Jay Leno says it's easy to spot the difference between the Chip Foose "Overhaulin'" dream-machine transformations and those from other car rehab shows.
"It's bling versus art. Simple as that," the "Tonight Show" host says.
"He's a real artist. When people see a statue they think of an artist, but when they see metal with wheels it doesn't register. But it's true art. When you're doing something of an automotive nature it has to perform and still retain the beauty of it. That's why Chip is really good."
The car bling-thing — 24-inch chrome wheels, wild paint schemes and outrageous audio and video enhancements — are common on cable television these days, with MTV's "Pimp My Ride" leading the pack.
Those shows transform just about anything that rolls, including neglected vehicles that should be dismissed as junkyard crushers. Automotive designer Foose's "Overhaulin'" (The Learning Channel, Tuesdays, 9 p.m. ET) operates on a higher plane. Make that car.
Hosts Adrienne Janic and Chris Jacobs concoct an elaborate ruse, with the help of a car-buff's family and friends, to smooth the way for "Overhaulin'" crew members to swoop in and "steal" a vintage automobile that has long been on the restoration back-burner.
At his Huntington Beach shop, the Foose team tears cars apart and puts them back together with a new motor, transmission, suspension, interior, Foose-brand wheels and custom paint. In a surprise and often tearful ending, the car owner is reunited seven days later with a collector piece.
Foose and Leno got together for the latest caper (Feb. 7th) by pulling a fast one on one of Leno's mechanics, a transmission guy who's vision for a 1956 Chevrolet Nomad station wagon was never realized.
It's an act of love, the 41-year-old Foose says.
"There's not a better natural high in all the world than to see what everybody's created and do an unveil," Foose said. "We create a relationship. I want to build cars people can have for the rest of their lives. I want them to have a family heirloom."
Now in its fourth season on The Learning Channel, "Overhaulin'" has restored 47 vehicles, usually 1950s, 1960s and 1970s muscle cars. Show producers cull through 15,000 submissions a week to pick a car for the Foose touch.
"We have no idea what the car is going to be," Foose said, adding muscle cars are easiest to get parts for.
Leno helped get his vacationing mechanic's Nomad to Foose.
"We're in the more-money-than-brains-club," Leno said, describing Foose as "a regular guy who loves cars." When his mechanic returned from vacation, the Nomad was gone and police (who were in on the ruse) were called.
"It was very funny. It was agony for him when it was `stolen' from the yard," Leno said about enjoying his mechanic's misery. "Women think it's so cruel. Guys think it's hilarious. It's a guy thing I guess."
'A real level of craftsmanship'For car-crazy Leno, who has a warehouse with more than 160 cars and motorcycles, "Overhaulin'" is clearly a television standout.
"Maybe its a generational thing," Leno says of the other restoration shows out there. "A lot of the shows are the bling-bling thing with speakers and DVD players and big wheels. They don't seem practical to me. Chip builds things that you can actually use."
Executive producer Mark Finkelpearl said "Overhaulin'" is a ratings draw that has brought a different kind of viewer to TLC.
"It certainly found an audience that was out there but wasn't watching TLC at the time," Finkelpearl said. "There are two kinds of car builders in Southern California — the ones who make them for a movie set for a couple of weeks and those who build a car to last.
"Chip does that. There's a real level of craftsmanship. He's literally one of the best car builders in the United States."
Foose, in 1997, was the youngest-ever inductee into the Hot Rod Hall of Fame. In January 2006, Foose's "Impression" 1936 Ford Roadster won the coveted America's Most Beautiful Roadster Award at the Grand National Roadster Show in Pomona.
In 1998, Foose and wife Lynne (parents of 6-year-old son Brock and daughter Katie, who turns 2 on Feb. 16) started Foose Design, an automotive and product development firm specializing in illustration, graphics, model-making, surfacing and automotive construction.
Foose has a licensing deal with MHT Luxury Alloys to build Foose Wheels and he has a designer clothing and accessories line. Texas-based Unique Performance is also producing a limited number of Foose-designed 1969 Chevrolet Camaros — 620 horsepower cars that sell for up to $179,000.
Clearly, he's learned how to mix art and commerce.