With Lou Santiago, what you see is what you get. Many know him as the host of Car Fix on Velocity, but I sense even if he wasn’t on TV, people would gravitate towards him anyway. I met Lou for the first time last year, when I was a guest on the Playing N Traffic show, alongside Louis Lee Sr. and Louis Lee Jr.
We proceeded to have one of the most intoxicating conversations about cars I’ve even been a part of. For the entire hour, I fed off Santiago’s energy. I remember it vividly.
There was, during our rousing conversation, a deep examination of the love affair with the automobile. We concluded it was gone; or if not gone, certinately changed to the degree where it will never be the same again. For this series, I asked Santiago when he felt the American love affair with cars shifted.
“Changed when the bean counters got in; when the bean counters got into all the manufactures and went ‘oh we can’t do this because of the money,'” he said. “That’s why it happened. The bean counters killed it.”
In his 2011 book, Car Guys Versus Bean Counters: The Battle for the Soul of the American Business, former General Motors Vice Chairman Bob Lutz details this trend. He makes a case throughout the book that GM’s management became too smart for its own good, that product quality suffered at the hands of corporate egos and internal metrics, and those who loved the product were left adrift and swept under the rug.
Santiago, who grew up in the Long Island muscle car culture, agreed.
“Look, we’re talking about people who were running the company who literally had a physical connection with the customer,” he said. “When the bean counters got in, they made it so you needed the car and that you had to have it, not because you wanted it or really loved it.”
Granted, one could say vehicles today are safer, more luxurious, and certainly better performing, but for Lou, and other diehard car enthusiasts, it still isn’t quite the same.
“In the 60s and up until the mid 70s, when you went to buy a car, it was an emotional thing; you bought it because you liked it; whatever the reasoning you had, it wasn’t a necessity,” Santiago explained. “When you bought a Chevy in the 70s with an LS6 and a 454 and a four speed, there was only one reason why you wanted that car – you were not buying that car because you wanted to go to the grocery store.”
After the grocery store comment, Santiago’s trademark – a rousing deep laugh – echoes throughout the room. Soon, it goes back to a reflective silence. I just listen.
“That’s the difference and that’s gone,” Santiago said. “Which is why when I see a new Challenger, Mustang, or Corvette, I get that glimmer of hope because those guys are driving that because they genuinely want to.”
When not showing the world how to turn wrenches on Car Fix, Santiago teaches restoration classes at Central Piedmont Community College in Charlotte, North Carolina. The class runs 16 weeks, going from 1 pm to 5 pm in the afternoon, 6 pm to 10 pm in the evening, and on Saturdays from 8 am until noon. The school supplies the big equipment like paint booths and welding machines; Santiago has an account at Stock Car Steel in nearby Mooresville so students can get the materials they need for their chassis builds.
Students supply their own tools, work ethic, and imagination.
“I have the coolest class,” Santiago said. “Say you want to build your car – say a 1950s Plymouth Savoy and you want to build this thing into a street rod; you bring it here, you tell me what you want to do, and I tell you what we need to get done to get you there.”
Currently, Santiago has a student building a 47 Chevy truck. When it is finished, the running boards will sit 8 inches off the ground, the entire front end will have a custom design, and the rear suspension will be entirely new. This particular student has never built a vehicle before but this is rather common.
Some have waited their entire lives for an opportunity to restore their dream vehicle.
“My job is to help you achieve your goal,” Santiago said. “We do what we gotta do and if you don’t finish it in 16 weeks, you are more than welcome to sign up for the next class.”
Perception Versus Reality
Despite his automotive background, shop experience, and television work, Santiago still fights the occasional uphill battle. Unfortunately, some judge him simply on how he looks, not who he is as a person.
“You can tell sometimes, and you would be amazed, when I talk to some people how they look at me,” he said. “They already have preconceived notions.”
Santiago recalls the 78 short bed chassis he was building, right after his time on MuscleCar. It was sitting on the table in his shop and through a series of events, ended up being examined by the automotive engineering department chair at a prominent university. After looking over the chassis, they inquired who built it and what computer program was used.
“I told him I did it,” Santiago said. “And that I didn’t use any computer program but that I built it out of my head from scratch.”
The university chairperson did not believe him.
“He looked at me baffled and asked how it was going to work,” Santiago recalled. “I told him I have over 30 years of experience and enough knowledge from the field to know how to build it and what it will do.”
During our time together for this series, I could tell it bothered him.
“That is the problem,” Santiago said. “They look at me and guys like me and see really nice work but it’s like you are not supposed to be doing it because you are not educated.”
Then again, you can be educated to the point where you are stupid. At least, that’s how Lutz puts it in Car Guys Versus Bean Counters. That’s not to say I don’t respect people who have higher education but the most successful ones in this industry know the product and know how to take care of customers. The first one demands some education and experience, but the second one requires authenticity, you know, the kind they don’t teach in schools.
Which is why Lou, and guys like him, will always be some of the most respectable in the car business.
Santiago doesn’t have a Ph.D. but Amanda Faulkner McRaney didn’t care. She posted the photo below on Facebook with this caption: Thank you for coming to Hickory Ridge Baptist Church Car Show in Florence, MS. My son Parker loved meeting you and his dad also loved his autographed hat. Parker saw you on TV the next day and said, “there is my best friend, Lou.” Thank you so much for your kindness and generosity. You made this 6 ish years olds day and created memories we will never forget!!!
Pretty cool, I thought.
Carl Anthony is Managing Editor of Automoblog and resides in Detroit, Michigan