SEWARD -- The owners of Code 504 readily admit that it's an odd name for their street rod business.

Law enforcement officers will recognize it immediately. Code 504 is police scanner talk for tampering with a vehicle.

Norm Thies, Chris Heater and his dad, Bob, decided Code 504 was a natural for their new venture at 2804 Twin Oaks Road, just off Nebraska 15 south of Seward.

The trio develops and sells S-10 conversion kits and street rod parts for hobbyists who want to convert classic Chevrolet, Ford or Dodge pickups into a super ride -- with better suspensions, bigger engines, smoother transmissions, disc brakes and power steering.

The S-10 is a compact pickup that was made by Chevrolet from 1982-2004. Millions are still on the road or parked in auto salvage yards. The three men, with some good-natured prodding from Norm's wife, Shirlene, came up with the idea of using the S-10 chassis as the platform for their conversion kits because there are so many still around.

"We knew S-10s were very popular and being used on the East and West Coasts for conversion kits," Chris Heater said. "We started thinking about how to make brackets, pieces and parts -- which were universal -- and bolt them onto chassis."

Over a year ago, longtime friends Norm and Chris began working on two prototype S-10 conversion kits, using a 1939 Dodge sedan and a 1951 Ford pickup at Norm's farm near Milford. The vehicles turned out well, but the men were not quite sure they had something that could be the foundation for a business.

Shirlene spied their work one day and thought otherwise. She knew they were onto something and told them: "Why don't you just sell this? This would sell!"

The two men sold Bob Heater on the idea, pooled their resources and searched for a suitable building. They found one in Seward with enough space for a showroom, research and development and shipping areas, and offices. They leased the former tire store and opened in January.

Code 504 offers conversion kits for the following pickups: 1947-54 Chevrolets, 1948-52 Fords and 1948-54 Dodges. Each kit contains brackets and parts for mounting the suspension, engine and body to an S-10 chassis. A basic kit sells for about $1,300.

Chris Heater said a person doesn't need to be an auto mechanic to use a conversion kit, which comes with 11-pages of easy-to-follow instructions and diagrams. The company also carries an assortment of street rod parts and accessories and can supply motors and transmissions.

"From start to finish we are able to supply all the parts and pieces," Chris Heater said, adding that one of their main goals is to make their products affordable for "guys who have a passion for building street rods."

All three men have extensive automotive backgrounds. Bob Heater, a sheet metal worker and longtime street rod enthusiast, has been a member of the National Street Rod Association since 1971.

Chris Heater credits his dad for giving him the street rod bug. He and five friends hung around Bob's garage when they were kids. Instead of chasing them away, his dad gave them helpful advice -- and sometimes money -- to pursue projects. Five of the six are still in the street rod industry.

"He's been a big influence in all of our lives," Chris Heater said.

Norm Thies, a former truck driver, has been working on muscle cars and trucks since he was a teen at Lincoln High School. That's where he learned the tool and die trade, which has served him well.

"He can look at something and say 'Oh, I can see how this could work,'" Shirlene Thies said.

Shirlene's cousin, Karen Roth of Milford, brought Chris to a family reunion, and that's how Heater and Norm met, recalled Shirlene.

"They started a conversation about cars and it was magic afterward," Shirlene said. They spent a good deal of time in Norm's garage talking about cars.

Chris grew up in a street rod family and worked as a tire changer and body man and fabricator in NASCAR's Winston Cup racing series. A former product manager for Speedway Motors in Lincoln, he doesn't see the company as competing with the auto parts giant.

"I don't think we ever intended ... to compete with anybody. Our focus was to build a small mom-and-pop shop and focus on what we're good at. We take a lot of pride in making all our parts in Seward," Chris Heater said.

Getting a business off the ground has been a challenge. Chris Heater's home in Beaver Crossing was severely damaged along with his shop and some vehicles in the May 11 tornado. He spends evenings and weekends working on the house.

Norm's step-daughter and son-in-law lost their Beaver Crossing home to the tornado. And Bob Heater's younger brother, Mike, died from injuries suffered in a fall.

Code 504, which has seven employees, works with companies in Seward and across the country to offer mostly "Made in the USA" parts for their conversion kits.

"You can get a lot of stuff made in the U.S. for the same cost to get it shipped from China," Chris Heater said.

In the seven months they've been in business, the company has shipped orders to 29 states and Canada and Australia. Three street rod shops in Georgia, Montana and Iowa sell their conversion kits.

Chris Heater said they frequently get calls to develop conversion kits for other models and are working to expand their product line. Unfortunately, they do not do custom work.

"Everything gets put into production," said Norm Thies, who is currently working on several new prototypes in the back shop.

They hope their company will spark an interest among young men and women and get them interested in street rods as a hobby.

"Younger guys don't get into it because of the cost," Chris Heater said.

They see their conversion kits as a way to make that happen because of their affordability. They also give advice on street rod projects. Code 504 plans to donate a conversion kit to Seward High School this fall.

Reach the writer at 402-473-7243 or alaukaitis@journalstar.com.

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