Lou Santiago has a contagious laugh; the kind that bellows deep from the gut. Most likely, this hot rod builder and retired Navy Seabee wouldn’t describe himself as charismatic, but spending a few minutes with him is all the convincing one would need.
Santiago is a very charismatic dude.
He is most recognizable as a host for Car Fix on Velocity, a network owned by Discovery. Santiago and co-host Jared Zimmerman focus their energy on manufacturing machines, not reality show drama.
“We just teach people how to build cars,” Santiago said. “That’s what we do.”
Charisma aside, Lou Santiago does not fit the profile of the average TV host; in fact, he didn’t even expect it, saying his venture into television in 2000 was a total fluke. At the time, Santiago would keep the TV on in his shop for background noise, enjoying the antics of The Three Stooges and the nostalgia of classic Kung fu movies while he worked. At one point, he saw an advertisement to the effect of “if you think you got what it takes to be our next host, submit a video, and you could be a star.”
“Yeah, sure, okay,” Santiago thought.
A couple of months went by and while setting up his first computer, Santiago came across the TV host application online.
“I had never done anything like that before and it even said they were not taking anymore applications, but for shits and giggles, I filled it out,” he recalled. “I was actually more playing around with it and I thought hitting ‘enter’ would make it go away, but turns out, it sent it.”
Two weeks later an e-mail from RTM Productions showed up. They wanted Lou Santiago.
“I didn’t go on the computer all the time and I still don’t,” Santiago said. “So this thing sat there for like a month.”
Santiago opened the e-mail finally, right about the time his brother, who was still in the Navy, had come into town. The e-mail requested Santiago shoot a video detailing what he does.
“We were talking about all the SEALS we know, and Afghanistan had just kicked off; we were in my shop, just talking about everything going on, and I tell my brother, you gotta shoot me doing this thing,” Santiago said.
Naturally, his brother was filming the whole time.
“So I laid a beat around a ball joint, even though I really wasn’t ready to record,” Santiago said. “I welded it in, picked it up with my glove, and it was smoking hot.”
After proclaiming “I weld” into the camera, Santiago threw the ball joint in his car and drove around with it for month. The video, a Polaroid, and a resume had, by then, found its way back to RTM Productions. While eating toast and drinking a cup of coffee one morning, Santiago got a call. He was to be the host of MuscleCar on Spike TV, a position he would later hold for over 40 episodes.
“When they offered me a job, it was kinda weird,” Santiago mused.
Elbow Grease & Friendship
Despite what the advertisements said about being a star, Santiago was working like a dog, seven days a week.
“We were running ragged,” Santiago recalled. “We were going all hours of the day filming and then building cars at all hours of the night. We had no help either – it was just me and Jared.”
Zimmerman who works with Santiago today on Car Fix was instrumental in the early years with MuscleCar.
“I am not a perfectionist but I don’t like shit to be wrong,” Santiago said. “At the time, I didn’t know how to make things as crisp as Jared did and that is where he helped me.”
The two developed a close friendship.
“I call him and he calls me and we talk about stuff – I have a daughter his age – but he will call and vent and I will give him fatherly advice,” Santiago said. “Then we have a conversation like friends so it works.”
Earning One’s Keep
Before TV networks and studios, it was the tucked away garages of the rough and tumble boroughs of New York City. Santiago’s father had a 58 Chevy Bel Air, a vehicle that would inspire him at 13 to begin leaning how to fix cars. He hung with the older guys in the neighborhood who turned wrenches, built wicked hot rods, and were the epitome of the automotive culture.
And Long Island was where that culture was boiling over in a cauldron of motor oil and burnt rubber.
Tommy Rhodes sported a 69 Camaro Z28, Louie Carnival piloted a 68 Chevelle but had recently built a 57 Chevy convertible. Fat George was around too. He rode in with his 63 1/2 Ford Galaxy, but was often seen in his 34 4-door sedan as well. Fat George was a body guy and his reputation proceeded him.
“I remember vividly him brazing in the passenger side quarter panel on his 57 convertible,” Santiago said.
Young Lou may have seemed out of his league, but that didn’t stop him.
“I would help them, you know, hanging out in the garage, helping them scrape paint; shit like that,” Santiago recalled. “At first it was ‘here hold this’ and ‘here take that and hold it here’ but make sure you ‘hold it like this’ – it was that kind of shit.”
The longer Santiago was around, the more the older guys trusted him.
“It went from just watching and holding things to them having me try and take things apart or take a fender off,” Santiago said. “It evolved into doing more work with them before I just started doing my own thing.”
When Santiago turned 17, he bought a 67 Chevy Impala with a 396 and a 4-speed. Although his father’s Bel Air is unforgettable, working on this Impala set Santiago on his course, through his years in the Navy as a heavy equipment mechanic, right up to television.
“There was a big dealership in California that ran a second shift, so I worked there for a while; different odds and ends, you know, turning wrenches and whatnot,” Santiago said. “That just kept morphing into doing more stuff on my cars, and then it just happened, I mean it literally just happened.”
As he progressed through high school, Santiago and his schoolmates would venture to Philadelphia to street race. They tore up local areas like Deer Park Avenue and Oak Street. The Red Hook neighborhood of Brooklyn would later get introduced to Santiago’s love for hot rods.
“My buddy Wayne had a lime green 70 Cuda with a 383 and a 4-speed – that thing ran 11.80, and we’re talking 78-79,” Santiago said. “That was a stout street car then, but Wayne wasn’t afraid to tear apart an engine; he wasn’t afraid to build an engine and play with rod combinations, you know, he did all kinds of stuff.”
It’s through these experiences, Santiago is successful on Car Fix, now wrapping up its 5th season. Some of the most memorable moments for Santiago include restoring a 1947 John Deere tractor and performing a 20,000 mile service on a Ferrari. However, it’s more than presenting the mechanical knowledge and know-how; the show is about giving people the confidence when it comes to taking care of their own cars.
Santiago remembers a man who stopped him in the grocery store when he was hosting MuscleCar.
“He tells me he is 35 years old and that growing up, his dad always took the car to be serviced, so he has done the same in his adult life,” Santiago said.
The man later reveals watching the show inspired him to buy jack stands and a floor jack so he could, for the first time in his life, change his own oil.
“He was jazzed about it,” Santiago recalled. “I never really thought of the impact we were having on people until that moment so it kind of took me back.”
Car Fix airs on Velocity with full episodes on Velocity Go. Santiago also hosts the Playing N Traffic radio show with Louis Lee, Thursday nights at 9pm Eastern. When not on the microphone or in front of a camera, Santiago teaches restoration classes at Central Piedmont Community College in Charlotte, North Carolina.
Yes, he’s charismatic, yes, he’s a great teacher, but it’s because Santiago has never forgotten where his true place is.
“I’m a regular guy in the shop just building cool cars, and that’s what I will always be,” he said.
For part two of this series click here.
Carl Anthony is Managing Editor of Automoblog and resides in Detroit, Michigan