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Hot mod madness: Customizer Kenny Brown enjoys performance-car revival

October 24, 2005

In a dark corner of the Kenny Brown Performance garage is the 2005 Mustang Ford Motor Co. should have built.

Supercharger. Disc brakes as big as the tires of some cars. All hung on a chassis that's Prince Charles stiff. And shrouding its meaty tires are a protruding rear fender and a filled-in quarter window raked all the way back to the taillights, akin to the 1967 Mustang fastback.

"It's kind of like the marriage of heritage and technology," said Kenny Brown, master mechanic and master of understatement, showing off the red Mustang he'll truck to the Specialty Equipment Market Association convention in Las Vegas Nov. 1-4.

Brown will unveil his prototype at this High Holy Week of the $31 billion automotive performance market, along with his new line of parts for the hot-selling, redesigned Mustang.

The Mustang has been the stable of his tuning business since he moved to Indianapolis from Omaha, Neb., in 1994, and the car's revival promises to boost Brown's business like a supercharger.

To non-car guys and gals driving a Japan- ese appliance to work, this modification stuff smells of Clearasil. But most of Brown's clients are college-educated professionals in their late 30s to mid-50s. Salesmen. Executives. Some race the cars on weekends. Others grew up with muscle cars and refuse to conform to the Honda-driving, NPR-listener crowd.

"People get out of my way," said Stu Williams, a 50-something salesman from San Francisco. He shipped his Crown Victoria to Brown a few years ago for a makeover. It has an exhaust tone that would send Norman Schwarzkopf diving for a foxhole.

Brown next plans to unleash his mad mod menace on more modern rear-wheeldrive sedans, such as DaimlerChrysler's Magnum and Charger. He's also eyeing the Pontiac GTO and-barricade the road to Geist Reservoir-Cadillacs.

Outrageous? Maybe, but many thought Brown was a quart short when he helped Car and Driver hop up one of Ford's Delaware-size Crown Vics in 1998. The car became Ford's inspiration for the Mercury Marauder in 2002.

"We've established there is a niche market for performance sedans," Brown said.

Though not a household name locally, the soft-spoken Brown, 57, earned a national reputation for his customized Mustangs and Crown Vics. His high-performance monsters show up in numerous car magazines and TV shows.

Among the customers is country singer Alan Jackson, who had his Ford Bronco's suspension reworked. Brown tuned an SUV for former Indy 500 driver Lyn St. James. He made over a 1998 Mustang Cobra for Indiana Pacer Jonathan Bender, including "seat rail extenders'' to help Bender fit behind the wheel.

"We turned it into a production part. It's actually a very good seller for us," said David Frey, one of Brown's lieutenants.

At one point, Brown upgraded the suspensions of 35 Crown Vics, before armor plating, for some "Middle East" government officials.

Philadelphia-native Brown was a racing mechanic who spent his formative years around British racing mechanics. He later helped driver Steve Saleen tear up the racing world in a Mustang, in the late 1980s. The latter got famous "and I got broke," quipped Brown, who at least still has his hair.

Likely, Brown's $2-million-a-year business is not as lucrative as baldy Saleen's, which also builds a $400,000 super car.

About 10 percent of Brown's clients modify their cars purely for racing. Some spend upwards of $25,000 converting production cars to track use.

"My lap times continue to drop and are very fast given tiny engine modifications. Like Ken says, 'There is more speed in the chassis than the motor,'" said Eric Meyer of Indianapolis, who owns a 2005 Mustang.

Customers like San Francisco resident Williams pay Brown thousands of dollars to relive the muscle cars of their youth, while still owning something practical like a Crown Vic.

"I'm not 25 years old anymore. ... I can put four adults in it, luggage," Williams said.

He even took the car to a track and raced a California Highway Patrol car. He smoked the cop, who warned him he'd never outrun his police radio.

"What Kenny Brown does actually speaks for itself," Williams said.

Brown may not be the master businessman, however.

He won't install gaudy wings or other eye candy. He won't install a supercharger if a customer won't have the suspension upgraded to handle the power.

"Kenny has a very strong philosophy about his cars. They're all about performance, even though it may cost him revenue," said Cari Southworth, another Brown team member.

Other than that, Brown is rather openminded, recalls John Phillips, the veteran Car and Driver writer who proposed to Brown unnatural modifications to the Crown Vic.

"He was terrific. I can't imagine anyone else in the country being as eager and ambitious and also having the technical support from the factory [Ford]. He was the one who could call an engineer at the factory and say, 'What is the ABS code?' and such and such."

Some $27,000 later, the two had a car with 355 horsepower, dubbed "The Lounge Lizard" by Phillips. By contrast, Ford's Marauder that came out a few years later had just over 300 horsepower-something Phillips blames for the Marauder's demise.

"The engine felt alive but never gave the driver the sense he was driving a hot rod," he said.

Just as well for Brown-more business for him.

"We're looking for some pretty good growth with the '05 [Mustang] and as we introduce these sedans.," he said.

But "growth'' is a touchy subject for Brown. Virtually all his development money comes from outside Indiana. "The [local] business community treats the racing and motorsports business like the redheaded stepchild. That is probably the biggest disappointment I think since we moved here."

Matt Steward, director of motorsports development at the Indiana Economic Development Corp., said some investors don't understand the industry. But state tax credits passed this year now give investors new incentive to back it, he said.

Brown also said he can't find suitable facilities in the so-called Racing Capital of the World for a bigger shop. Most space here has been tailored for warehousing and logistics, he said, and "we're out of space."
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