide?
“We buy, sell and consign ‘50s ‘60s and ‘70s Australian and American classic, lowrider and muscle cars, and sell Australia-wide and internationally,” says Ben.
It's a short statement for a business that puts in a remarkable amount of effort to satisfy customers looking
for that dream car. On the buying and selling side of things, Ben used to travel to the U.S. every three months on trips to find cars to sell through the business or to fulfil customer orders - actually buying his own van in L.A. ready for him to jump into when a three or four-week scouting trip was underway.
At the moment, the trips abroad are a little less frequent, a legacy of the fluctuating fortunes of the Australian dollar, but the deal remains the same - if you're looking for a classic car, Ben will find it.
"With the dollar changing it has closed the margin, and I am actually finding better cars around Australia" he says.
"I use a CRM system to log details and match people up with cars, so you can register your interest and when I get one, you get notified."
As for the workshop side of the business, well, that's a humming hive of design, welding, modifications, fabricating, customising . . . everything that is required to create unique and exclusive four-wheel masterpieces.
"We do mechanical work from basic modifications to ground up builds but we aren’t like other mechanical shops - shops where you pull off brake pads and call Repco for parts,” says Ben. “I’ll give you an example. There’s a truck in the showroom that we built for a client. He contacted me, said he wanted a pick-up truck, gave me all the specs of what he wanted and I found one he liked in east L.A.
“We imported that original truck, a 1951 Chevy, and it had a standard chassis; a six-cylinder, four-speed manual; an I-beam front end and so on. We gutted it, made a custom chassis from an HQ one-tonner, took a six-litre engine from a smashed police car, supercharged it and put in a 6-speed auto. We then put in a 12-bolt rear, four-link and full air-ride suspension, re-trimmed the interior and converted it to right-hand drive. We then used the dash from another right-hand drive truck and hid the new gauges behind it - the truck has a computer-operated self-levelling kit, Bluetooth and GPS but that is all hidden behind a factory dash which folds down.
"So what we have now is a truck that looks original but underneath it is an absolute weapon. That is the sort of work we can do.”
So, who is buying these remarkable machines? Classic cars, and certainly cars that are restored or customised, don’t come cheap. Is it older people then? People with a bit of experience and money behind them? Not necessarily, says Ben.
“You couldn’t pick it,” he says. “I deal with people in their 20s through to death’s door! I don’t have too many ‘suit and tie’ customers – they’re probably doing Audis or Ferraris – so we would be more ‘blue-collar’ if we were to call it anything. But you can’t really narrow it down to anything specific."
How was the business established?
SEVEN82MOTORS has an enviable reputation for delivering very cool, quality vehicles and has more than a decade of success behind it. But every successful business starts somewhere and, as with many people in automotive, it was a childhood passion for cars that would see Ben become involved in the industry.
A love of the XB Ford coupes – fuelled by an XB owned by his father – would eventually see Ben and a friend establish, in 2004, a business selling classic American and Australian cars. From there, things evolved quickly.
“Not long after that, I connected with my birth father who was a motor dealer in Brisbane,” says Ben. “I went to work for him for about a year before coming back down to the Gold Coast to open a shop alongside a mate who was doing metal fabrication. I began importing classic cars again and it didn’t take long until we outgrew that space and I moved to Unit 7, 82 Ferry Road. That was the first shed that I got on my own and was the place where I really backed myself.
“At the end of the road was a tyre shop that also did mechanical work. Chris was working there and he used to come and stick his head in my shop all the time. One day, I was getting a roadworthy done and Chris was doing the job. I knew that their shop was struggling so I let him know that if he was looking for work he could come and do one day a week with me. He started doing that and when I moved to these premises in 2007, he came out with me full time. We’ve grown from there.”
Who are your staff?
Ben is keen to emphasise how important his team is to SEVEN82MOTORS. Not just employees, they bring skills, passion and personality to their work and are a crucial component of the business's success.
“I have the best team,” says Ben. “Chris oversees it all, Adrian is a mad fabricator and a really good all-rounder and Shaun is a great mechanic.
“This is my business and I get lumped with all the bills, but Chris is as much part of it as I am. We have a cool friendship and business relationship, he is the smartest dude I have ever met and together we work really well. I do all the business, marketing, branding and promotional stuff, and he builds the coolest stuff in the world. He’s a hotrodder, a member of the TAC (Technical Advisory Committee), a hot rod inspector, and he has his roadworthy licence and is training for engineering codes.
“In fact, some time ago he was crucial in getting airbag suspension legalised in Queensland. At the time, I had a Cadillac that was air-bagged and a client said he wanted to own it but wanted it to be street legal.
"So, we worked with Qld Transport and an engineer named Tim Bartrop and over about seven months Chris kept doing what had to be done until we proved that we could make air-ride suspension safe and they couldn't say no. It eventually became a mod-plateable code.
“As for Adrian, as I said, he is a mad fabricator, a really good all-rounder, and is our custom guy who makes everything look really pretty. He built the twin-turbo Camaro in our showroom and that's how we found him. He had built it in his garage, took it to Summernats, got top 20, and it became a Street Machine cover car. We got onto him and said he should come and work with us and he did – he packed up, sold his house in Canberra, and moved up here.
“Together, Chris and Adrian are a special combination – they can build anything and make it functional, practical and look really dope!
“As for Shaun, he is a great mechanic and can do whatever you give him and do it on his own, do it well and without the need for guidance. All my boys are clever and there is not much we can’t do.”
While the SEVEN82MOTORS team is elite, Ben does keep an eye out for gifted technicians who might work with them. To get a job here though, you need to have something special.
“What do I look for? Hot rodders,” says Ben. “We don’t just swap parts here - we have to make it, and it all has to work, and it has to be engineerable and roadworthy.
“Unfortunately, I am not in a position to educate everyone – I need people who can bring skills to my table. I’m happy for it to be a two-way street and you’ll learn a lot while you’re here, but I don’t need general mechanics.”
To what can you attribute your success?
So after more than a decade running SEVEN82MOTORS, what is the reason for Ben's success?
“Commitment and passion,” he says. “It’s a rollercoaster. We are so affected by the dollar that every year is different but I’m pretty good at adapting to change and am a believer in taking time to look at what’s working and stopping what isn’t. It’s similar in the workshop in that we are selective in what we do. I like to use the ‘John West theory’ - that it’s the cars we reject that makes us better. If someone comes here and wants a purple and yellow hot rod with weird stuff on it, then we don’t build it. Even if they have all the money in the world, if they are not building something cool, we won’t do it.
“I could have 10 mechanics but then we’d be in a spot where we have to build the stupid purple and yellow hot rod just to keep them busy,” he adds with a laugh. “We’ve got a neat little balance here where I am able to find the right cars to have on the showroom floor and the right cars to build. And that’s my sweet spot.”
Of all the cars you’ve bought and sold, restored and customised, is there one that stands out for you?
“I used to muck around with XA and XB Coupes,” says Ben. “My dad had one from new when I was kid and I remember he came home without it one day. I hated that! I was a young fella and I loved that car, so when I was old enough to get a car of my own, that is what I wanted – though I could only afford the four-door!
“Anyway, I decided a little while back that I wanted to see if I could get dad’s original car. He had become ill but was able to tell me a lot about it including the number plate which, at the time, I didn't know because in the three photos I had of the XB, the plate was obscured!
“I wrote down all the information he gave me and ended up getting in contact with a lady in the transport department. I discovered that although it had not been registered for 12 years, that number plate was still attached to an XB coupe. So I wrote a letter to her to explain what I was trying to do and another letter for her to forward to the last registered owner. Never thinking anything would come of this, I bought another coupe and dad and I began restoring that. We were about halfway through when one day the phone rings and a guy says: ‘I think I’ve got your dad’s car in my shed.’
“I bought that car, removed the car that dad and I had been working on, and then gave him the book from his original XB to read. When he worked out that we had his car back, it was pretty special.
“When dad passed away, we pulled it down and began turning it into a show car. We’re still working on it but that is my favourite car.”
What does the future hold for SEVEN82MOTORS?
“Everything in our showroom is for sale,” says Ben. “We have exported to Indonesia, Europe, New Zealand, America and China. And that is something I would like to expand on. We’ve got the facility, we know what we’re doing, and our cars are cheap compared to the rest of the world.
"I am also a dreamer and at any given point I have a ton of stuff in my head!” he adds. We have some things planned that will blow your mind!”
There’s also the possibility of a slot on our TV screens thanks to some U.S. network interest. Though mindful of the pitfalls associated with TV, it’s a project with potential.
“It’s one those things,” he says. “There’s a gazillion more chances that it will go nowhere than somewhere but I am a bit of a dreamer and it would be silly not to have a crack at it.”
What do you do with your spare time, if you have any?
“It’s funny, but I live in a kind of reverse-land,” he says with a laugh. “Everybody else does their daily grind during the week and then cruise cars on Sundays. I cruise cars six days a week and hang with my family on the Sunday. That’s my reality - spend Sunday with my family and do mum and dad stuff.”
Which brings us to our final question. Ben has two young children – Luke, aged 12, and Milly, aged 9. Luke helps out around the shop on occasion so is there a chance that a second generation of the family will be involved in the business? Is he interested in getting stuck in?
“You’d think that would be the case,” says Ben, “But kids only know the environment they grow up in and probably don’t get how unique this is. 90 per cent of the time, Luke probably just sees it as work. For instance, we might be in the middle of a conversation when my phone rings and I have to go and answer it – that’s what he sees, not ‘my dad’s selling a rad car’. However, he does come in to help keep the cars and the shop clean, and take videos and photos which he edits for me.
“There’s nothing I’d love more than for him to want to come and hang with me for the rest of my life, but he is his own person.”
Whether Luke joins his dad in the business or not, Ben is happy with his lot. And why not? Doing something you have a passion for is surely the goal for everyone.
“This is my world and I’m lucky to live in it,” he says. “It’s cool to come here, have a beer and look out of the window and see what we have made – that means something to me.
“And I’m so proud of the boys. They make such cool stuff and I hope that when people look back at the Australian car scene, we will have left our mark.
“I was going through my phone the other day and looking at all my photos and realised we have put hundreds of cars on the street over the years. It is nice to look back and reflect on that.
"At the end of the day, we keep growing and keep getting better and smarter and that’s all you can hope to do and be, isn’t it?"