John Ehmke likely could have been a sculptor, creating something beautiful out of lumps of rock or clay, or perhaps a baker, using his hands to knead dough and make fine pastries.
His whole life, Ehmke’s hands have been his tools.
“It’s done me well,” he says.
Ehmke, 61, was a carpenter and cabinetmaker before discovering he had a gift for welding and metal work, which led him into making custom cars and parts for vehicles of all kinds.
The longtime owner of in Santee looks down at his hands and wiggles his fingers and says with a smile, “I’ve got magic hands. I’m a musician, too.
“I play a 12-string (guitar). Sometimes I think I’m pretty good and sometimes I think it sounds like crap. But I still like to play. Used to , but I got out of that years ago before I became a cabinetmaker maker.”
Ehmke has owned and operated Autofab since August of 1977, in the same location off North Woodside Avenue in Santee. The business has evolved in may ways through those 34 years to now incorporate a lively online and catalogue business – shipping parts for cars and trucks all over the U.S. and beyond – while also servicing local customers.
Autofab does a wide array of work, customizing cars and trucks and fabricating bodies and parts, but when asked what his company does, he boils it down to this:
“We build custom cars and trucks.”
That he wound up working on cars for a living was not what he set out to do. That it’s worked out as it has was fate. He essentially has made a living doing what he was good at, all along.
“Before I was a cabinetmaker maker, when I was 17, I had a car torn apart in my driveway, going through the engine,” he recalls. “My mom put up with all kinds of crap. My dad never said a word. As long as I was busy doing something and not out getting drunk with my buddies, he was happy… I was tearing cars apart at my house.
“I just thought it was one of the necessities of life. I never would have given a single thought to becoming a mechanic. And I don’t know why.”
Building a niche
Ehmke works out of his office at Autofab, handling paperwork, budgets and payroll and answering calls from customers down the street or thousands of miles away who are looking for just the right parts for their custom trucks or cars.
Recently, for instance, a customer in Montana ordered a $14,000 customization job on his 1979 Ford truck, a complete front suspension system that will be built on a frame at Autofab in Santee and shipped to him, ready to mount on the truck.
As Ehmke sits at his desk, a couple of big, friendly cruise the room, and employees pop in and out to ask questions or explain the work they’re doing in the big garage next door. Although Ehmke occasionally still gets his hands into a project, these days he mostly oversees the operation and leaves the actual work to the mechanics and experts on staff (Autofab has five employees).
He’d still love to do the work himself, but found that constant interruptions – the boss is always getting calls and questions – put him in a foul mood, “So I’ve sort of disassociated myself from the shop,” he says.
The online and catalogue portion of the business has grown significantly over the years, providing such things as custom motor mounts, fiberglass fenders and parts specific to offroad racing. The ability to sell to remote customers has given Autofab a base of business and income to weather the economic slump of the past three years, Ehmke says.
One of the keys to it was realizing that, when they needed to invent or customize a new part for a project they were working on, “Somebody else might need it, too.”
“We’ve built a niche in the market,” he adds.
Building a business
Ehmke, who lives in Santee, has spent most of his life in San Diego County after moving from New Mexico with his parents at the age of 5.
His path toward opening Autofab began when he had a problem with some of the welds breaking on his Jeep. He asked the company that had done the welding if he could do the work himself at their shop. They agreed to it, he did his own work and the company saw what he did and offered him a job.
At the time he was still a cabinetmaker and didn’t take it. But soon after, his company was preparing to lay off some workers so Ehmke volunteered to give up his job, then went to work for the welding operation. There, he discovered he “had a gift for it.”
While working as a welder, Ehmke teamed up with another employee, a mechanic, and they started building a dragster together. Eventually, the two decided to go into business for themselves and opened Autofab. Two years later, Ehmke’s partner decided to leave, so Ehmke bought him out and has been running Autofab ever since.
It’s been a challenge, but one he’s enjoyed.
His favorite part of the business, he says, has been his company’s ability to create quality products and have them recognized not just in Santee, but around the country. Autofab has a good reputation as a go-to source for customized parts, particularly for offroad vehicles.
“Saying I love what I’m doing doesn’t really go very far,” he says. “I think it’s the sense of accomplishment. Being able to successfully come up with a really nice piece, whether it’s a suspension part or a fiberglass part or something like that. I like the accomplishment of creating something of quality.”
That, and dealing with people and knowing that word-of-mouth from one good interaction can lead to so much more.
“You get what you pay for,” says Ehmke, who notes that parts from Autofab might often be more expensive than similar parts from other companies, but will last longer. “We’ve made a pretty good business.”
Down in Mexico
It’s not all business, all the time though.
Ehmke, who is divorced, loves , and he loves to get away to his second home in San Felipe in Baja.
About every other week he’s able to break away early on a Friday, make the 4½- to 5-hour drive to his place in Mexico and relax three nights before heading back to Santee on Monday morning.
He keeps two quads there, and heads out exploring on four-to-five-hour rides on dirt roads and through wilderness. Or, he can spend time at the beach, in the mountains, take walks or just take a nap whenever he wants to.
“It’s a different lifestyle,” he says.
He’s raced offroad as much as possible over the years, with the highlight driving in the Baja 1000 on a Class 8 truck one year. Now, it’s mostly with friends or just for fun in a truck or on the quads.
He knows offroading, and knows what people want when they come to him. He can relate to their passion for the sport and the cars and trucks that allow them to do it.
“Driving offroad, there’s nothing like it,” he says. “It’s like being in charge or your own rollercoaster, or being on a fast boat going across high water.”