The sun has just crested the row of pines encircling Ida Automotive, in Morganville, New Jersey, but the sprawling shop is already humming. Welding torches fizzle, and mallet knells spill out of the open garage doors. Rob Ida stands between a ’32 Ford and a ’40 Mercury in the two-car showroom that doubles as a front lobby. He’s 47, clean-cut, hair properly slicked to the side, and not a button out of place. Much like his builds.
“Willys, Tuckers, and Porsches—those are my top three models,” Rob says. “But I love everything. You name it, we seem to get involved.”
“Getting involved” is an understatement. For the past two decades, many of the cars that have spent time at Ida Automotive have been on a direct path to trophies. In fact, Ida is on a short list of elite hot-rod builders capable of turning heads at events like the Specialty Equipment Market Association (SEMA) Show while also dropping jaws on the 18th fairway at Pebble Beach. The secret to this successful recipe seems to be something he has been cooking up for most of his life.
As he walks out of the showroom for a tour of the shop, Rob says he can trace his custom-car empire back to one moment and one photo. “I was 7. One day, I opened up a family scrapbook and found a picture of my dad’s old race car, an Austin-Healey gasser with a blown Hemi engine. By then, he had been out of the car scene for a while. I remember being entranced by that car, the engine poking through the hood, the oversize tires. I became obsessed with drag cars.”
Rob and his father, Bob, have been working side by side since the shop’s inception in 1990. On this day, Bob takes breaks from cutting a new wheel in their CNC machine to share stories about young Rob. It was after the famed scrapbook encounter, in 1980, that Bob and 7-year-old Rob built their first hot rod together, a Willys pickup. They quickly finished the truck and took it to local cruise nights in Old Bridge and New Brunswick—back when, as Rob will tell you, “cruise nights in that area ended when the cops came.” Rob had the taste. He wanted to build his own car.
When he turned 14, Rob bought another Willys pickup. “To call it a Willys was modest,” he says. “Really, it was just the roof and the back wall of the cab.” He fabricated the rest of the cab and plopped the whole thing on a Toyota pickup chassis. Scraping together allowances and wages from odd jobs, he bought a small-block Chevy from the junkyard. He occasionally gleaned advice from his father, but Rob ultimately built the truck by himself. “I finished it right before I got my license at 17,” Rob says. “Just in time to take my future wife out on our first date.” Rob and his wife, Brenda, have been together ever since, and they now have two teenage daughters.
We stroll through one of the five large rooms that make up the sprawling shop. There’s a 1939 Ford stripped down to bare metal. “I bought that over 15 years ago to build a family cruiser, but work and bills got in the way.” The Ford is tucked in the corner to make space for a $2 million Tucker 48 that recently arrived in the shop.
The Ida family has a longstanding relationship with the Tucker name. Rob’s grandfather Joe and his Uncle Dominick owned a Tucker dealership in Yonkers, New York, in 1948, before Tucker Corp. went belly up. Rob still has boxes addressed to his Grandpa Joe from Tucker at the Jersey shop. “My dad and I wanted to build a Tucker for my grandfather, but there was no way we could afford to buy one.” So, the father-son duo built a full-size Tucker 48 replica out of fiberglass, powered by a Cadillac Northstar V-8. During the project, Rob developed a friendship with Preston Tucker’s great-grandson, Sean. Since that first Tucker replica back in 2000, Rob and his shop have worked on five more Tucker builds, including a custom twin-turbo Tucker 48, a Tucker Torpedo concept car, and a restored Tucker 48 that earned second place at the 2018 Pebble Beach Concours.
Rob’s latest project, a Jaguar E-Type, highlights his ability to play in so many different automotive arenas. “The client said we have the eye for hot rods, but we understand the European stuff, too” Rob says. “I think we just know how to properly blend that line between customs and European sports cars.” Rob and his crew have big plans for this Jag, which was sitting in the back of the shop on a rolling rack. “A lot of shops will fixate on what they like about the car. We look at what we can improve.” So Rob and crew didn’t hesitate to cut into what Enzo Ferrari called “the most beautiful car in the world.” Less than halfway into the build, Rob has already shortened the wheelbase 9 inches and chopped the top.
In an adjacent room, they’re chopping the top on a more traditional hot rod. A shop in South Carolina sent Ida a 1934 Ford 5-window coupe for surgery. This is no ordinary slice, as normally it would be done by subtracting metal with pie cuts. Instead, Rob and his team are forming new sheetmetal pieces that fit into the car’s windowsills and around its pillars. They’re obsessed with making the car look as if it was manufactured that way.
One of Rob’s three full-time employees, Arthur Zygnerski, is cutting out the metal substrate for the driver’s-side C-pillar of the ’34. “That’s Artie,” Rob says. “He’s worked here for 15 years. Over there …” Rob points at another employee elbow deep in a ’37 Chevy’s door panel, “that’s Young Artie.” They are not father and son; both Arties are under 30 years old. Russ Monte, laying a coat of black satin on interior panels in the paint booth, is a young gun as well. “You can’t be afraid to invest time in someone you see who is worth it,” Rob says. “This is my hobby as much as my lifestyle. I need to make sure it continues well after I’m gone.”
Perhaps Rob is inspired by the mentorship he received from his father, or from friend and hot-rod icon Gene Winfield. The 93-year-old Winfield still occasionally visits to lead a car, chop a top, or lay down a famous Winfield fade paint job. When Winfield’s first customer car, a black 1932 Ford roadster he did in 1953, came up for auction last year, Rob jumped at the opportunity to own the historic Deuce.
Rob strolls back into the showroom and fires it up. The Ford V-8 with Ardun heads and a Scott supercharger rumbles to life and then idles smoothly above the chopped, dropped, and filled front axle. The sound and sight still put a smile on his face.
Beside the Deuce, front and center in the showroom, is the famed 1940 Mercury Eight that Ida built for New Jersey construction contractor Jack Kiely. He nods at the Merc and sort of shouts above the flathead’s ruckus: “If I had to pick one build that sticks out, it might be that one.” In 2015, Rob and his team completely transformed the Mercury from stock into Kiely’s one-off coachbuilt sled, which now rides on a tube chassis and is powered by the 5.4-liter supercharged V-8 out of a Mustang GT500. The impossibly smooth Merc cleaned house at shows, including “World’s Most Beautiful Custom” at the 2016 Sacramento Autorama, and “Best in Show” at the 2016 SEMA event.
Rob pauses, his face contemplative in the noise. “Actually,” he says, “whatever car we’re working on at the moment is the one that sticks out.” No doubt, that next car of the moment—whatever it may be—will contend for trophies, too.