The Startup Story of Borla Performance Is Pretty Insane!
To the younger generations, Borla Performance Industries is known for pure American muscle exhaust systems, but it wasn’t always that way. Wildly enough, Rolls-Royces and Porsches are a major reason why the aftermarket specialists are where they are today. Learn the history of one of the most important and influential car parts companies in the country.
As told to me by David Borla.
1946: Alex Borla, founder/owner/CEO of Borla Performance Industries, is born
“My father is from Transylvania, now part of Romania. He, his mother, and his grandfather were all born in the same house in the same bed in three different countries, because the borders kept changing. He didn’t have electricity in the house growing up, there was an outhouse in the back, his parents both survived World War II and ended up in concentration camps. Everybody older than that was dead. So it was just him and his parents. They didn’t have any other kids.”
Late 1950s: Borlas face political unrest at home
“More political things started going on, so they decided to get out of there. They tried to find places as refugees. They went to Austria first, got thrown out of there, then France, and eventually wound up in the U.S. They settled in New York City in Queens. I was born in Flushing.”
1960: Fourteen-year-old Alex needs a job
“He had no money, didn’t speak the language, his father was a dentist in Romania, but couldn’t practice here, so he had to find a job. He had a little bit of experience wrenching on bicycles in Romania at the blacksmith shop. He just kind of volunteered his time as a kid at the blacksmith shop and got interested in it. He took to it early on.
“So there was a German guy in the neighborhood who had a little Volkswagen shop, and he hired my dad literally to start with sweeping the floors and learn how to wrench on air-cooled VWs, which is really a great place to start. “Anybody who wants to get into wrenching on cars, I recommend starting with an old VW. So he kind of became proficient on Volkswagens. The guy he was working for was only able to offer him so much and kind of encouraged him to move on, so he ended up at the local VW dealership, which, at the time, had Porsches, too.
Mid-1960s: Alex expands his knowledge
“The parts departments and mechanics were working on all cars [at the dealership], so he started working on Porsches. He kind of became a Porsche guy and learned a bit about Porsche stuff, and somewhere in there, he ended up developing a relationship with the Porsche factory. He even did some testing with them as a driver.”
Early 1970s: Alex becomes his own boss
“He worked his way up in the dealerships and learned the business. He became friends with a guy named Rocky Aoki, who is actually Steve Aoki’s and Devon Aoki’s father. That’s the guy who started Benihana restaurants, and they got into opening exotic car dealerships on Long Island. Somehow, they got into the Rolls-Royce side of things. I don’t know if it was deliberate, or if a lot of guys just owned Rolls-Royces, but he learned a lot about Rolls-Royce and they were selling a lot of parts.
Early- to mid-1970s: Alex pinpoints a niche
“Something happened with Rocky, and my father went out on his own and started a parts business. He focused on European cars because that’s what he knew, and then eventually he focused on Rolls-Royce specifically. He’s always been good about finding those places where there’s a need. And there was a big need for Rolls-Royce parts in the northeast because the cars were all steel on the undercarriage. They salt the roads, and it’s just terrible for the cars.
“The foundation for this company is really durability. Yes, we’re known for power and kind of got into that lane, but the real impetus of this company is to build parts that are made to last. He saw how difficult it was after every winter to have to change out the whole undercarriage. Fast forward to today and there are places like Canada where we’re the only exhaust because we’re the only ones who can handle the elements.
1978: Alex becomes self-reliant, begins manufacturing and trademarks Borla
“So my dad had a bunch of customers waiting on exhaust systems. He had suppliers from England because Rolls-Royces are English cars, but the supplier dried up. It was not the age of the internet when you could just hop on Google and find somebody else. My dad didn’t want to lose the sale of these exhaust systems, and couldn’t find somebody to supply them, so he just decided to make them himself. He built our first pipe bender out of a gasoline engine. It was literally him in the one-bay area of the building that was being transitioned from a parts place to a manufacturing place, and my mom in the loft upstairs doing the accounting and building the brand. My dad had the product vision and my mom built the brand.”
Late 1970s, early 1980s: Alex creates a new standard for exhaust systems
“The first products used crush bends, it was a very crude exhaust system. But he immediately thought, instead of replacement, let’s improve it, not, ‘OK, that rusted out, let’s put another on. Why not put one on that’s not going to rust anymore?’ So he took a material that had been developed for the culinary industry, stainless steel, and applied it to automotive. And at the time, there was only one grade of stainless steel. What we now call aerospace-grade material, was, at the time, for the culinary industry. And the reason why is that you need to be able to put a spoon into your dishwasher over and over and over again without it ever rusting.
“The other thought he had was, ‘Let’s supply a complete bolt-on exhaust system that’s going to fit for these models.’ So he took the stainless steel, which had a lifetime warranty, and the bolt-on idea and built around that.
“So it was durability, it was performance, it was fitment. That’s still the business model. Those are the cornerstones of the business. He was the only one to do it. There were companies that sold mufflers, there were companies that sold complete exhaust systems, but they weren’t made of stainless steel or they didn’t have a performance muffler. He’s the one who put all of these together. He was the first one to have that vision. Last time we looked, there were more than 200 companies that had adopted that business model.
“This was when it went from Rolls-Royce part supplier to trademarking Borla exhaust and having a catalogue. The very first Borla catalogue is all Rolls-Royce parts. He kind of became known as the Rolls-Royce exhaust guy. And anybody in the Northeast was sending their Rolls-Royces down to him. If he had worked on one particular year or model, he was building fixtures in a way that it could be reproduced. It was never ‘I’m just going to be a custom exhaust guy.’ He really had a vision of what we know as the aftermarket now.”
Early 1980s: Borla outgrows its home
“Growing up in Brooklyn was not like it is now. It was really rough. With a one-bay shop, with Rolls-Royces in there, he was getting into fist fights. He’s a gnarly dude. He’d be wearing a suit dealing with a guy with a Rolls-Royce, and having to protect his turf at the same time. But he’s one of those guys who quickly endeared himself to the other guys on the block, so pretty soon the kids on the block were looking out for the place.
“Anybody who owned a Rolls-Royce, it wasn’t their only car. So the wife owns a BMW or Benz or Jaguar or whatever, so pretty soon, he was developing a catalog. So when the wife had a Jaguar and brought that in, he would build a fixture and whatever he needed to reproduce it.
“It was one of those deals where the company grew and grew and we needed a new building. We could have either stayed in New York or move to California, where my mom is from.”
1982 – Borla Performance moves to Oxnard, California and shifts focus
“All of a sudden we were in California. Cars are a little different here. Early ’80s, what do you think happened? Word got out that he could build some good stuff, and a lot of guys with Porsches and Ferraris started noticing us. What I remember were drug dealers and Hollywood guys from L.A. Sylvester Stallone drove his Porsche out here himself to have my dad put an exhaust on it. It was that whole vibe.
“That’s where the demand was. You talk to different people through history and they know us as something different. Anybody under 30, we are American cars and trucks. Guys in their 40s, 50s, 60s remember us as being Porsche specialists. At the end of the day, the cars don’t know what they are. It’s internal combustion and physics and that’s what really matters.
Mid- to late 1980s: The Big Three get wind of Borla
“The company grew and grew and grew, and we started having some money to promote and advertise, and started doing little ads in the back of automotive magazines. That’s when the OEs started to notice us. General Motors and Ford and Chrysler were sort of sniffing around us. They were including us on some special builds. That got the attention of some of the American car culture, and we were off to the races.
1991: Borla moves into today’s building
“We originally built this building with somebody else as a real estate venture. That person had their own business and was running it out of here, and my dad was collecting half the rent. They left and so we took the building over. We originally used that space as a warehouse and rented out the offices.
[It is now the main headquarters and development facility]
“We have our design facility here because we have a lot invested in the guys who develop our product. All of our R&D is done here.”
2008: Borla buys 330,000-square-foot building on 10 acres near Johnson City, Tennessee
The economy started hurting and we knew we were at a point where we either had to sell the business or double down. We talked about it for a long time and made a decision that we were going to improve the company and grow and try to find a facility where we could really spread our wings, and that’s how we found Tennessee.
2016: Company loyalty remains strong
“The very first employee who he hired is still working for us. She followed us to California where she met her husband working for us. It’s just a family thing. My dad looks out for the people working for us.”