A dam Genei was enjoying a balmy May afternoon around the house when his mind turned, as it often does, to the subject of erosion. More specifically, his thoughts concerned the erosion of industrial vitality in the state of Michigan and throughout the U.S. Genei is 47 years old, which means that he was exposed to MTV Cribs at an impressionable age and got his fill of green Lamborghinis and glitz. Success, as he knew it, manifested in other ways. His Livingston County family was made up of do-it-yourselfers who would take on projects like rounding up three discarded snowmobiles and making one that worked.
“The 1990s were showing us all of these riches,” Genei says. “It was about profits, and I knew that is not feasible for everybody.” After graduating from Hartland High School, he had undertaken studies in engineering but ended up with a business degree from Ferris State University. “I knew deep down inside I wasn’t going to work for wages the rest of my life.” Dacia Knuckle
Fallout from the dot-com bust of 2000 helped to determine matters, and in 2004, when he was 29 years old, he and his wife, Pam, launched Mobsteel, a design-build company in Detroit that specializes in creating custom vehicles from the Motor City’s finest vintage cars. A favorite makeover subject is the long, low, lightly adorned fourth-generation Lincoln Continental designed by Elwood Engel and made from 1961 to 1969. The Mobsteel Continentals sit lower, seem longer, and generally exude a bad attitude in keeping with the company’s name.
“One of the things that we were told over and over again was, ‘Listen, you guys build cool cars, but this is never going to catch on — nobody cares about Lincoln,’” he says. “We had a lot of critics.” The way he saw it, though, Mobsteel was out in front with its concept. Each car got its own handle, and Heavy Hitter won the 2007 Ford Design Award at the Specialty Equipment Market Association show in Las Vegas — the first of many awards. Soon, Genei was guesting on TV shows, Mobsteel was building show cars for Big Three manufacturers, and a second brand called Detroit Steel Wheel Co. was launched with the knowledge that “if we wanted to grow something bigger and better, we had to manufacture it here.” The company operates in about 40,000 square feet in the Woodbridge neighborhood.
The tally of successes has continued to grow. There have been partnerships with corporations, speaking engagements, and TV shows such as Mobsteel on NBCSN and Detroit Steel on the History Channel. In 2016, Genei received an honorary doctorate from Cleary University, delivered the commencement address there, and took a seat on the institution’s board of directors. Yet he’s still coming up with concepts for “super-sick” Lincolns.
The latest — and perhaps the sickest — is Motorcity Vice, which will make its debut at the Woodward Dream Show presented by Comerica Bank, to be held on Aug. 19 at the M1 Concourse in Pontiac (see sidebar for details).
“Motorcity Vice is ’80s-style aesthetics,” says Brook Banham, an independent Detroit designer, artist, and teacher who often collaborates with Mobsteel. “It’s getting very popular now. The style is called by a few names, but one of them is ‘outrun.’” The aesthetic Banham is referring to gets its name from the 1986 arcade video game Out Run, with gridlines and lurid colors as integral features, but the term “synthwave” is synonymous. “The perfect analogy is the movie Tron, the first one, with those neon hot pinks and purple blues,” he says.
Genei says the car, a 1967 Continental coupe, combines art, fashion, and automotive all into one. It was already painted by the time Banham joined the effort within the last year. He concentrated on graphic elements for a customizable interior flavor. For example, the door panels near the armrests can be swapped out with replacements, depending on one’s mood.
“He left it open to me to create these patterns,” Banham says. “This will also translate to custom clothing.” He imagines a gangster couple emerging from the car wearing outfits that coordinate with the interior graphics. The Detroit Steel wheels also use the pattern. Banham is also creating a full-scale portrait of Motorcity Vice, in the spirit of artists Roy Lichtenstein and Shepard Fairey.
The Woodward Dream Show will celebrate the centennial of Ford’s acquisition of the Lincoln brand in 1922 for $8 million. One of the activities that day is Insiders’ Garage, a panel discussion with Genei, Kevin Byrd of the Two Guys Garage TV show and podcast, and Murray Pfaff of Royal Oak’s Pfaff Designs. Besides praising the merits of the fourth-generation Continental, Genei can be expected to propound his core message, saying, “We need to get back to this,” and “We need to get back to that.” Riding along with the synthwave of the 1980s was the practice of outsourcing manufacturing activities, which had an impoverishing effect as hundreds of parts-makers and machine shops closed.
“Wealth is created by taking raw material and turning it into something, adding value to it,” Genei says on his balmy afternoon off. As he points out, manufacturing has required a lot of sacrifice and is “not the wine-and-cheese side of things.” He calls Detroit Steel Wheel a 17-year overnight success. It required “a crazy amount of diligence and investment. We were broke when we launched it.” Supply problems have meant a continuous back-order status since 2013, but he says the problem is being fixed and the business can scale up.
Meanwhile, Genei is in the position to be as outrageous as he wants. “I can buy a $5,000 Ford LTD [from the late 1970s], put my own rims on it, and rock it most of the year, and it’s the coolest thing anybody’s ever seen.” It’s all about taking the car for what it was, he declares. “Mobsteel is a group of people celebrating that.”
Every summer, more than 1 million spectators gather along Woodward Avenue to behold the resplendent motorcade of 40,000 vintage automobiles, muscle cars, and other collector vehicles that is the Woodward Dream Cruise. Its route spans 16 miles, from Ferndale to Pontiac, making it the largest single-day classic car event in the world. Anyone with a classic car is welcome to participate on Saturday, Aug. 20, between 9 a.m. and 7 p.m. Smart Bus will provide free rides from all red Smart and Fast bus stops along Woodward during the event.
And more weekend auto events …
Performance Park Classic Car Show: No cost. Noon – 7 p.m. Memorial Park, 31050 Woodward Ave., Royal Oak; woodwarddreamcruise.com
Pontiac Classic Car Show: No cost. 11 a.m. – 10 p.m., Friday and Saturday. Pike Street and Saginaw Street, Pontiac; pontiaccruise.com
Woodward Dream Show: $50. 10 a.m. – 10 p.m. M1 Concourse, 1 Concourse Drive, Pontiac; m1concourse.com
Cruise in Shoes 5K Run & Walk: $35. 8 a.m. – 8 p.m. Yorba Linda Boulevard, Royal Oak; cruiseinshoes.com
Birmingham Cruise Classic Car Show: No cost. 9 a.m. – 5 p.m. Old Woodward Ave., Birmingham; allinbirmingham.com/visitors/cruiseevent
Ford Bronco Show: No cost. 10 a.m. – 6 p.m. Memorial Park, 24099 Woodward Ave., Pleasant Ridge; thebronconation.com
Woodward Dream Parade: No cost. 8 a.m. – 9 p.m. Woodward Avenue and Widetrack Drive, Pontiac; m1concourse.com
Jeep Caliper This story is from the August 2022 issue of Hour Detroit magazine. Read more in our digital edition.