A longtime Enumclaw auto shop was passed down from owner to apprentice—and it all started with a beat-up ’68 Chevelle.
Street Rods by Denny began in 1981, when Denny Olson grew tired of his job as a grocery store manager and saved up enough money to turn his hot rod building hobby into a business. He outgrew his original facility after a few years and built the current store in Enumclaw in 1987.
Olson, 69, said that to his knowledge the rod shop is the oldest of its kind in the Pacific Northwest.
Over the years, Olson has grown accustomed to his interns ending up joining or starting competing stores, but when Josh Sanders arrived nine years ago in a 1968 Chevelle, he knew the kid was something else. .
“He came here when he was 15, driving the Chevelle with his mom 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 on fixing the car. Not only did Sanders get the knowledge he was looking for, Olson even helped him take a few welding classes at Green River College. Sanders quickly excelled and soon after Olson offered him a job at the store.
“It seemed like he had an innate skill (with cars),” Olson said. “You’ll show him how to do it, and next time he’ll do it better than you.”
Now Olson has retired and handed over the keys to Sanders, 24, who took over as owner of the auto shop earlier this year – ‘Street Rods by Denny’ is now ‘Sanders’ Street Rods”.
“I think I’m a person who was supposed to work with my hands, and I found myself in a place where I really like that,” Sanders said.
“IT WAS SOMETHING ELSE”
Born and raised in Enumclaw into a family of builders and business owners, Sanders was introduced to hands-on work from an early age. His father restored a truck in high school, sparking Sanders’ interest in doing the same.
He saved $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 from Enumclaw High School in 2015 and graduating from Green River College the following year, Sanders began working full-time in the shop.
“He went through all the stages, from cleaning to prep work, to bodywork, to painting, to assembly, and every time I gave him a job he seemed to get better every time,” Olson said.
Seeing what he could do in the metal fabrication and shaping section of the shop really enlightened Sanders. He began to travel the country taking courses in metal shaping.
“It was limitless, it was artistic,” Sanders said. “It’s something I can just make people think about.”
Then, about five years ago, Sanders began considering working at another store in the area.
“I’ve coached a lot of my competition over the years,” Olson said, but at 65 he was done busting his chops in the store. He had been inducted into the Washington State Street Rod Hall of Fame around that time, and he knew the company 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” that he did.
“I just made the decision (that he) has to be the one to take over,” Olson said. “I’m too old to do that. … (And) because (Sanders) has been involved with clients for so long … they’ve been calling him for me for a year anyway.
Sanders said he invested about $50,000 or $60,000 through a combination of savings and a loan from Olson when he took over the store, mostly through the purchase of the equipment and a lease from two years.
Sanders, who still drives the Chevelle, said he “had no idea” he would be running the shop when he repaired the car. But his reaction to the visit Olson gave him the day he pulled up in the Rusty Chevelle may have been prophetic.
“I was sitting in the aisle, called my girlfriend – who is now my wife – and said, ‘I have to work there. It was crazy. It was something else. And here we are.”
INSIDE THE SHOP
Sanders raises 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.
Tell him about the shop and you’ll find that their cars are full of these little details. Some vehicles are completely disassembled, blasted down to bare steel, and rebuilt with in-house manufactured parts. Others just need a little tweaking to get back on the road.
“We are expensive,” Sanders said. “We don’t charge more than your regular mechanic’s hourly rate. But this stuff just takes time. We are very particular and we try not to miss anything that we don’t like.
The workshop specializes in high-end restoration and custom work, including metal shaping, body and paint work and engine swaps. Whatever the job, Sanders said he aimed to keep the vehicle running smoothly without disrupting what made it so cool in the first place.
Along the way, he can’t help having a little fun.
“We’re not trying to deny the fact that this is a 1973 Hurst/Olds,” Sanders said, gesturing to one of the cars in the store. “The rims are new, but they pay homage to what they would have been. … (We) paint the engine as it would have been. But the belt drive is now all aluminum. It has better cooling, better power, brakes, steering.
Sanders currently manages two employees: Matt Anderson, who specializes in mechanical and wiring work, and Doug Isbell, who specializes in body and paint work. Sanders rents the property to Olson, whose house is next to the store.
The store is busy and COVID-19 hasn’t slowed them down. There’s “a year and a half of work just sitting in the shop, and a backlog beyond that,” Sanders said.
“We’re really lucky to have a lot of great clients…who give us the freedom to be creative on these jobs,” he said. “I never thought this would actually happen.”