New Bloomfield auto shop is blazing its own trail
The car builders’ eyes are locked on the battery inside the red 1988 Lotus Esprit. Inside Tyler Willy’s rural auto shop, he and two employees carefully remove the battery from the in-progress custom-built car. There’s a reason it takes three of them to safely remove it. It’s not just used to power the headlights and radio — this former Tesla battery has been repurposed and will power the entire vehicle.
Since 2021, Tyler has owned and operated GKR Motor Cars in New Bloomfield. He specializes in designing and building custom one-off cars for his clients from around the country. He offers any number of custom options for his customers’ vehicles. However, one option in particular sets GKR apart: electric vehicle (EV) conversion.
Most vehicles Tyler restores feature internal combustion engines. “We’re still early adopters in this segment,” Tyler says. “At the big trade shows, EVs probably make up less than 5% of the vendors. It’s still new and the aftermarket isn’t really there yet. But it’s slowly coming around.”
Tyler grew up in rural Missouri working on trucks and tractors. While most of the work was maintenance, that mechanical background became the backbone of his restorations. “My first custom build — if you want to call it that — was a 1942 John Deere H tractor I built from the ground up,” the Callaway Electric Cooperative member says. “I turned it into a brand new tractor for a high school project and then flipped it.”
“The Fast and the Furious” movie debuted about the time Tyler earned his driver’s license and got him to switch from tractors to cars. “I got a ’90s Monte Carlo for my first car and it wasn’t a great car to modify, but I did everything I could to it,” Tyler says. “From then on I’ve always been buying and selling cars and working on them.”
He worked at Veterans United for more than a dozen years before leaving in 2021 to open GKR. “I loved working there and learned a ton about leadership watching the company grow,” he says. “I’ve always wanted to start a shop and constantly watch the guys from Gas Monkey Garage or read Hot Rod magazine. I was in my mid-30s, so I figured I better start getting serious about this.”
Alex Melman of Phoenix was one of Tyler’s early customers. He had a 1977 Ford Bronco that he drove but after getting married, having kids and navigating through the pandemic, the vehicle went under a tarp and became dilapidated. “My wife asked me what I wanted for my 40th birthday and all I could think about was getting that Bronco back to its old glory,” he says.
He knew Tyler through a fantasy football league and that he had started GKR in Missouri. Alex queried Tyler on restoration ideas, scope of the project and places to get the work done. “After like 90 minutes of him and I talking, I just stopped and said, ‘Wild idea, would you be interested in taking this project on if I shipped the car to you?’ ” he says. “I had the car shipped to him in less than 48 hours.”
Tyler first interviews his clients, something he says is his favorite part. “Some people just say they want a cool car to drive on weekends and something more customized that no one else has,” he says. “And then based on those conversations and their personality, we start to put together a plan for the car. On the Bronco we talked about colors and I helped push him toward certain directions and he let me have plenty of liberties with it.”
Tyler and his team then tear the car apart just to build it back. He tries to get his restorations done in four or five months, depending on the work needed. Throughout the process Tyler was sending Alex updates and pictures of the soon-to-be diamond blue Bronco. “He would talk me out of things that were going to be a waste of money and add ideas I wouldn’t have even thought of,” Alex says.
Tyler gave Alex the option to keep receiving updates until it was done, or stop before the project was completed to be surprised at a reveal. Alex opted for a reveal and said the anticipation almost got to him. “I would see these $400,000 Broncos on Instagram and I knew I was definitely not spending close to that,” he says. “I thought my expectations were way too high. But Tyler came out for the reveal and it blew my expectations away. My kids love it and my wife says I come home with a stupid grin on my face whenever I’m driving it.”
“For me that Bronco was a big realization that I can take a car from nothing but rust and turn it into a showpiece that’s worth more than what the customer puts in it,” Tyler says.
Tyler says certain older cars — like the Lotus — lend themselves better to EV conversions than others. The Lotus is GRK’s first full EV conversion and will have a range of about 120 miles when completed. Tyler acknowledges an electric custom car isn’t for everyone, but thinks the growing market will find its footing, specifically with the lack of maintenance.
“If someone has a really old car that they think is cool and wants to be able to customize it to drive, you can do an EV conversion and overnight you can turn that high-maintenance old car into a daily driver with hardly any maintenance,” he says.
Tyler has big plans for GKR including moving to a much larger location at some point and building “car condos” for people to keep their vehicles and have a place to work on them. He hopes to continue to build his clients’ dream cars with every customization they want from the interior to the paint color to the installation of an electric motor.
“There’s definitely plenty of purists out there that might push back on the EV conversions a bit, but it doesn’t have to be for everyone. That’s what custom is,” he says. “Someone’s going to have to be one of the people doing something for the first time or early on. I just want to be proud of what I build. I want my customers to be proud of what I build. And 10, 20, 30 years down the road, I want my kids to be proud of what we’ve built.”