Body by Moal: This family metal-shaping outfit has been at it for more than a century
Slotted among victorian two-story houses in an eclectic neighborhood in Oakland’s East Peralta neighborhood, the 73-year-old cinder-block building is easy to miss. There are no markings on the façade, nothing to indicate you have arrived at Moal Coachbuilders, one of the country’s top hot-rod and sports-car shops. In fact, the only signage on the property is a giant billboard standing high above. On this day it shouts: MATTRESS STORES ARE GREEDY.
From the inside, with its arched wooden roof and heavily reinforced walls, the place resembles a WWII hangar. An aisle runs the length of the 10,000-square-foot building, from a large roll-up door at the front to another at the back, and divides the handful of vehicle bays on each side where individual projects make their way to completion. Each bay is clean and free of dust or debris but surrounded, in ordered chaos, by the tools and raw materials of the craft. Toolboxes with battered speed-parts decals are festooned with hooks to hang wrenches, fabrication tables are stacked with clamps, and a monstrous TIG welder sits idle, waiting to fuse metal and burn brighter than the sun.
William Moal, a French émigré who worked on wheels and bodies for horse-drawn carriages in Oakland beginning in 1911, raised the building with his son, George, in 1946, and called the business Moal Auto Metal Works. William’s grandson, Steve, carried the Moal torch (literally and figuratively) for decades, and now that he’s mostly retired, his sons, David and Michael, represent the fourth generation of this unique family business. David designs and machines parts, and Michael manages the show.
Amid the din of air tools and fantastic fabrication on display, one completed car stands out on the concrete floor—the Tulsa roadster that Moal Coachbuilders built in collaboration with 1960s Sprint Car racing legend Jackie Howerton. Fresh from its appearance at the Grand National Roadster Show, this “America’s Most Beautiful Roadster” contender features a torsion bar suspension, a Moal trademark. Michael describes the tidy speedster as “basically a 3/4-scale ’32 roadster. It’s been sliced and diced.” And it’s exactly the way Howerton and his crew would have built a hot rod back then. “They wouldn’t have built it like the West Coast guys did,” Michael says. The car is low, with a sloping, nose-down profile that isn’t as rigid as the elegant Deuce that inspired it. The floorboards are the belly pan, so when the passengers’ feet are on the floor, they’re below the frame rails. The design adds volume to what would otherwise be a cramped interior.
It’s not all Ford roadsters and show cars vying for top awards, however. Some of Moal’s work involves more modest repairs. A Maserati Tipo 61 Birdcage put a wheel off the track during a vintage race, bottoming out the suspension and sending the tire into the fragile aluminum body. David Moal didn’t have any qualms about the shop’s tackling the rare racer. They altered the front sheetmetal to create extra tire clearance—enough to make sure such an incident wouldn’t happen again. “The damage wasn’t that big a deal,” David says. “Then we modified the fenders to pooch up a little more. He only needed another half an inch or so.” Nobody at Laguna Seca will notice.
An aluminum body shell sits on a nearby frame table, still wearing the burnished tool marks from its fabrication and practically glowing under the building’s skylights. The hand-shaped panels, the work of sheet-metal wizard Jimmy Kilroy, will soon be mated to the chassis being worked up in one of the shop bays. A previous customer, who had seen Moal’s work on Wayne Carini’s Speedway Special roadster, was inspired to reconnect with the shop for a new project that would put his Aston Martin race car’s spare engine to better use.
They started the project from a simple sketch. Michael says it’s the extreme end of what Moal Coachbuilders does, but it’s also sort of the norm. “Compared to a hot rod, where you start with something, this started with a rendering. We’re building everything.” That means the chassis design, the body design, and the suspension are all up to them. They are coachbuilders, after all.
The only aspect that will truly remain Aston Martin is that DB4 GT engine, a triple-carb 400-horsepower inline-six. Maybe the shape of the grille opening, too. Like Moal’s renowned Ferrari V-12-powered Gatto from 2011, this concept wasn’t based on reality, just what the Moal team and the customer wanted the car to be. “Once we got the motor and a lot of the details of the dimensions and parameters we had to work within, we started to create more realistic designs,” Michael says. “But we’re still trying to stay true to what we started to build.”
When the chassis is complete, it will be painted, and then the body will be crimped on. It’s a traditional coachbuilding technique. The 0.050-inch-thick 3003 aluminum skin will be hammered over narrow steel flanges that are welded to the tubular steel skeleton. Michael points to a door structure as an example. “We’ll tip the edge [of the aluminum] where that break is going to be, then it will be hand-hammered,” he continues. Other parts of the body will be riveted to the structure below. It’s the same technique used by Carrozzeria Touring to build its superleggera Alfa Romeos, Ferraris, and, yes, Aston Martins.
The one-off roadster has been under construction for about two years and is close to completion. “This thing should hold up over time,” Michael says. “Hopefully, these cars will be here beyond us.”
Speaking of, is there a fifth generation to carry on the Moal legacy? Right now, Michael’s 13-year-old son, Rex, is it. “He’s starting to talk about cars, so we’ll see.” The boy is more into football, soccer, and basketball at the moment, although Michael insists there are some promising signs: “He told me he wants a Hellcat.”