Hot Rod Queen
The widow of famed hot rod designer Boyd Coddington has persevered through significant losses.
For Jo Coddington, the mechanical masterpieces in the La Habra hot rod shop represent memories.
The widow of famed hot rod designer Boyd Coddington surveys the Coddington-brand name creations at Poor Boys Hot Rods in La Habra. These include: The Lizard King, a shiny metallic green 1960 Mercury station wagon recognizable from the reality show "American Hot Rod" and the Boydster II, a semi-famous spinoff of a 1932 Ford roadster.
Boyd Coddington died Feb. 27 at age 63. He left behind 10 partially built cars, dozens of designs and renderings of future cars, a hot rod consignment business and a custom wheel shop. And no will.
Since Boyd's death, Jo, 51, has trudged through a litany of challenges, trying to keep her husband's legacy – and her purpose – alive.
Her vision was to stay involved in hot rods. "It was something we were going to do forever," says Jo. Now, she's not sure how.
Jo grew up in Paradise, Arizona, the youngest of two girls. Her father owned a gas station and later auto repair shop. As a hobby, he refurbished cars. The old man's vehicles were primitive versions of hot rods.
But if Daddy was a car guy, Jo naturally grew up a car girl.
At about age 6 Jo started racing, first go-carts, then motorcycles and sand rails. She raced anytime, anywhere. And she kept racing into her 20's.
Jo was always hanging with the "hot rodders", during a time, she says, when "nice girls weren't supposed to hang out with hot rodders."
She got married to Thomas McGee at age 18, had two sons, Thomas and Robert, and divorced. Eventually, she moved to Orange County.
Jo then married again. Her second husband, Gary Callahan, had been in a head-on collision prior to their marriage. Though he was never diagnosed as neurologically impaired, Jo suspects he may have suffered brain damage. He also kept a gambling habit secret from Jo. On Jan. 11, 1996, Callahan was visiting Jo's father in Arizona and talking on the phone to Jo, back home.
"He said he was going to kill himself," Jo recalls. "He said, 'I'm done … it is over. I can't go on.'" Then she heard a gun shot.
Jo slumped into depression, blaming herself for Callahan's death. She had nightmares for years after the experience, waking up in the middle of the night to the sound of gunshots in her dreams. "I lost myself."
Life with Boyd
In August, 1997, a friend introduced Jo to Boyd Coddington at Hot August Nights, an annual hot rod festival in Reno, Nevada.
Coddington had a huge reputation in the hot rod world and was a member of the Hot Rod Hall of Fame.
He pursued the one time car girl. She resisted for more than a year before, in November 1998, agreeing to a lunch date. It lasted four hours. "We became fast friends," she says. But, she adds, they were friends bonded by loss.
In early 1998, Coddington's company, Boyd's Wheels, filed for bankruptcy. Investors lost millions. Coddington forced to resign as chief executive. He even lost the right to use his own name.
"It was two people trying to get through something that stunned their entire life," Jo says of their romance. "It was a very, very slow process."
Jo teamed up with Boyd – romantically and professionally – as he began rebuilding his business and his reputation. He started a wheel company in the late 1990's, opened a shop in Anaheim and eventually moved it to La Habra.
Jo and Boyd married on Aug.28, 2002. Good fortune came when the Codington’s were approached about staring in a reality show about hot rod building.
"When we first started the TV show, we knew were going to live in a fish bowl. But Boyd thought there would be more plusses to it then negatives," Jo said.
"He wanted to be able to make a difference in the industry. He would tell his guys we are making history."
The show, "American Hot Rod" aired on the Discovery Channel from 2004 to 2007 and the Coddingtons gained celebrity status transcending beyond the hot rod world.
They were recognized in public. They signed autographs. They were invited to start two races at the Texas Motor Speedway. They were tail hooked and catapulted off the aircraft carrier, U.S.S. Nimitz and Jo flew in the cockpit with the U.S Thunderbirds.
They rode in the Goodyear Blimp.
"I would say it was privileged times," Jo said. "There were so many opportunities we were able to have. For all the worrisome and troublesome times, there were much more highlights and highpoints."
After the show went off the air, Boyd was talking to representatives of the Speed Channel about doing a more instructional show than the soap-opera like theme of American Hot Rod.
Then, Christmas 2007, Boyd fell on the steps inside his home. He went to the hospital and got some pain meds. Over the next few days, Boyd became more tired and lethargic, a result of the medication, Jo thought. On New Year's Eve, he went back to the hospital. Jo thought she'd have her husband right back home. But Boyd never left.
Just like Boyd, who could turn a car into a creation, Jo herself craves renovation. "I have to re-invent who Jo Coddington is and what Jo Coddington looks like,"
The hot rod business remains a possible avenue. She kept Boyd's business going for a few months after his death and completed four hot rods for customers. But, soon, a lousy economy and a gaping hole in the staff – no designer – caught up with her.
"I don't know how many people would want a Boyd Coddington shop without Boyd Coddington," Jo says.
"There was barely enough coming in to pay bills and employees but no profit," Jo said. "Emotionally, physically, I had become an absolute mess. It was horrible. It was like a nightmare I kept hoping someone would wake me up from."
Today, most of Boyd Coddington's business ventures have either been disbanded or turned over to others. "Its heart wrenching," she said of having to give up the hot rod building enterprise. "It's like getting a divorce."
Jo's only connection to the industry was selling custom wheels. Then Boyd’s eldest son began making wheels, with the old wheel shop employees she had no choice but to turn the wheel business over.
Because there is no will, Jo expects much legal wrangling before Boyd's assets and debts are sorted out.
She hopes to stay close to her own passion – the hot rod industry – but has no idea how. "I wish I had a crystal ball and could tell you what it will be.
"I firmly believe that if the choices I make are from my heart, they will be the best choice that I can possibly make, even at this rough time in my life."