It has been over 20 years since we first brought you car show coverage with the initial goal of sharing pictures as fast as possible. Back then, there was no social media, there were no cell phones with massive screens or high-megapixel cameras and there were definitely no DSLR cameras available to the consumer market for at least a few years after our website began. I was simply shooting car shows on film, taking it to the local Walmart or other 1-hour photo processing place immediately after the show and then proceeding to scan those photos at home to post online that night. Those were long show days in the early 2000’s. Eventually, small digital cameras became less expensive and I owned a few of them until getting my first DSLR in late 2004. At that point, the after-show routine of posting photos was still time consuming but I had a process and I executed it as quickly as possible. This brings us to the whole reason the website was started. It was to provide that quick turnaround that the magazines couldn’t and a few other popular websites weren’t.
To bring you a little more backstory, my high school years from 1994-1998 weren’t filled with a lot of school friends or activities. I had a good group of friends outside of school through playing hockey and meeting other locals that hung out at Disneyland frequently with annual passes. To find something else I could do besides hockey, I took a beginning Photography class my Sophomore year and an advanced class my Senior year where I helped other students with their projects as well as develop their photos in the school darkroom. Due to the school limitations, nearly everything I shot was done in black and white. I really learned a lot about lighting in different situations to make sure my photos were well composed when it was time to develop them. There was no preview screen to check your work and delete/re-shoot. You either got the shot or you didn’t and it was difficult to use some images if the settings weren’t right.
In 1998, I got my first Minitruck. It was a 1986 Nissan 720 with a peppy Z24 Motor that had been passed from my Stepbrother to my Stepsister and then on to me. It was already lowered and had some work done to it but I had some plans too. I started having changes made at local shops and making a few of modifications of my own. An old friend from my early hockey days was in a car/truck club called Local Finesse. He said I should come by their weekly meeting and hang out. I met some great people, joined the club after a few months of hanging out and attended a lot of shows with them as a group. I had brought along a camera to every show and would shoot pictures of the club members rides as well as any others I liked at the shows. At the next club meeting, I would have printed copies of those photos to hand out for each person of their respective vehicles. This got expensive as many of them always wanted new photos and offered to pay me for them but I never took their money. It was a passion for me and I was enjoying it.
I decided a simple website would be the best way to do this. My girlfriend helped me with the domain name idea and we were off and running. SoCalCustoms.com was meant to be fast coverage of Southern California car shows where my friends could go download and print their own pictures. That principle guided me for the past two decades but it got so much bigger than any of us ever imagined. I left Local Finesse in 2003 to focus on other things including the website but some of those guys are still good friends of mine to this day. I will always be thankful for the motivation they provided me to do something with my photography passion and to my girlfriend who pushed me to start a business. She became my wife in 2003. She has always supported SoCalCustoms.com attending shows, doing the administrative tasks that businesses need and even assisting me with feature shoots/models before we had 3 kids to keep us even busier on weekends.
Fast Coverage, Fast Popularity
By the end of 2003, the website address was being shared between car clubs, event spectators and show promoters as a place to find coverage of each event I attended. I remember the first time I heard the website name over an event loudspeaker and the DJ the show hired was listing all the magazines that were shooting the show. He said “and if you want to see all of today’s event tonight, check out www.socalcustoms.com”. It was crazy to me that my efforts were being singled out but it also pushed me to get that coverage up as fast as possible that evening. At shows, people I knew began to introduce me as “Bryan from SoCalCustoms” which was odd to me but in an industry where many people are known for the vehicle they built, the website was my ‘vehicle’ and a lot of people had seen it at this point. I would even receive emails from fans all over the world with encouragement, questions and requests for catalogs. I wasn’t selling any parts but some people just saw cool vehicles with the watermarked logo on the picture and thought SoCalCustoms had built them.
Around that time, I began shooting my feature vehicles with models I had met at various shows. The idea was to allow me to do some more creative photos without having such a fast turnaround, bring in more viewers because models tend to attract attention along with the opportunity to do more writing which I enjoyed and didn’t include in show coverage. The models added to the website did exactly that. The traffic numbers went up and I had a lot of fun taking extra time to shoot cool angles as well as writing about how each vehicle became the rolling custom art that it was.
Although the website was started to focus on SoCal shows, I had traveled to several events in other Southwest states. With a digital camera, a laptop and hotel internet, coverage was still uploaded each night after the show before going out to experience the nightlife with other show goers. It was at this time I began going further away to shows in Indiana, Texas, Florida, Mississippi and Louisiana. A friend and mentor in the scene was traveling to many of these events for the magazine he worked at so I booked the same flights and hotels as him and we shared a rental car at each destination. We would both shoot our photos of the show during the day and I helped him to shoot features for his magazine in the late afternoon when the lighting was just right. With the two of us dividing the trucks between us, we were able to shoot multiple features in under two hours with the record being 11 trucks, totaling hundreds of photos on each camera. He taught me more about lighting, composition and tricks of the trade related to vehicle photography during those sessions than I could ever thank him for but most of the time it was the way he carried himself that I learned from the most. His name was Courtney Halowell, widely known in the custom automotive world as “Tito”. He passed away in 2011 at the age of 42 from health issues and it shocked the entire custom scene. I have written many stories on my personal social media accounts about our adventures and everything his friendship meant to me, my family and SoCalCustoms.com so I won’t go into all of that here. However, his impact on my life and this website is forever part of my family. In 2012, just 8 months after his passing, my wife and I gave our newborn son ‘Courtney’ as his middle name. There is no better daily reminder of him than that.
Over the years, I continued to do writing and photography for various magazines on top of my SoCalCustoms.com work. There were also two Jackass-style Truck DVD’s I shot/directed that were sold in major retailers worldwide. This website I created for just a few friends to see had branched into many facets of automotive publishing, some lifelong friendships and even my family tree. My passion drove me to cover hundreds of shows in the first dozen years through severe back injuries, expensive travel and the losses of Tito as well my Mother in the Summer of 2009. She succumbed to Cancer just weeks before the launch of a new website design, logo and some of the most popular T-Shirts ever sold on the website. Like most of us, she probably would never believe how big the website got with just my love for photography, custom trucks, a simple goal and some help from friends/freelancers when I couldn’t attend certain events.
The first decade of SoCalCustoms.com was marked with explosive growth, support, good times and a desire to keep moving forward. However, the growth resulted in higher web traffic and resulted in the need to bring in more partner companies to help pay the bills that come along with show travel, equipment and website hosting fees. The administrative side was not something I really wanted to do but through networking with the right people, partnerships were created with some really great companies that provide parts and services to the custom enthusiast community. There were a few times when an advertising deal was made and after a partner got their fair share of traffic from a big show like SEMA, they would try to cancel their signed contract or decide to stop paying when a 1-year deal was split into quarterly payments. I don’t mention this to call out any companies specifically. It’s a part of the publishing business and chasing down checks took a lot of the fun out of it for me when I was shooting thousands of photos and uploading them as fast as possible to keep growing the traffic. So, around 2012, I stopped really looking for new advertising partnerships which made the costs more difficult to manage while my wife and I had just had our third, and final child. A couple years went by and while the passion was still there, shows weren’t as fun as they had been for the 14 or so years prior. Many shows had left California to new venues and others ceased to exist altogether.
In an effort to reinvigorate my interest, I used some money that was left for me after the passing of my Grandfather to purchase a 1971 Chevrolet Suburban. My last custom vehicle had been sold in 2003 in order to purchase a laptop which allowed me to update coverage nightly while attending out of state shows. I miss that truck but I never regretted making the purchase to help build SoCalCustoms.com to a new level. The ‘71 Chevy really gave me a kick in the pants. It was old and needed some love but it was fun to drive. It’s one of those vehicles that people don’t see very often so it gets a lot of thumbs up, head nods, comments and questions whenever I take it out of the garage. I began working on it slowly while taking it to a few events just to cruise it and park it in the spectator parking lot. It really brought me back to enjoying shows as an automotive enthusiast and not just a journalist.
At this point, there were not a lot of big shows left in SoCal and the funds just weren’t available to travel every few weekends to other states for the best shows in the country. I began doing some writing and photography from home to help out at Truckin’ Magazine. It gave me a creative outlet and an opportunity to put some more work into the Suburban. I wrote features for work turned in by some very talented automotive photographers, compiled the new products section for each month, tracked down rendering artists for a monthly spotlight of their art and of course, shot photos of some very cool trucks including two that made it on the magazine cover. There were also two features slated to be printed with one going on the cover but in January 2020, the print version of Truckin’ was canceled along with 18 other automotive magazines from the same publisher. During the nearly two years I was working with the magazine, the other benefit was the tech articles where I got to do the photography and writing for custom work performed on my own vehicle. I learned a lot, spent some time with great people that build custom trucks for a living and came out of it with a beautiful ‘71 Suburban that my family loves to cruise around in. I was also able to take it to a few shows and park with my large group of friends from the car and truck club, Negative Camber who have become like family. Courtney “Tito” Halowell was a founder of this club and his legend lives on through these great people along with many others.
Over the last 18 months, like most of the world, car shows have mostly shut down due to the pandemic. Although some of them are coming back, my personal situation has also changed. In January 2021, my family and I moved to Virginia. My wife had a job offer that we couldn’t refuse with the chance to own a home and provide a better opportunity for our children. It has been a difficult change from everything we’ve ever known in California but the long term benefits could not be ignored. With this news, I knew SoCalCustoms.com was nearing its end. The website project that became my identity, brought me many life long friends and allowed me to share my photography passion with so many, eventually will have to go offline. After SEMA 2021, my 20th trip to the show, there will be no new show updates. It will remain online as an archive for a yet-undecided amount of time.
I personally want to thank everyone for their support and for visiting the website all of these years. I could never imagine this would become what it did and all of you helped push me to keep it going. As I write this, I have a sick feeling in my stomach, a lump in my throat and tears in my eyes. That is what the last 20 years have meant to me, my family and the friends I have made. I have been doing this for half of my life and it will live as part of who I am for the rest of my days. I am not sure what I’ll do from here with my passion for photography and writing. For now, I am spending a lot of time working on our new home and hoping to do some traveling with my family. It’s been a long time since I haven’t had multiple custom car shows on my yearly calendar.
If you just read all of that, I appreciate your time and effort. My story is a long one but I wanted to tell it my way to close out this incredible chapter of my life.
It has been a great ride! On to the next adventure…