Written by Ainsley Jacobs
Photography courtesy of the manufacturer
The entrepreneurial spirit is often inherited, and John McLeod III was on the path to business ownership generations before he took action to lead aftermarket gauge manufacturer Classic Instruments.
His grandfather, John McLeod, owned a Detroit-based pattern-making company that supplied wooden patterns mainly for Ford and Chrysler. “Eventually, that era started to fade away and my father, John McLeod II, saw the writing on the wall,” explained McLeod, whose father wound up moving to Northern Michigan and always had an affinity for cars. “When I graduated high school myself, I went to Chrysler tech school, street raced and some stuff, raced mud trucks, and decided to do it for a living.”
McLeod soon realized he didn’t like working for dealerships, though, and went back to college. He ultimately followed in his other grandfather’s footsteps and joined the police force. During that time, he met his wife, Josette, and eventually got bored having his days free (as he worked the night shift) so he partnered with a local manufacturing business owner to start a hot rod shop.
“It was mainly for his own cars at first, but eventually we started a business working on other builds,” McLeod shared of the venture that became known as Great Lakes Motor Works and eventually grew to sustain a team of 17 employees. “We built high-end cars and were the first company to win the Amelia Island Concours d’Elegance with a post-war car, among many other accolades.”
During his time at GLMW, McLeod used Classic Instruments parts and was familiar with the company, which was founded itself by Frank Hettick in 1977 in Oregon. Classic Instruments was ahead of its time in the development and manufacturing of automotive gauges. The company unveiled its first electric adjustable speedometer including an odometer in 1980 with the industry’s first electronic programmable speedometer coming in 1987. Classic’s product line grew throughout the ‘80s and ‘90s thanks to expanded applications as well as innovative ideas such as 24-carat gold-plated bezels and customizable design options.
Meanwhile, McLeod had resigned from the police force and his partner at Great Lakes wanted to retire. Fate intervened, and he purchased Classic Instruments from Frank and Shirley Hettick in 2001. “We moved it to Boyne City, Michigan, in just one weekend in a two-car trailer, set up in Great Lakes’ shop, and were answering phones by Monday morning,” McLeod remembered fondly of the transition. “We sold products during the day and would build everything during the night.”
Under McLeod’s guidance, the company flourished. It was named one of Inc. 500’s top 5,000 growing companies in the United States in both 2006 and 2007 and also received a host of other awards from organizations such as SEMA, ARMO, Goodguys, and more. “Today we have 28 employees and the business continues to grow because we hire really smart people,” said McLeod, who received the prestigious SEMA Hot Rod Industry Alliance Industry Recognition Award in 2019 and has learned a ton from his friend and mentor, Tom Gale. “We officially closed Great Lakes in 2015 to focus solely on Classic.”
Service is also key at Classic, which focuses on building quality parts in the USA and listening to its customers. Many of the company’s parts, in fact, are developed thanks to input from drivers and racers. For example, when three-time NHRA Pro Stock champion Jason Line needed a water-temperature gauge that was lower than others available on the market, Classic stepped in and produced one. Additional racing-inspired innovations, such as the ability to integrate with dataloggers due to more strategically designed wiring and the need to only use one sending unit, as well as gauges that can be programmed to glow red as a warning function, and the use of military-grade air-core movements instead of stepper motors, are just some of the few things that set Classic Industries apart.
For McLeod, who has an active racing history of his own, it’s all about supporting the everyday hot rodder and grassroots-level racer. “We like to pay it forward and sponsor a lot of local circle track stuff. I love being able to help young kids, and we put on a fundraiser open house event every year where proceeds go to benefit our local police department,” added McLeod, whose company also offers contingency payouts to NMCA racers and is a supporter of the series.