Quality is a literal part of the SEMA mission statement and has always been implicit in everything the association does. Quality has also been inherent in the work and life of Raymond Bleiweis. From his numerous business ventures to his 56-year marriage, Bleiweis has been in it for the long haul, with a commitment to doing things right. Along the way, his contributions have added to the histories of some of the world’s most well-known automotive specialty-equipment companies.
Bleiweis graduated from DeWitt Clinton High School in the Bronx in New York City and attended City College of New York for two and a half years. Enlisting in the army at 18 with the outset of World War II, he attended officer candidate school and was commissioned a lieutenant. He became one of the few members of the military who served in both the European and Pacific theaters of the war, celebrating Victory in Europe Day in Antwerp, Belgium, and Victory in Japan Day in northern Luzon in the Philippines.
Bleiweis joined with his brother in a California plating company in 1952, where their primary business was re-chroming automobile bumpers. Bumper and Auto Plating operated five facilities around the United States and was eventually renamed Cal Chrome. Bleiweis left the company in 1957 to form Keystone Automotive, his own bumper-finishing enterprise in California’s San Fernando Valley and, eventually, nine other facilities around the country. Bleiweis got into the wheel business while at Keystone when a customer asked him to modify an original-equipment rim. At the customer’s request, Bleiweis cut the rim apart, plated it and then put it back together backward. Thus was born the first “chrome-reverse rim,” as well as one of the precursors to today’s massive custom-wheel business.
Keystone Automotive remains a formidable presence in the custom-wheel industry, but Bleiweis sold his shares in the company in 1965 to form Rocket Industries with his wife Claire. The company was named as a result of the burgeoning interest in missile technology at the time, and while Rocket branched into a wide range of product offerings over the years, the little-known phenomenon of custom wheels was the company’s mainstay early on.
“We were at a trade show in Columbus Circle in New York, and we were the only booth there showing wheels,” Bleiweis recalled. “We spent our time telling everybody what a chrome-reverse wheel was. Not too many people understood what we were doing.”
Still, the company took hold. In the late ’60s, Rocket Industries attended another trade show comprised of about 100 booths set up beneath the bleachers at Dodger Stadium in Los Angeles. That event evolved into the SEMA Show, and Bleiweis became one of the association’s early members.
Hurdles remained, however. Norris Industries, a major supplier of steel rims to the auto manufacturers, wouldn’t sell to aftermarket companies. On a fishing trip with the supplier’s purchasing agent and manager, Bleiweis managed to secure an agreement to buy Norris rims—but he had to buy 1,000 at a time. That fishing-trip agreement opened sales to the entire aftermarket, allowing the production of a wide variety of styled steel rims.
“We learned about wheels the hard way,” Bleiweis said. “Some of the ones we made were not quite right. We had to learn how to take the old wheels apart, strip and chrome-plate them and then put them back together with the bell side out, but we had all sorts of difficulties with alignment and so forth. Finally, we devised several pieces of equipment that checked the wheels.”
Those challenges led Bleiweis and others—including Arnie Kuhns and Mike Joyce—to seek quality standards by which wheels and, eventually, other products could be measured. Their efforts led to the formulation of recognized wheel specifications.
“We set up specs for steel wheels and then aluminum wheels,” Bleiweis said. “The people who were part of our wheel program had to comply with certain specifications for wheels utilizing load ratings and the test machines that we engineered. The program became well known all over the world, and I felt very good about it.”
The work of Bleiweis, Kuhns, Joyce and others led to the formation of SEMA Foundation Incorporated (SFI), which was primarily aimed at racing. Motorsports participants had to comply with the “SEMA specs” or be denied entry to sanctioned events. The program evolved into a separate entity, the SFI Foundation Inc., as a nonprofit that operates independently from SEMA and now provides specifications for everything from helmets and rollcages to clutches and driveshafts.
“Ray believed that the concept of self-generated industry standards was the only way to keep manufacturers from producing products that were not suited for the purpose intended,” said Kuhns, himself a 2002 inductee into the SEMA Hall of Fame. “Since 1982, the growth of SFI has been remarkable, but we might not have survived without Ray’s constant support and nightly phone calls.”
Raymond and Claire Bleiweis have three children, Mark, Brad and Laurie, as well as five grandchildren, and (as of 2008) Rocket Ray was still going into the office at the age of 84 even though he retired in 1995.
“I come in, but I don’t really work,” Bleiweis said. “I come in at 10:00 or 10:30 a.m., talk with friends like Billy Eordekian, who had a lot to do with my nomination to the Hall of Fame, and then go home early. There aren’t many people who were in World War II who are still around, but my doctor and I have an agreement. He’s going to keep me alive until I’m the last man standing.”
And that will undoubtedly be a quality venture all the way.