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Just South of Heaven

The makings of Craig Ahart's classic hot rod shop

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He started seriously working on cars at the age of 17 and completed his first full build, a 1950 Chevy pickup, at 19. "It was all about how low I could get that tire sucked into that fender—that was my main goal."

When he was 21, Ahart's mom moved to Bodega Bay, and he rented and lived in her garage. Around the same time, he started working at Coast Auto Body in Bodega with owner Rick Karcher (the shop later moved to Valley Ford), where he met Greg Passalaqua. The two fueled one another, and Passalaqua encouraged Ahart to open his own shop. Ahart decided to give it a try. If it worked, he figured, great, and if not, he'd end up with a solid workshop.

In 2002, Ahart and his mother bought a property on Burnside Road that originally came with a house built in 1936 and a garage, which Ahart turned into a granny unit for his grandmother. He built the workshop space in 2003, and in 2005, South of Heaven was born, outfitted with tools that once belonged to Ahart's and Passalaqua's grandfathers. Though Passalaqua is no longer involved in the shop, they remain friends.

SHOP OF CHOPS Jorge Vega works away at one end of the garage, where a ’41 Hudson and a ’51 Ford pickup await their turns. - GREGORY HAYES
  • Gregory Hayes
  • SHOP OF CHOPS Jorge Vega works away at one end of the garage, where a ’41 Hudson and a ’51 Ford pickup await their turns.

Lifelong builder Jorge Vega, 33, works closely with Ahart at the shop.

"I couldn't do it without him," says Ahart.

Vega shares Ahart's passion and is driven by seeing their clients get amped by the results they produce. "I'm happy to be part of the journey of making their dreams come true," says Vega.

Their third team member is apprentice Devin Grieb, 26, who is learning from the pros the best way how: by doing everything they don't want to do. Ahart hopes to one day pass his knowledge on to his two sons, Dallas and Travis, eight and six.

THE COST OF CUSTOM

The biggest challenge in the business, according to Ahart, is that people often underestimate the cost of a custom build. "New people are floored," he says. "They can't believe how much it costs to do stuff. People familiar with cars at least have an idea."

There's a difference between getting an estimate for a repair and getting one for custom work. It would be like going to a sculptor, wanting to commission a piece of art, and expecting an estimate. It just doesn't work that way.

"It's not easy putting a price on some of the things I do," Ahart says, "because I don't know how long it's going to take."

To build a car from scratch takes anywhere from $30,000 to $50,000; the engine alone can run $12,000. South of Heaven has gotten more into the practice of buying cars than modifying and selling them, but they still do custom work with clients who understand the cost of craftsmanship.

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