Flaming River Industries

Street Rodder Shop Tour

Chris Shelton Aug 5, 2003 0 Comment(s)

Sometimes there's more to a name than meets the eye. We all know Flaming River as a street rod component manufacturer, but the lore of the flaming river predates Flaming River Industries by decades.

Berea, Ohio, Flaming River's home, shoulders the Cuyahoga River roughly 15 miles downstream of Cleveland. Interestingly enough, the Cuyahoga River attained international status for literally igniting due to the petrochemical pollutants floating atop its surface. It wasn't just once, either; those fires plagued Cleveland over a three-decade span, creating a public relations nightmare so intense that not even a popular television sitcom could scour Cleveland's, ahem...image.

While Cleveland would probably love to forget about the river that TIME magazine said "oozes rather than flows," Flaming River trademarked the moniker in 1988 to humorously capitalize on their proximity to one of the nation's most infamous ecological disasters. Talk about making the best of a situation! And here you probably thought Flaming River was just another catchy name. We'd also bet you thought Flaming River was just another catchy street rod company. Wrong again.

Unlike its sullied namesake, Flaming River forged a niche by solving problems. In 1987, Flaming River introduced two key components to their growth: a high-current battery-disconnect switch and a reproduction Ford Pinto rack-and-pinion.

About a year later, Flaming River acquired the failing Forged True brand and started manufacturing stainless engine valves under the name. Between 1988 and 1993, Flaming River turned its direction from original equipment manufacturing to distribution sales. Their target: high performance and street rod steering systems.

While attending trade shows and street rod events, Flaming River displayed their Mustang steering systems with a very prominent manufacturer's universal joints. "People would turn the rack-and-pinion by the joint and say, 'I didn't know you made U-joints,'" Flaming River's Vice President Ron Domin said. After a hearty rejection to sell the said supplier's components under the Flaming River name, Flaming River decided to ramp up for steering U-joint production. "We got into U-joints by customer request," Domin said.

That one event signaled a portent of things to come: marketing by request. "As we went to shows, people would come up and ask if we made a certain part. Each time someone asked about something, we'd mark our table for requests," Domin said. "Then, at the end, we'd count the requests and decide if we wanted to make that part. People will tell you what they need, we just listened."

By 1990, people started telling Flaming River they needed Mustang II-style power rack-and-pinions. About that time, "people started saying they needed Vega steering boxes," Domin said. Once again, they approached another high-end steering component manufacturer. After yet another hearty rejection, you know what Flaming River did...

By 1993, Flaming River started manufacturing Vega-style steering boxes, but instead of making just another copy, Flaming River improved upon the theme. "There's no reason to just remake something; we wanted to make it better," Domin said. So by 1994, Flaming River offered the box with either the standard-ratio 19:1 or fast-ratio 16:1 internal mechanism.

"We feel the industry grows by good competition," Domin said. By just a simple rejection, "people now have another choice," he said. The choices started to diversify into things like Dodge Omni-style rack-and-pinions for rear-steer applications.

The next few years saw several more offerings, including the '64-70 Mustang steering box, once again with the slow- or fast-ratio choice. During that time, Flaming River forayed into yet another steering-related field: steering columns.

"We started off by talking to core suppliers to come up with components to make steering columns," Domin said. "We quickly realized we wanted something better; old parts didn't make sense. So we "scrapped" that idea.

"So we had a concept: we wanted our columns all stainless steel, and there was no way to do it with used parts. We wanted something like a GM van column, but smaller and sleeker. So we approached the OEM community for their help," Domin said. That one move really changed Flaming River's approach. "Instead of using a ball-and-fork (tilt mechanism), we tooled up a modern OEM-style U-joint assembly. That let us design a smaller-diameter shroud (3.900-inch) instead of using an OEM-designed shroud (4.15-inch)."

They changed things yet further. "We ended up with a gearshift column with a lighted indicator housing like a van has. Then we made our tri-five column applications. And, since a '57 can't use a standard van column, we made our column to work with the '57 indicator in the dash."

Of course this nearly overshadowed Flaming River's accessory lineup, which included column drops, floor mounts, and related components. Those few moves possibly--even slightly--eclipsed Flaming River's next offering: the '63-82 Corvette steering box with, you guessed it, both slow and fast ratios (Flaming River even offers the internal components in kit form for Vette owners to rebuild their stock boxes.)

All that success still hasn't pulled Flaming River's ear from the ground. They've redesigned two sought-after items: the Corvair steering box and the Mopar A-body box. Fitting with their improvement ethos, the Corvair unit boasts a steel body with a larger thrust bearing and 20-percent larger internal components. Flaming River also offers the box standard or reversed in either slow or fast ratio. The Mopar box copies the OEM box verbatim, but it loads the goodies in an all-steel box, not the aluminum piece that's prone to breakage.

If you can imagine, that's quite a void to fill for 25 employees. As it is, Flaming River has packed every foot of their 20,000-square-foot facility, and they're in the expansion works as we speak. They've stoked a near Juggernaut, solving the car world's dilemmas, and if ever a phoenix rose from a river's fire ashes, Flaming River is it. So the next time you're perusing the wares at Flaming River's booth, give 'em a reason to need all that new space.

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Before we begin, let's introduce Flaming River's President/Owner, Jeanette Ladina. Ladina started with Flaming River in 1987 and quickly worked her way to the top. We caught Ladina and Ron Domin, who's been with Flaming River for some 11 years, going over the blueprints for the proposed 20,000-foot manufacturing/warehouse building.

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That fella behind Domin is Dave Brindle. Dave, who's a trained engineer, draws all the CAD items for Flaming River. That big box they're standing in front of is something many shops would love to get access to: Flaming River's blueprints. That box contains all the hard-file backups from their CAD designs.

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Visit Flaming River's on-the-road booth and you'll more than likely meet Denny Butcher. He works the shows along with Domin and Ladina. Afterward they make follow-up sales and tend to dealer shipments.

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Tech Advisor and Salesperson Barry Delaney brings many things to Flaming River, including some 25 years of automotive dealership service background. With our knowledge of dealership service, we're sure he's seen it all.

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As you can imagine, all this talent in one space needs some room. Flaming River allotted about 4,000 square feet for a dedicated seminar and sales area. Flaming River plans to use the room to accommodate some 40 people for dealer training and instruction. They also plan on accumulating about 15 more salespeople for the center.

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Even with their extensive dealer network, Flaming River still maintains a full 2,000-foot showroom. They've used the '70 Camaro in the foreground for product testing; it's a blown and tubbed car with a Vega-style steering box, an all-new column, and other components.

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Our visit just happened to coincide with a visit by Martin Ballester (president) and Pablo Lepore (engineer) of an OEM manufacturer that works closely with Flaming River to develop quality products. The duo advises technicians, such as John Jennings, on proper preload settings and other internal technical details.

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Aside from the manufacturer tutorials, Flaming River stocks some pretty high-tech tools, like this power steering analog testing machine. Flaming River's technicians can install their power steering racks on this machine and test for a number of things, including seal integrity.

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Better yet, they can literally program the machine to simulate road conditions and a customer's vehicle weight and test pump and rack combinations. That way they can test for road feel and input at many pump and simulated vehicle speeds, tuning as necessary. Very, very slick!

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Bill Carpeno programs Flaming River's CNC machines. He'll design a program and input it via his laptop. From there, he'll machine the part per specs and make necessary adjustments on the machine's CNC panel.

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After that, machinists like Brian Kehoe operate and supervise the CNC-operated machines, like this mill here.

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Eventually, components make it to machines like this swaging machine. This sort of precision swaging is necessary before the soldering process for a seamless transition between the column's cone and tube.

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Here's an often-overlooked fact: Flaming River manufactures their columns from all-new, completely stainless steel parts. That way, a production run can leave the door in a bare finish for paint or completely polished. It yields a very tough, corrosion-resistant part, and the reduced inventory certainly must keep costs down.

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Eventually, parts, like the ones on this U-joint board, receive their own blister pack and part number. They then make their way into stock...

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...or into a shipment. Jim Stanfield pulls orders in the packaging center to ship to shops by the thousands or to private builders by the piece.

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