Kustom with a K: Marty Lau’s 808 Speed Shop keeps an American tradition alive.
In the tradition of rugged individuality and bucking convention, the link between skateboarding and punk rock to early- and mid-20th century classic American cars might not seem strange. It wasn’t, at least, for 808 Speed Shop owner Marty Lau. He says that while a teenager, “When I was skateboarding and listening to punk rock, we’d take our skateboard decks and peel the design off the bottom, then just draw our own stuff. … Since I never could find anything I really liked and the stuff I did like I couldn’t afford, it made me start tweaking things until I thought it was cool or cooler than the original.”
Fast forward to adulthood. Now, Lau says of his do-it-yourself tendencies: “I think that whole mentality has stayed with me and has definitely carried over with the way I build cars. I’d rather start with the original design and make it flow than just go and buy something mass produced and bolt in. … It’s just the way I am, and it’ll probably never change.”
Staying as close as possible to a romantic period in American car history, Lau and his shop partner and mentor John Figueroa only work on pre-1965 American cars, both hot rods and “kustom builds.” The letter K denotes a type of customized car culture, not lowered Honda Civics on which the shop works, but rather cars such as Lau’s personal Mercury chop-top, 1954 Chevy and Ford Model A.
Many of the tools and techniques 808 Speed Shop employs are of another time, as well. “We try and do everything like they did it back then. So we don’t have real fancy tools here. A lot of our metalwork is just pretty much by hand,” says Lau. He has a collection of 1950s car magazines to reference, and those copies become increasingly valuable as time moves forward. During the height of the hot rod and kustom days, builders on the mainland could simply visit a nearby junkyard to harvest or reference parts. Now, “It’s a constant search for parts. Thank god for eBay,” says Lau.
Among the many parts Lau has acquired for customers’ cars – “I keep buying junk,” he half-jokes – there is one piece Lau will keep. “It don’t look like much, but you can’t get this. This is an original batwing air cleaner for a dual quad ’56 Cadillac. I was about to cut into it. Luckily, John informed me how rare it is. I’m gonna keep this one forever. Put it on the wall somewhere.”
Lau’s love for cars, creativity and authenticity are clear in the way he thoughtfully presents answers to questions with a quiet but strong demeanor. With the white noise of welding in the shop and the bright sun beating down on the arched Quonset huts along the warehouse-laden road, one can understand how Lau can get lost in a state of mind while working. There is a patience required to both work on and wait for these cars. This patience is a reminder of a time before instant gratification; a reminder that good things take time.
The Modern Man