SPRING GREEN — Architecture buffs flock here for Taliesin. Lovers of the Bard make the summer drive for American Players Theatre.
Gearheads come for $500,000 muscle cars equal to the quality and acclaim of Frank Lloyd Wright and Shakespeare.
Mike and Jim Ring will still fix a door ding or a crumpled hood from an ill-timed deer on the family minivan at their Classic Autobody business along Highway 14. But it’s the cars and custom parts built under their other business, Ringbrothers, that has led to international attention.
The brothers have been building high-powered Mustangs, Camaros and other stunning vehicles for more than 20 years, and their work has donned the covers and pages of some of the biggest automotive publications. Over the past few months, the unassuming siblings have catapulted into the classic car world’s stratosphere.
In November, a 1966 Chevrolet Chevelle they built for an Ohio man was named the General Motors Best in Show at the Specialty Equipment Market Association show in Las Vegas, one of the largest custom car shows in the world. Then, a few weeks ago, the Rings and the car, dubbed “Recoil,” were featured in a nearly 24-minute YouTube episode of “Jay Leno’s Garage.”
“Everybody thinks you’ve gotta be in L.A. or New York and these major markets where all the suppliers are and you guys are just about in the middle of the country,” Leno told the Rings.
“These boys up there in Wisconsin build good cars,” the former Tonight Show star later Tweeted to the 65,000 followers of his Jay Leno’s Garage account.
A side project to restore a junked Winnebago motor home has also drawn eyes to Ringbrothers. A video of what appears to be a tenement on wheels has gone viral over the past year with more than 5 million views. It shows the unsightly 1972 RV going from zero to 50 mph in three seconds thanks to a 900 horsepower Chevy LS 427 supercharged engine.
The other surprise is the interior that’s been renovated into a rolling sports bar that includes a fireplace, big-screen television, popcorn maker and a section of floor that is glass so passengers can watch the road beneath them.
“It’s just built to go fast,” said Jim Ring, who believes it’s the fastest RV on the planet. “If you pull up to a stop light next to it, don’t be surprised if it blows you away.”
The exposure has brought a barrage of requests to their 8,500-square-foot shop. The company employs 10 people.
A recent inquiry, which they turned down, came from a South African man who asked if the Rings could work exclusively for him and over the next five years build nearly 20 cars. Other requests have come from New Zealand, Australia, Netherlands and Japan.
“You can’t even imagine the traffic on our website,” said Lisa Wahl, sales manager. “Yesterday alone, we got nine or 10 requests for builds. We have to weed them out pretty carefully.”
The Rings build about two cars a year and require an up-front payment of $50,000. It can take 5,000 hours of labor and $150,000 in specialized custom-made parts. When it’s all done, the bill can equal the price of a couple of nice three-bedroom homes. One car in production is a 1965 Fastback Mustang that features a carbon fiber body. The client lives in Russia but wants to drive the super light but durable vehicle in London.
Potential clients are thoroughly vetted. In some cases, the Rings use Google Earth to look at a property, which can help them determine if the would-be client is serious or lives in a trailer but just wants to talk about a dream. Others have been known to end the conversation themselves after they realize the down payment is the price of a brand new Chevy Suburban.
“We’re blessed to have customers willing to spend the money and allow us to do what we do,” Jim Ring, 50, said. “That’s kind of cool to think that a couple small-town guys got people willing to throw that kind of money around so you can do what you like to do.”
The Rings have no intention of sitting behind a desk. Mike was wearing a mask and clutching a sander last week as he squatted next to the right quarter panel of a 1969 Chevelle that was in the early stages of restoration. Jim was hunkered in the cab of a 1958 Ford F-100 pickup truck that is nearing completion but won’t be sold. Instead, the Rings will use it as a shop truck.
“It’s no different than the day we started,” Mike Ring, 52, said. “We don’t want to give up what we do. We don’t want to be on the phone. We don’t want to be selling. We really don’t want to be in front of the cameras. We just want to do the work.”
Despite the fame in car circles, the Rings remain grounded and loyal to their home state.
They use engines that can cost more than $30,000 that are built by Wegner Motorsports in Markesan. Welding supplies come from Miller Electric in Appleton, and the shop’s spray booth was built by Global Finishing Solutions in Osseo.
They recently helped paint crucifixes for a cemetery restoration and painted the Stations of the Cross at St. Luke’s Catholic Church in Plain. When the University of Wisconsin football team hosted Nebraska last fall, they took the RV and parked it at a friend’s house behind Hotel Red. They never set foot in Camp Randall Stadium.
“We (built it) to have some fun in our business and just enjoy life,” Jim Ring said. “We’ve got about $40,000 into it. Kind of stupid, ain’t it? But you can’t take it with you.”
The Rings grew up in Plain as the youngest of seven children. Their father, Clete Ring, 89, ran a gas station there for 30 years and, before they were born, survived the sinking of the U.S.S. Gambier Bay in 1944 during a World War II battle in the Philippine Sea.
His sons were “D” students at River Valley High School, with the exception of shop class. Mike served in the U.S. Navy and Jim worked for a while as a crane operator. In 1987, Jim, while living in Chicago where he worked for an environmental services company, convinced a bank to loan him $5,000 to buy a 1969 Camaro pace car.
“I basically restored that car in my mom and dad’s basement and that’s kind of when the bug bit me,” Jim Ring said. “I actually got a lot of money out of the car in the end, and I thought this is something I wanted to do and that’s how the business probably started.”
He moved back to Wisconsin in 1991 and started his own car restoration business. In 1994, Mike returned home and joined his brother, who had just moved into a new 5,000-square-foot shop. In 2005, they received their first request for a full custom build, a 1967 Mustang. A 3,500-square-foot addition was added in 2009.
The brothers frequently test their vehicles on a remote village street behind the shop that has no homes, businesses or a cross street. This summer, up to 3,000 classic cars could invade the village. The seven day HOT ROD Power Tour starts in Madison on June 6 and ends in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. One of the stops will be the Ringbrothers shop.
The Chevelle, with 980 horsepower, and the RV will also be on display March 28 and 29 at the Weaver Auto Parts Auto Fest at the Alliant Energy Center in Madison.
Leno, known for his affinity to anything with a motor, drove the Chevelle during the YouTube episode. Jim Ring was in the passenger seat as Leno punched the accelerator on a California highway. Seconds later Leno became the first person to use sixth gear in the vehicle, which can easily hit 100 mph in third gear.
The Rings’ work has led them to encounters with actor Tim Allen, NBA star Tim Duncan and the bearded leaders of the rock band ZZ Top.
“They want to talk to you for what you do,” Mike Ring said. “It’s pretty cool that people are interested in what you do, no matter what their jobs are.”