All Ahmad Ali wanted was a Chevrolet Corvette souped up to have enough horsepower to defibrillate God. To realize this dream, the Qatari went to one of the most famous names in the car tuning business: John Hennessey. But three years later, he is still fighting Hennessey Performance Engineering for more than $70,000 of a refund for a car he said he never got. And numerous ex-HPE employees told Jalopnik that Ali wasn’t alone—that the man and his famed tuning company are engaging in a litany of deceptive business practices.
In conversations with six ex-HPE employees, each and every person repeated a number of issues over the past couple of years. And in an emailed statement to Jalopnik, John Hennessey himself conceded “management issues” with the company as of late.
The ex-employees’ corroborating accusations included misusing company funds, using one customer’s deposit to build another one’s car, passing off subpar parts and components as exclusive and top-of-the-line equipment, using underhanded tactics designed to prevent clients from getting refunds, and consistently failing to deliver certain customers’ cars—especially when they were foreign buyers.
The ex-employees said they were distressed by these practices and concerned with what might happen to the company if they continued.
“At some point, all of us have looked John in the eye and told him they want him to be the person Facebook thinks he is,” said one former HPE employee, who requested to stay anonymous out of fear of legal reprisal.
When confronted with detailed specifics of these allegations via email, Hennessey did not address them, but instead sent this statement:
Hennessey Performance (HPE) has always had a high standard of excellence and meeting the expectation of our clients. Recently, HPE experienced disruptions in its operations due to management issues. HPE has implemented a change in its management and operational structure which it believes addresses and corrects the disruptions.
HPE is aware of some of the issues raised and has been in direct communications with its clients to address and resolve any issues that arose prior to the management and operational restructuring. HPE believes that it is well on the way to resolving past issues and providing the level of service and performance rightfully expected by HPE clients.
Facebook, the internet and the rest of the car world know Hennessey Performance Engineering as a car tuning giant, a company that makes fast cars go faster.
The shop in Sealy, Texas between Austin and Houston pumped obscene levels of power into Dodge Vipers, Chevrolet Camaros, Corvettes and more, and even built what is technically the fastest production car in the world: the Venom GT. They claim to build more than 400 cars a year.
But for a long time, Hennessey has been dogged by claims that he’s not trustworthy, that his tuning business isn’t on the up and up. Even when Hennessey, his company and his cars were tested and covered in an overwhelmingly positive light by many outlets—including this one— readers would chime in to express distrust of the man and his company, citing past events, his claims in various forums, and so on.
Much of Hennessey’s negative reputation comes from disputes with burned customers that occurred in the late 1990s and early 2000s, disputes that Hennessey himself has copped to. But in recent years there never really seemed to be all that much to go on to substantiate these rumors, and many of these remarks seemed to relay stories second (or more) hand.
Then Jalopnik got a desperate email from Ali in Qatar.
According to emails provided to Jalopnik, Ali made a down payment of $75,000 to HPE in March of 2013. That included the cost of the recently-debuted C7 Chevrolet Corvette, and the ambitious tuning plans to make it go even faster.
But HPE told him there were delays from Chevrolet in purchasing the donor Corvette, and advised him to wait until 2014 when the 2015 model year of the car would be released.
Ali agreed, but when the 2015 Corvettes were released, no car was purchased by HPE, as documented in the email chain. Ali requested a full refund of his $75,000 down payment, not because he wanted to back out of the deal entirely, but because he wanted to speed the process up by buying his own donor Corvette in Qatar and shipping it to the U.S. for tuning at HPE.
Ali’s purchase of the Corvette hinged on the $75,000 refund. But since he never received the money, he says was forced to back out of buying the car, losing his $5,000 deposit on it as well.
Hennessey repeatedly told Ali in emails that the refund was on the way, most recently in an email dated April 25, 2016, where Hennessey himself wrote “We are making arrangements to send you your refund.” Hennessey then emailed Ali on April 3 saying “We will be sending you a wire payment this week.” He requested Ali’s bank account and routing number. But the refund never happened, at least not in full.
Ali told Jalopnik he received $4,972 from HPE on May 25, but the timing of this refund coincides with when Hennessey knew we were looking into it for a story. It’s also a very far cry from the full $75,000 refund Ali is seeking.
But ex-employees say a failure to deliver cars ordered by foreign clients was by no means unheard of; there were at minimum five cases of this happening. I learned this, and a great deal more, because a high-ranking former employee of HPE gave me a call.
The ex-HPE employee got ahold of me through a mutual Facebook friend, and his motivation for reaching out was his stated desire to “do the right thing.”
This ex-employee and the five other people I spoke with have all been confirmed to have been part of HPE, and have requested anonymity out of fears of legal reprisals from Hennessey and because they wish to keep working in the car modification business, and they feel that their past associations with the company and its actions would harm their future careers.
When that first ex-Hennessey employee contacted me, he was familiar with Ali’s plight and a number of other foreign clients in essentially the same position. He personally knows of five times this has happened, and they included buyers from the UAE, South Korea and other countries.
According to him, “I was personally involved with at least five foreign clients where they never got their cars, and I wasn’t one of the most aggressive sales people for these deals. This was between 2013 and up to last year.”
While working for Hennessey, he told me that he found himself lying to customers over and over again; he said he slowly realized that he just couldn’t do it anymore. He’s a gearhead, a man who claims he got into the business because he simply loved cars, and could no longer rationalize what he was doing. He spoke to me at great length, talking rapidly, almost cathartically, as he categorized the excesses and wrongdoing he saw while at HPE.
He also provided me with an extensive list of other ex-Hennessey employees. Here is what they alleged:
- Money from foreign clients was used to fund other projects and/or builds, or sometimes was used by Hennessey personally, according to a subset of employees, as some of the more rank-and-file employees said they really had no idea where money went. Sources differed on the opinion as to whether taking deposits from overseas clients and not delivering cars were actual, intentional acts, or just the result of mismanagement.
- Clients’ cars would sit in the shop for months or longer with little or no work being done on them. The time the cars would be sitting would usually be measured in months, and occasionally a year or more. When the clients would eventually call and complain, they’d be put off or ignored until they threatened to demand refunds.
- At that point, the practice was that the car’s drivetrain would be removed, so HPE could send pictures to the clients to both ‘prove’ that work was being done, and so that the cars would be much more difficult for the client to take back.
- The only cars that were routinely actually completed were cars that were owned by VIPs, personal friends of Hennessey, or local clients who could actually come in person to the shop and check on how their cars were progressing. According to a subset of ex-employees that knew more about the financial side of the company, the costs for the builds for these cars were paid for by other clients’ deposits.
- Even when cars were actually built, the quality was not as advertised. An ex-employee who actually did the work on the cars told me that off-the shelf parts were often used, “with the Hennessey name slapped on them.” Cars are not individually dyno tested to confirm their power; copies of dyno sheets are used, and some employees suggested that dyno sheets were faked.
One employee told me that “John puts his name on stuff that’s not special,” meaning parts, and told me that “many upgrades used lesser stuff, but people paid top dollar, because these rich people would never know we put shit on their cars.”
Another technician told me that he “just did the work and got a check,” and that “everything [he] did was legit,” but then went on to say “as far as the customer being a rich dumbass and not knowing…”
He ended the sentence there, implying many clients may not have known exactly what was done to their cars.
Another employee told me Hennessey “only came in every 10 days or so,” and the situation left the company struggling to sometimes literally keep the lights on—and drew the ire of a number of parts suppliers.
And yet, things always seem larger than life on YouTube and Facebook. I was told by ex-colleagues that “John had to be a rock star,” and that, after some painful reflection, one ex-Hennessey worker told me he thought that the situation was bad enough that there would be “no redemption at this point.”
There was a period where things did seem more hopeful, when Hennessey was partnered with former company CEO Don Goldman.
Goldman was repeatedly described by the ex-employees as being someone who cared and who was willing to turn the company around. One source described how Goldman would sometimes pay for parts out of his own pocket to get a client’s car completed. Goldman is no longer with the company as of late last year, or early this year.
Goldman could not be reached for comment for this story. According to people familiar with the situation who spoke with Jalopnik, he and Hennessey are currently engaged in a lawsuit in mediation.
A copy of that lawsuit could not be located through a search of Texas and California court records, and Hennessey himself did not provide us with a copy of the suit despite saying he would. Hennessey blamed his lawyer being “tied up in litigation.”
This is not the first time that people have raised questions about the way Hennessey operates—just the first time in a long time.
Hennessey got his start in the early 1990s driving a tuned up Mitsubishi 3000GT VR4 in various motorsport events like the Pikes Peak International Hill Climb and speed runs at the Bonneville Salt Flats. He parlayed success there into racing and tuning the Dodge Viper, at the time a new and terrifyingly fast machine, for famous customers like Jay Leno and longtime auto executive Bob Lutz. Over the years HPE and its cars have been on the cover of nearly every major auto magazine.
But not all was well behind the scenes. As Autoweek now famously reported in 2002, Hennessey was repeatedly sued and hounded by disgruntled customers over shoddy work, cars that never got delivered, lackluster parts, being slow to offer refunds, and not sending all the parts promised to customers.
From the story:
“If you were out of state, man you were fair game,” said Kyle Kent, a former employee at Hennessey Motorsports. When an out-of-state car came in it was sometimes parted out, with the wheels, tires and whatever else looked good going to other cars waiting to be finished or sold outright, according to Kent and others inside Hennessey Motorsports. Then Hennessey would call the car’s owner and try to sell him an upgraded kit. If the customer balked, Hennessey would take parts from other cars in the shop, or just let the job sit.
At the time Hennessey shrugged off the accusations and lawsuits, saying the vast majority of his 3000-odd customers were satisfied. Today, Hennessey has claimed these issues happened early in his tuning career, back when it was a quickly growing operation but before he got the business side of things sorted out.
“From ’98 through ’01, we sold more than we could deliver and people got pissed,” Hennessey said in an episode of The Smoking Tire podcast in 2012. “I got a beatdown. I needed a beatdown... I went a couple years of overselling and over-promising what I couldn’t deliver. I take responsibility. At that time I wasn’t running my business right.”
Slowly, Hennessey said, the operation turned around and started making money again as the company paid what it owned. But the internet’s memory can be long, and even today Hennessey is derided as a “crook” in comments sections and forums everywhere.
Despite all of that the last decade has seen undeniable success for Hennessey. The company is famous for its slick social media presence and YouTube videos of cars drag racing to incredible speeds, as well as the 270 mph, $1.2 million Venom GT, claimed to be the fastest car in the world. One of the company’s souped-up pickup trucks was even featured on an episode of Top Gear, the massively-watched British car TV show.
These days Hennessey’s Sealy facility includes a 1/4-mile drag strip, though it was recently offered up for sale. At the time, Hennessey told Jalopnik the goal was to reinvest funds from the sale of the track into the business itself.
Also on site is the Hennessey Tuning School. That came under fire last year after a Reddit user who said he was attending the school on the GI Bill called it “a ripoff” where the cars they worked on were “pieces of shit” and students did little in the way of wrenching.
Hennessey claimed the student was drunk at the time, something the student later denied.
At times, our interactions with Hennessey were as surprising as the allegations made against him by his former staff.
During the course of my investigation, one of the people I contacted was a current Hennessey employee. Nearly a month after that initial contact, our editor-in-chief, Patrick George, was sent an email from Hennessey with a screenshot of the text I sent the employee, stating that I was researching an article about Hennessey, and would he mind speaking with me. Along with the screenshot was a cryptic subject line: “Thanks.”
A few hours after Patrick received the email from Hennessey, confirming that he was aware we were working on a story, I received a text from Vinny Russo, another former Hennessey employee.
I had never met or contacted Russo before, and asked how he got my phone number, and how he knew I was working on some kind of story about Hennessey. He replied:
“We have too many mutual friends, in too small of an industry filled with people that have too big of a mouth and want to be famous! Hahaha”
This struck me as odd, since every ex-HPE employee I spoke with requested anonymity, a major barrier for someone who may “want to be famous.” (I also found the timing and circumstances of Russo’s call to me to be quite suspicious. I got Russo’s call hours after Hennessey confirmed that he both knew we were working on a story about him, and that he had my phone number.)
In speaking with Russo, I found him to be John Hennessey’s greatest advocate of anyone I spoke with so far. While Russo admitted that Hennessey is not perfect, he made it clear that he felt he was a “stand up guy,” and that “he wouldn’t be around doing this for 25 years if he was doing business that badly,” and that he “can’t be all bad and have that much success.”
Russo also placed the blame for both Hennessey’s financial issues squarely on the shoulders of Don Goldman, Hennessey’s ex-partner, who was CEO of Hennessey and was part of the company’s now defunct Southern California branch.
The reference to the “change in its management and operation structure” in the statement from John Hennessey seems like a veiled critique of Goldman.
Russo’s characterization of Goldman was completely at odds with the statements given by every other ex-Hennessey employee I spoke with during the course of this investigation. (Again, Goldman could not be located for comment, nor could this apparent lawsuit between them.)
It’s also at odds with what Hennessey said about Goldman in that 2012 podcast, where he called Goldman one of the people who ran the day-to-day operations and “(made) sure the cars get delivered, the bills get paid, the taxes get paid.”
Russo’s picture of Hennessey is of a hardworking man, a “devout Christian” who never wanted to incur debt and is currently working very hard to make things right. “I guarantee he’s going to work it out,” Russo told me with confidence.
In some ways, the saddest part of all of this—aside from customers allegedly getting ripped off—is that it really does seem that everyone involved in the company just wanted to build awesome cars, the kind that got the world’s attention.
This came up in nearly every conversation I had with ex-employees, and it was one of the few things stated almost unanimously by the people I spoke with: they just wanted to build fast, badass cars. And they felt they could have.
A badass car was all Ahmad Ali wanted too, and he was able to pay for it. Now, he’s given up on ever driving a Hennessey Corvette, and all he wants is his money back.
Additional reporting by Patrick George and Matt Hardigree