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.