Jesse Vaughn rode his first motorcycle at age five on his family’s property in Eldorado. Placed upon a minibike by his father who was into performance automobiles and motorcycles, the youngster was immediately hooked. He grew up, as he puts it, as “a gearhead.”
“I had a mechanical addiction, so to speak,” he says. “By the time I was in eighth grade, I was big into motorcycles, dirt bikes and off-road bikes and all that stuff. In high school I started subscribing to ‘Hot Rod Magazine’ and ‘Car Craft’ and nearly every car magazine. I would go to the library and get books about cars and wiring and stuff like that. I couldn’t get enough.”
His passion, led him to purchase his first vehicle, a $1,600 Toyota pickup, and, over the course of two years working with his dad, doing body work, tuning the engine and putting on a new coat of paint, turned the truck into something to be proud of.
“I sold that pickup, made a little bit of money and found another car to work on,” he says.
By the time he was 25, Vaughn confesses to having more than two dozen cars. What he didn’t learn by working alongside his father, he would learn on his own.
“I’d read an article about how to do something and I’d have to do it, so I’d buy a vehicle, learn how to do it and move on,” he recalls.
During a military deployment in Iraq, Vaughn would continue to read everything he could about performance cars.
“It was like an itch I couldn’t scratch,” he says. “I couldn’t wait to work on cars.”
Returning to Southern Illinois, he opened an auto repair shop, only to have the business burn down within the first year. An opportunity to work for a Bentley automotive dealership in Chicago and later in the body shop of two Carbondale car dealers, gave him even more experience, but the itch to work on hot rods was still there.
“I could see that my future was owing my own shop, building cars and doing the performance-oriented stuff I read in all of the magazines. That was my dream and every one of those other jobs was a season of learning for me,” he says.
So, in 2011, he built his own shop, nestled in the woods just east of Marion and his business, Level 7 Motosports was born.
The company does fabrication, body work, engine conversions and more. All of the things Vaughn read about and learned to do to make cars faster and more eye-catching.
“What we really do is take whatever vehicle our customers romanticize about and make them into exactly what they want it to be,” Vaughn adds.
“As soon as I started, people just started showing up,” he says. “I hired a friend in the first month and we started doing performance enhancements and body work. We did a couple of full-builds right away.”
His marketing strategy was simple: build a truck and take it to road races to let other auto enthusiasts see how it looked and what it would do. It worked.
Today, automobiles arrive at Level 7 from across the country.
“That one is from New Jersey,” he says, pointing to a vehicle under transformation. “One’s coming in from Florida this week.”
Today, most customers learn about the company through word of mouth.
“Honestly, it surprises me that they find us and I am amazed from how far away they come.”
Regardless of the distance or the vehicle Vaughn says his goal is to give customers exactly what they want.
“Most of our clients want perfect reliability in a classic vehicle. They want it to start, run and be able to drive it to the Dairy Queen downtown or to take it to Florida, but they also want them to be performance-oriented with more horsepower, great brakes suspensions and to be able to run road races. It’s like a Swiss army knife: something they can race, but also have air conditioning and Bluetooth and take on a vacation,” he explains.
Level 7’s work has gained national attention, appearing in many of those same magazines that Vaughn read as a teenager.
“It’s always been my dream. I’d see car shows and want to be one of the ‘bigger guys’ with the cars that give customers exactly what they want” he says, adding he wants to keep the focus on quality not size of the business.
“I hope to maintain a smaller team, focusing on being honest, hardworking and giving our clients the absolute best we can.”