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Special Report: Custom Fabricating

Full throttle

By Lynn Stanley

Suspension specialist defies the odds, uses fortitude, know-how and technology to modify trucks to ride high or low

April 2020 - In his first letter to the Corinthians, the Apostle Paul said, “I discipline my body and make it my slave.”

For Scott Bisi, owner of Cougar House Garage, the statement is an apt description of his daily routine, which begins at 9 a.m. with an hour-long massage by a therapist to unlock stiff, cramping muscles in his neck, shoulders, arms and legs. Willing his body to move, the suspension specialist then tackles routine tasks like breakfast before heading into the garage.

Bisi was 14 years old when he was diagnosed with Duchenne muscular dystrophy (DMD). The rare genetic disease prevents the production of dystrophin, a protein the body’s muscles need to function properly. The chronic condition is irreversible and progressive.

As tough as the metal he fabricates, the 32-year-old continues to defy the odds. “Being disabled is not in my personality,” he says. “That’s not my way.”

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From computer design and plasma cut parts to Cougar House Fab 4-link parts assembly and installation, Cougar House Garage is a full-service suspension shop.

Beginnings

Bisi grew up on automotive restoration and modification TV shows like Monster Garage, Overhaulin’ and Orange County Choppers. “I’ve always been mechanically inclined,” he says, recalling that he took the vacuum cleaner apart and put it back together again at age 5. In grade school, Bisi built and operated radio-controlled cars at a nearby hobby racetrack. His interests grew to include dirt bikes and quad bikes. As a high school student, he bought his first Toyota truck and taught himself to restructure the vehicle by installing a lift kit, a process that became a passion. During his junior and senior years, he studied automotive technology at New Market Business Academy. “When I graduated from high school in 2007, I also graduated from college,” he says.

In 2012, Bisi opened Cougar House Garage on property purchased by his mother, Jami. In addition to a house and barn, the real estate included a garage that Bisi turned into a 40-ft. by 60-ft., three-bay auto shop. He continued to hone his skills with work on custom solid-axle swaps for a variety of Toyota trucks and 4Runners. He also took on a personal project that he calls Sacrilege.

“I stripped a 2010 Ford F-350 Super-Duty truck down to its frame, added a Chevrolet independent front suspension, a Cummins 5.9 liter, 24-valve engine from a 1998 Dodge truck and 24-in. Alcoa aluminum wheels from a semitruck.” A work in progress, Sacrilege is a testament to Bisi’s fabrication expertise and sense of humor.

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“I wanted a vehicle that contained components from all three [American] car brands,” he says. “It’s a nod to the ongoing feud between Ford lovers and Chevy purists.”

A frequent contributor to online technical forums, Bisi decided to chronicle the vehicle’s transformation on YouTube at the suggestion of his IT technician, Levi Woods.

“What I like about YouTube is the ability to share with others what we do at Cougar House Garage and how someone can change their own truck if they want to install a 4-link lift kit.”

In layman’s terms, a 4-link lift system uses two links per side of the axle, typically one on top and one on the bottom. Each link has one mounting point on the axle and one mounting point on the chassis. Greater suspension travel improves traction during off-road driving but also delivers better handling and a softer ride anywhere.

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An industry first

Bisi’s imagination soon hatched other ideas. “I wanted to take a Toyota fifth-generation 4Runner [which debuted in 2009] and be the first shop to straight-axle swap it by designing and prototyping my own 4-link lift kit using 2005-plus Ford Super-Duty axles,” he says. “I found 4-link kits on full-size, extravagant lifted show trucks on social media with components that contained CNC cutout designs.

“I was inspired by the sheet metal art and wanted to translate that style to a mid-size 4X4,” Bisi continues. “My research showed it had never been done on a fifth-generation 4Runner.”

Bisi sought to push the envelope and build on his suspension experience but he needed the right equipment. In January 2016, Bisi installed a PT-44M CNC plasma cutter from Baileigh Industrial Holdings LLC with a 60-amp nozzle and automatic height control water table.

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The same year, Bisi found a 2014 fifth-generation Toyota 4Runner Limited and designed and prototyped the first solid-axle swap front and rear sheet metal 4-link kit for this model. He partnered with industry leaders such as Specialty Forged Wheels, Radflo Suspension Technology, Ballistic Fabrication and FCKLightbars for the vehicle’s air ride control system, suspension, shocks and forged wheels.

The 4Runner’s frame and suspension will be powder coated once fabrication and final assembly are complete. Bisi hopes to finish the 4Runner in time to exhibit at the Specialty Equipment Market Association (SEMA) Show in November 2020 in Las Vegas. SEMA typically features more than 2,400 specialty automotive products exhibitors. If Bisi can wrangle space in a sponsor’s booth, the truck promises to be a showstopper.

He named the 4Runner Carnage after a Marvel Comics super villain that first appeared in The Amazing Spider-Man No. 359. “I thought it was a great name to describe such a unique, aggressive, strong-looking 4Runner,” says Bisi. “It looks like an alien.”

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Making kits

While Bisi puts the finishing touches on Carnage, he keeps the plasma cutter busy making parts for the 4-link kits he created and has now branded Cougar House Fab. The system can be used for Toyota fifth-generation 4Runners model years 2009 to present, third-generation Tacomas model years 2016 to present, Ford Super-Duty trucks model years 1999 to 2016, Dodge 2500-3500 model years 1990 to 2018 and Chevrolet Duramax SAS model years 2001 to present.

Bisi can custom fabricate 3-link and 4-link kits for just about any passenger vehicle made in the U.S., including Toyota and Nissan. He also ships his 4-link kits to other shops and do-it-yourselfers—raw or powder coated—for Ford, Dodge and Chevrolet vehicles.

A full-service suspension shop, Cougar House Garage also lowers trucks using air ride suspension on airbags controlled with an air management system produced by Accuair.

“Their product controls the level, height selection and how you operate the airbags,” says Bisi. “We can lift or lower vehicles from basic to extreme builds.” The plasma cutter anchors these operations and gives him control over parts production.

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A good fit

“At this stage, I can’t lift more than 20 lbs.,” he says. “I should have been in a wheelchair by now.” Weighing little more than 100 lbs., Bisi acknowledges that he is “doing some pretty tough blue-collar work,” despite the severe pain he lives with. “At the end of the day, though, these tasks give me a sense of fulfillment and I’m happy about what I was able to accomplish.”

Baileigh’s software package allows Bisi to engineer parts for his kits and custom jobs.

“I use 2D design, draw up the geometry and then make cardboard stencils,” he says. “I’ll do a test run using 3/16-in. plate to make sure the parts fit and look the way I want them to. It takes more time but it’s more precise.” Bisi’s lift system allows him to drop his vehicles down for easy access.

“Scott has mastered Baileigh’s software to the point that others call him for help with troubleshooting issues they are experiencing,” says Shane Henderson, social media marketing manager for Baileigh.

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Once Bisi verifies his design, his welder or fabricator will load the plasma cutter with ¼-in., thick, 4- ft. by 4-ft. hot-rolled, pickled and oiled steel sheet. “I plug in a thumb drive with my design and start cutting parts,” he says. Components are then MIG welded and assembled for a second test fit. “Once the test fit is done, we remove the parts, including frame, axles, brake calipers and discs, and send them out to be powder coated.”

When asked about his singular fascination with suspension systems, he says, “It’s what I’ve always been interested in. If you want to change the attitude of a vehicle, you have to change the altitude.”

And despite his health challenges, Bisi continues to change his own altitude. “I may not be able to do things by hand anymore, but technology like the CNC plasma cutter allows me to keep working.”

Even his daily ride is modified. “I drive a Ford Super-Duty with an 8-in. lift and 38 Nitto Mud Grappler tires,” he says. “I don’t do normal.”

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Bisi used his experience from solid axle swapping 1980s, 1990s and 2000s Toyota trucks and 4Runners to become the first to design and prototype a solid axle swap front and rear sheet metal 4-link kit for his 2014 fifth-generation Toyota 4Runner Limited.

Big plans

In addition to growing his business for his Cougar House Fab front-link lift and rear-link lift kits, Bisi has his eye on some additional equipment.

“I’d like to upgrade to a Baileigh 4X8 plasma cutter so I can process longer parts,” he says. “We plan to get a small forklift to load larger plate. I’m looking to acquire a TIG welder so we can work with aluminum and exotics [alloys]. I’d also like to add a press brake, lathe and powder coating booth.”

A part-time staff and a network of sponsors are critical components that help keep Cougar House Garage running but Bisi credits his family with the life lessons he has learned.

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“I handle all the fabrication but my mom is my office manager,” he says. “I’m very thankful for her support and that of my sister, Kelly. My mom has always been hands on and she has taught me how to be tough.”

Jami Bisi also taught her son to appreciate the simple things, like feeding the family’s horses and spending time with his 4-year-old son Griffyn and his nephews.

“I’m in this for the long haul,” Bisi says. “I love the garage. I plan to grow old and gray doing this work and, someday, someone is going to find me with my boots on in my garage. And that will be okay with me.” FFJ

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