Innovative Inventor Bill Emerson
By Melissa Mendonca
Larger Than Life
By Melissa Mendonca
Photos by Eric Leslie
As Bill Emerson rattles off the specs of his custom made super cars—bulletproof bodies of titanium Kevlar and stainless steel, one-third the weight of a conventional car with eight times the horsepower, and seats designed to fit the body of the owner, as well as artificial intelligence designed to recognize approach of said owner — there’s a temptation to compare to something James Bond or Batman might drive.
To which Emerson responds, “It’s beyond .007. This is real. If Tupac had this car, he’d still be alive.”
Super cars are just the latest offering at Emerson Motorsports, a nondescript custom car company in south Redding where cars that are anything but common are created. Emerson’s reputation has been built on Cobra sports cars, of which he describes the original as “a ton of power and not a lot of weight. Very dangerous.” They are beautiful, though, and fun to drive with the right adjustments.
“We refined the car,” he says, “built a lot more safety in it.” He started building Cobras in 1990 and now has a waiting list of two years. There’s only one Cobra builder that
has been at it longer than Emerson. “I’m restoring cars I built 20 years ago,” he says with a laugh. “I have people that collect my cars. They’re just waiting for me to die so they’ll be worth more.”
Emerson’s cars have been so successful that he’s taken almost too many top awards at car shows. He now only competes in a select few, including the Sports Car Club of America Super Unlimited. Of the others, he says, “I wouldn’t say we’ve been banned, but we’ve been encouraged not to show up.”
One of the first things one notices about Emerson cars is that they’re big. That’s because he estimates that about half his customers are former professional athletes. Football players, boxers. Big guys.
“We build the entire car to fit the customer,” he says. “I don’t just stretch it. I expand the whole car.” He developed his own chassis and builds his own molds. “I’ve got some of the best engineers in the world helping me on these cars,” he adds.
The result is a stellar safety record that keeps his customers alive, despite the staggering speeds his cars can reach. “We’ve been in business 32 years and we’ve never had anyone die in one of our cars,” he says. “We’re the only Cobra maker that can say that. We’ve had some horrific crashes, but no one has died, because of the amount of safety we’ve put into it.”
“We’re trying to build a better car,” he says, “We’re not trying to copy the original. We build a safer, faster, better car.”
Emerson is quick to acknowledge the team of world-renowned engineers who support his work. His shop has become a meeting place for some of the automotive world’s most talented. What Emerson brings is something completely unique: a brain that can conceptualize every part of a car functioning at once.
“I’m a severe dyslexic,” he says. “I can hardly spell my name. But I hold many objects at one time in my head and manipulate them. Being my brain works the way it does, I can conceptualize trouble spots.”
Born and raised in Redding, Emerson says his early education involved “a lot of special classes.” While he struggled with reading, he discovered a talent with taking objects apart and putting them back together again. Then, he says, “I started building my own stuff. Dyslexics have gifts along with the detractors. I’ve taken those gifts.”
With a mind that won’t shut down — “I’m a hopeless insomniac and I stay up at night and study technology,” he says — he’s built many, many things.
Just in time for Christmas, he came out with Cobra Tongs, hefty two-pound tongs with hooks like cobra teeth designed for big, strong men to flip large hunks of meat at the grill. “If you’ve got a 300-pound chef who likes to barbecue, there’s nothing much cooler than that,” he says, flipping the tongs open and closed.
His shop is heated by a Hybrid Rocket Stove for which he’s awaiting patent and federal approval to sell to the public. It burns tires and trash with zero emissions and is expected to sell well in the overseas market. He’s also developed a stand-alone solar generator. With a business partner, he also imports vodka from Ukraine which sells in 40 stores around California and Oregon.
“I’m still doing this for fun,” says Emerson, noting that although his super cars have a price tag over $1 million, they take months to build by hand, thereby rendering his hourly wage at less than minimum. “If it’s not fun, I don’t do it.”