A longtime Enumclaw auto shop has been passed down from owner to apprentice — and it all started with a beaten down ‘68 Chevelle.
Street Rods by Denny started in 1981, when Denny Olson got sick of his grocery store management job and saved enough money to turn his hobby for building hot rods into a business. He outgrew his original facility after a few years and built the current shop in Enumclaw in 1987.
Olson, 69, said that as far as he knows, the rod shop is the longest-standing of its kind in the Pacific Northwest.
Over the years, Olson became used to his trainees eventually going off to join or start competing shops, but when Josh Sanders drove up nine years ago in a 1968 Chevelle, he knew the kid was something else.
“He showed up here when he was 15 years old, driving the Chevelle with his mother on the passenger side,” Olson recalled. “You could see through it, there was so much rust on it.”
Sanders had come to Olson for some advice for fixing the car up. Not only did Sanders get the knowledge he sought, but Olson even helped him get into a few welding classes at Green River College. Sanders quickly excelled, and soon after, Olson offered him a job at the shop.
“It seemed he had an innate skill (with cars),” Olson said. “You’ll show him how to do it, and the next time he’ll do it better than you.”
Now Olson has retired and handed the keys off to Sanders, 24, who took over as owner of the auto shop at the beginning of this year — “Street Rods by Denny” is now “Sanders’ Street Rods.”
“I think I’m a person who was meant to be working with my hands, and I found myself in a spot where I really enjoy it,” Sanders said.
“THAT WAS SOMETHING ELSE”
Born and raised in Enumclaw in a family of builders and business owners, Sanders was introduced to hands-on work at an early age. His father restored a truck in high school, sparking Sanders’ interest in doing the same.
He saved up $2,000, got a $1,000 loan from his dad and bought the ‘68 Chevelle, spending three years restoring it while attending Running Start and working 20 hours a week at Olson’s shop.
After graduating Enumclaw High School in 2015 and getting a degree at Green River College the next year, Sanders started working full time at the shop.
“He went through all stages, from clean up to prep work, to body, to paint, to assembly, and every time I gave him a job, he seemed to improve every time,” Olson said.
Seeing what he could do in the fabrication and metal shaping section of the shop really lit Sanders up. He started traveling the country to take classes on metal shaping.
“It felt limitless, it felt artistic,” Sanders said. “It’s something I can just bend my mind around.”
Then about five years ago, Sanders started considering working at another shop in the area.
“I’ve trained a lot of my competition over the years,” Olson said, but at 65 years old, he was done busting his chops in the shop. He’d been inducted into the Washington State Street Rod Hall of Fame around that time, and he knew the business would be in good hands with Sanders in charge.
So he offered the kid a deal: Stick with me and I’ll make sure you can afford to buy the business when I retire.
Sanders agreed, and he’s “completely grateful” he did.
“I just made the decision (that) he’s gotta be the one to take over,” Olson said. “I’m too old to do this anymore. … (And) because (Sanders) has been involved with the customers so long … they’ve been calling him instead of me for the last year anyway.”
Sanders said he invested about $50,000 or $60,000 through a combination of savings and a loan from Olson when taking over the store, mostly from buying the equipment and a two-year lease.
Sanders, who’s still driving the Chevelle, said he “had no idea” that he’d be running the shop back when he was fixing the car. But his reaction to the tour Olson gave him that day he pulled up in the rusty Chevelle may have been prophetic.
”I was sitting in the driveway, called my girlfriend — who is now my wife — and said, ‘I have to work there. That was insane. That was something else.’ And here we are.”
INSIDE THE SHOP
Sanders flips up the taillight of a 1959 Corvette, a custom mechanism he designed to make room for other parts in the car. Under the hood, three gauges, custom-built to resemble those on the dashboard, display the car’s temperature and oil and fuel levels.
Get him talking about the shop and you’ll realize their cars are full of these tiny details. Some vehicles get completely disassembled, sand-blasted down to bare steel and rebuilt with parts fabricated in-house. Others only need a bit of tinkering to get back on the road.
“We’re expensive,” Sanders said. “We don’t charge more than the hourly rate of your regular mechanic. But this stuff just takes time. We’re very particular, and we try not to let anything go that we aren’t happy with.”
The shop specializes in high-end restoration and custom work, including metal shaping, body and paint work and engine swaps. Whatever the job, Sanders said he aims to get the vehicle running smoothly without disrupting what made it look so cool in the first place.
Along the way, he can’t help but have a little fun.
“We’re not trying to deny the fact that this is a ‘73 Hurst/Olds,” Sanders said, pointing to one of the cars in the shop. “The rims are new, but they’re a tribute to the way they would have been. … (We’re) painting the engine the way it would have been. But the belt drive is all aluminum now. It’s got better cooling, power, brakes, steering.”
Sanders currently manages two employees: Matt Anderson, specializing in mechanical and wiring work, and Doug Isbell, specializing in car body and paint work. Sanders rents the property from Olson, whose house is next door to the shop.
The shop is busy and COVID-19 hasn’t slowed them down. There is “a year and a half worth of work just sitting in the shop, and a backlog beyond that,” Sanders said.
“We’re really fortunate to have a lot of great customers … that give us the freedom to be creative on these jobs,” he said. “I never thought it would actually happen.”