The Accessory Guru
In today's era of custom car building there are many avenues to visit when finding the right car or parts to complete your dream car, if it's a restoration or a tricked out low-low. Nowadays you have the internet, text messaging, next-day delivery service, cell phone cameras and other tools to help you track down the rarest of goods. Not too long ago, even as recent as 10 years back, people had to hoof it; using word-of-mouth, scribbling down secret directions to locations where rare parts could be found, scanning local newspapers, making phones calls and plain old driving out to wherever you needed to go to get the part. There was always that one guy that would know what was up, that gave you an answer like, "I know where there's one, how much are you willing to get the part for?" One of those "someones" is Michael aka "Accessory Mike" Ramos of Whittier, California. We've known about Mike since the mid 90s, but he's been doing his job since his teenage years.
"I started out in this business back in 1977 when I used to draw cars in high school. I always new that I wanted a bomb. I bought my first car when I was fresh out of high school in 1979," Mike states proudly. His love affair with cars even led to finding his dream girl. "I met my wife at a grad night party, courted her, and the day after I got out of high school, I was working at a place called Chief Auto Parts. Ironically, she lived around the block from the store I worked at and she used to parade herself near the shop," he recalls. "As for my first car, it was a '73 Chevy Impala. I bought it but didn't bring it out until it was all done. I was 17-years-old, but I wanted to move up so I bought a Porsche. This was the time when there was lowriders in Montebello Park during the heyday," says Mike. "Back at that time everyone in the scene was doing the transition to disco music, TR7s, TR6s, Spitfires and Porsches. Lowriders were still in, Whittier Blvd and Montebello Park where it was happening, so I wanted a sports car, a 914, a poor man's Porsche which was my second car out of high school," remembers Mike.
Fresh out of school, working, and having fun, Mike was living the good life. He had his car, a job, and his lady, but life would soon bring him an unexpected surprise; his lady became pregnant with a baby girl. Due to responsibility, Mike knew he had to go out and sell his prized Porsche to facilitate his new duties both as a man and an expecting father.
"So I sold the Porsche to pay for the hospital bill for my new daughter and then got myself a little go-getter, a '67 RS Chevy Camaro convertible. I found that car for $500; drove it for a while, but my lady hated it," he says. At that time the now deceased Ricardo Montalban was pushing on TV the new Chrysler Cordova with rich Corinthian leather, so as luck would have it, that would eventually be their first family car. "I put an ad in the Recycler newspaper, which was `the Craig's List' of its time back in the day, and a guy saw my ad in the paper. He called me and said that he'd trade me a Cordova for my car plus $500," he recalls. Mike knew it was best for his family, so he got the car for his baby doll, but he still wanted a nice car for himself. Mike starting driving around, hustling again which he had already begun prior to getting rid of his Porsche, searching for ways to make money and hook up his own car. At that time there weren't too many places locally where he could just go for parts and accessories, Mike's resources were limited to four options. "There was only this one place in Montebello, or you had to go to the dealer, or guys would steal stuff and you'd get it off the street but that was kind of hard. So you had to go to this place out in Pomona, California," he says. Knowing he had responsibilities to his family, he chose the legal route.
Known as "The West Coast's Largest Antique Auto, Corvette, Porsche, Street Rod and Volkswagen Swap Meet & Car Show", the Pomona Swap Meet is a one stop shop, where if you're lucky enough, you can find that certain part or dream car that you've been searching for. "Back in the days, the Pomona Swap Meet was held on White Street and all it was then was classic cars and Corvettes, and that's where I'd get parts for my Porsche," Mike fondly remembers. "That's where I learned how the parts were available and found out ways to turn around and sell them to make money. So I did just that, sold my then-current car and bought my first bomb, a 1948 Chevrolet Coupe," he says. "My dad thought I was nuts; I had paid $1,800.00 for the car which was all the money I had back then. I started looking for parts at the swap meets which at the time was really hard. I used to go with a guy named Jay Bell I used to help him load and unload his vehicles and sell them," Mike states. "He kind of got me into selling parts but (he) got tired of doing it so he decided to sell off his inventory to me, I bought it and that's where it (the business) really started. I began going out of state because the product wasn't here, this is prior to the Internet, prior to eBay; you had to make long distance phone calls, you had to deal with snail mail and hope they wrote or called you back, sometimes you'd wait three weeks, and just hoped that the part was correct," adds Mike. "The only source most dealers used was the Hemmings Motor News and not too many young Chicanos even heard of it or knew what it was about. I opened up a store in the 80s, bought it from another man; it was then called Don's Obsolete. He thought he wanted to retire, but he wasn't too sure about it, so we worked out a deal where I gave him the business back and he gave me inventory so I opened up a store in Buena Park, California. That was late 80s, early 90s, it was called the Old Car Parts Store," Mike reminisces.
Once the store opened, things started to get bigger for Mike Ramos, his reputation in the community was growing. "I was the guy, so when people wanted a part they called The Old Car Parts Store. It wasn't just Chevy stuff, I knew cars, I've been studying cars ever since I was a kid in the back seat of my pop's car," Mike says looking back. While riding around in the back seat with his father, Mike had made it a little game for himself: "That's a '55 Buick and that's a '61 Bel Air and that's a 1967 Cadillac; I was always identifying cars, learning about them. It was in my blood, that's why I named it The Old Car Parts Store," he says proudly. "When somebody called, I went to the junkyards with a Polaroid camera and my own knowledge, and was able to build a little index of the stuff. That way, when a guy came in and asked what I had for a '66 Lincoln I knew what he needed," boasts Mike. "A lot of the time it was phone calls coming in, and since I had access to the wrecking yards that were out in the Dakotas and the mid-west I was able to say `yeah I can get you that.'" Mike had it down to a science, so once he had his "order," he'd call up whatever wrecking yard he found that had the part he needed and had it shipped to him, in order to sell it to that particular customer as fast as possible.
Business was booming, it got to the point where customers were amazed that Mike could find the items, let alone so quickly, and the UPS drivers were equally as amazed and even more curious to find out what products were behind the huge cash on delivery amounts the Old Car Parts Store was paying. Receiving $200, $500, and even greater amounts, the drivers literally stood to see what was in those boxes of merchandise. Taking time off their delivery routes, they had to see for themselves just what Mike was working with and exactly what he was buying!
"So I'd get it and I'd put it in the store, but unfortunately the store was more of a museum; I wasn't getting paid," he says in spite of his heavy UPS trafficking. "People would just come in and see what I had, what I was selling, comparing prices, so eventually it worked against me to having that store open," he says jokingly. "So I got a little smarter and got rid of the store, bought a property that was big enough that I could put 12 cars into the building and have five different garages, all while working out of my home. "It allowed me to go out and shop for product so that I wouldn't be confined to a store seven days a week. So that worked out pretty good for a while but then economics changed with everything else," he laments. Mike was again going to have to adjust his business to keep up with the times.
The age of technology had caught up and surpassed many who were used to doing business with no more than a handshake, and Mike was no exception to these repercussions. "The internet was good and bad, it worked for me and it worked against me. Initially it went against me, due to the fact I was one of the pioneers in the field I'm in and as far as I know, the only young Latino lowrider at the time having a retail store other than Orlie's Hydraulics in Paramount, Steve's Obsolete in Gardena, Bob's Antiques of El Segundo and the Car Shop in Orange, California. There were people back in the day that had stores, but not to the caliber of products I had my store," says Mike. "It was filled with NOS (new old stock) parts and the knowledge that I have of the inventory," he adds. "So it was pretty ballsy (back then) to open up a store and do what I did." As technology changed, so did product availability, people were relying on computers, not parts shops to find what they needed, and undeterred, Mike weathered the storm. "Some others came and went, but I'm still here in the game," he says with confidence. "Since the event of 9/11 to the current day, until the latest venture I'm in with Fargo Automotive, I had been living off my savings and that's hard. It takes its toll on the family. Fortunately, I've been smart enough not to get rid of prized possessions and some of the cars, but now I'm working 16 hours a day at times," he sighs.
The junkyards weren't as fruitful as they once were, internet sites were popping up like crazy, competition was at an all-time high, bringing several newbie's into the game trying to make a name for themselves. Mike had an upper hand that trumped all of those obstacles; his brain. Under all that stiff hair lies a super-computer, a well of knowledge that has yet to be dried up and an uncanny ability to remember parts and places as well as contacts. Remaining confident in himself, Mike realized that he still needed to use these new tools of technology to reeducate himself of what is currently happening in today's world of classic car goods. "Ebay came in and now you have email, you can now use the technology to your advantage. I can take work to a swap meet, take a photo of a part, email it to a guy, get his approval and consummate the deal instead of buying dead inventory." he explains. He also flipped his product theory. "Instead of selling parts I started selling cars, which became good because not too many people tried to turn around and sell cars, there was less competition. Being true to my roots of selling vintage parts with the knowledge that was already in my head, I still knew what parts were worth, what people needed and had a good customer base with people who trusted me. I've had some good customers who have been with me for over 20 years," he states. "Recently with Fargo Automotive, I'm at a point where I'm helping and assisting on actually making parts for the bombs and the Impalas as well as other vehicles, providing what's necessary to complete someone's project," he explains. Parts ranging from mechanical to trims, emblems and other accessories are things that Mike knows will keep the customers happy and these classic cars rolling. "It's like baking cookies, when you run out of cookie dough you go out and make some more, but the main focus here is to make a great product that will be competitive with the other manufacturers."
Though his work days are long and the road to success has been full of obstacles, Mike has remained a well- connected man, counting family and friends as his main influences and sources of inspiration. Remembering times without pancake breakfasts, menudo mornings with his family, the stress of having to be away for days, sometimes weeks, just to get a part for a customer, Mike Ramos truly appreciates his family's patience. "That's the breaks of the game," states Mike. Without their constant help & support, he wouldn't be who he is today, both personally and professionally. Down since '77, he and his wife Touch'e saw daughter Denisha his first born and son Michael Jr. come into the world, through those experiences he remained focused and never once stopped chasing his dream. Fast forward to the present day and Lil' Mike and Mike Sr. cruise the scene with their classics, so it's still a family thing.
He comes from the old school, a handshake is his word, he even offers layaway on parts and cars to help people achieve their automotive dreams, remembering what it was like for him during the times he struggled. To this day Mike still talks to Don from Don's Obsolete, the two remain good friends and business associates, and Ramos remains very grateful for his help & support. This long lasting friendship and business relationship is the testament of the number one rule of good business; never burn bridges because you never know when you may need to cross them again.
In closing, he shares his belief of the benefits and advantages of being involved in car collecting. "You need to educate the next generation and show them how to carry the torch, so to speak," he says. "Invest in an old car, it gets the family closer and creates fond memories. It's a good investment, you'll be amazed to see how much of a small world it is! Cruise nights and family events are great for meeting people & creating new friendships. It's a good thing and cheap entertainment for all, you don't even need a chrome/tricked out show car," Mike says beaming with pride. He suggests to start with what he calls a "starter kit" and grow. If it's not your thing, then sell it, most of the time you even make a profit! Now how safe is that? Money you can drive & enjoy rather than just leaving it in a bank or lending and spending it. Seeing the smile on Mike's face as he professes his love for this game, it sounds like pretty good advice to me.
Future projects for Mike Ramos include Classic Car Financing, Low Rider apparel, making new and old Pickel posters, helping folks find those much needed NOS parts, and even publishing a book about lows and customs!
For those interested in Mike Ramos' services you can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or call him at (562) 716-2977.