I hope you will forgive me for the following, but I thought I would use this column to answer questions which I am often asked by phone, e-mail and in person. These are questions of a more personal nature relating to things like how did I get started in the restoration business, what are my favorite cars to restore, and my least favorite, what am I proudest of and what would I perhaps like to keep in the closet. Oh, and what do I own and drive in the summer?
Before I restored cars, I was a professional artist. As a matter of fact I was a wildlife artist painting mainly birds, but on occasion also mammals, fish, whales, insects and flowers. In this field I was quite successful and I did it for fifteen years. Restoring vehicles came first from necessity, as I had little money and I had an old Landrover, not the most reliable of vehicles. As I became busier and a little more affluent I found that working on vehicles provided a relaxing counterpoint to the tyranny of sitting for ten hours at a stretch at an easel. When the light failed I could be found banging and crashing outside on a series of military vehicles which started with jeeps and ended with armored cars, ducks (large amphibious trucks), six wheel drive cargo carriers and even tanks, most notably an old Sherman.
After fifteen years or more and with a recession looming on the horizon (artists, no matter how successful, fare badly during recessions), I decided that I needed a change. Janice and I had both enjoyed working on cars, and it was decided that perhaps a hobby could be turned into a paying business. Gone were the military vehicles. I got out of those when a fringe element entered the hobby wearing full camo gear and carrying real and loaded weapons beneath their coats.
I started fixing cars up beside the house, outside in the summer sun and in winter driving snow. I can remember clearly how heavenly my first concrete floored garage was.
I decided that I wasn't at all interested in repairing modern vehicles but I had a passion for the old ones. When I decided to get into the restoration business I got myself a job in a restoration shop. What an eye opener that was. It was there that I discovered how a restoration shop should not be run. In fact I based my business on being exactly the opposite of that shop in the way it treated its customers and the cars themselves.
When I left that shop I formed The Guild of Automotive Restorers, and several restorers and myself set up shop in a two car garage beside my house near Mount Albert Ontario. Did I mention that the house and garage were firmly situated in a small dry strip of land in the biggest wettest swamp you can imagine? One of the guys, who is still with me by the way, used to walk around with a roll of toilet paper hanging from a roller on his belt. He was allergic to just about every plant in the swamp and his nose and eyes used to stream all day long.
That was almost a decade ago, and The Guild grew from a tiny, one car at a time operation to the twenty two thousand square foot facility it is today.
In that span I have the amazing good fortune to have restored cars ranging from Model T's to a Type 59 Bugatti. As far as the cars that I am most proud of there are several.
The Bugatti is one, simply because common opinion was that no shop in Canada was going to be able to restore a Type 59 Bugatti Grand Prix car. Not only did a group of Canadian restorers do the car, it was done for less money and in less time than any of the other T 59s in the world today. Did I mention that that car has won every American show that it has been exhibited at, even beating a Pebble Beach winning Pre war Mercedes race car at one concourse. Not bad for a bunch of guys more used to restoring McLaughlin Buicks and G.T.Os than Bugattis.
I have over the years tended to not show many of the cars that I have restored because I have always felt that that is an enjoyment meant for the owner more than the restorer. Certainly the owner has in my opinion the most difficult part of the restoration and that is the paying for it. He or she should be the one to get the glory at shows.
Another car which I really enjoyed working on was the Batmobile, one of the original sixties cars. During the restoration of that car I got to meet George Barris, Dean Jeffries and other California customizers. That job was really fun because it had a very playful nature to it. One of the things that we had to do was to incorporate all of the gimmicks seen on the car during the series, and unlike on TV where it can be faked, the things we built for the car had to work. When we were finished it had smoke and rocket launchers, an onboard monitor which played old Batman segments, an exhaust capable of belching a thirty foot long flame, chain cutters flashing sixties style Bat Crime computers and more. It could also be driven on the road and was powered by a 429 Super Cobra Jet motor which had a huge polished aluminum bat straddling it, a touch we added, as the motor was never seen during the show. That car was built for a doctor in Toronto who insisted that we had it ready for Halloween. It was, and on Halloween day it made a journey down to Sick Kids Hospital in Toronto where it pulled up in front driven by Batman and with Robin in the passenger seat. Batman was one of my staff members, Dave Remian, who was wearing a wonderful costume which included one of the original masks and cowls worn by Adam West during the original show. He had strict instructions not to sweat as the cowl was worth a king's ransom. Along with Batman and Robin, the Penguin and Catwoman put in an appearance, arriving in a vehicle called a Pulse which resembles a jet aircraft. Catwoman was of course Janice, my partner in crime, who insisted that she was the Michelle Pfeiffer Catwoman, not the sixties version. To back her up, she was so enchanting that at a television appearance earlier in the day, the male co-host spent so much time chatting up Catwoman that he didn't have enough time to learn how to get out of the car after he and his female co-host drove on stage. One of my staff had to run on stage and get him and his co-hostess out of the car. He also insisted that Catwoman sit next to him during the show, something that certainly fueled the wrath of his co-host who sat there glaring daggers at Catwoman and making really snide comments throughout the show.
At Sick Kids Batman, Robin, Penguin and Catwoman went from floor to floor delivering small Bat related gifts to children who were too sick to have gone outside to see the car and troupe arrive. We found out at the last minute that the children were not allowed candy so the owner of the car and his wife had scoured literally hundreds of variety and novelty stores all over Toronto buying up all of the Batman related novelties they could find in the couple of days before Halloween. Loaded down with bags and bags of this stuff, the four costumed crusaders had a great time going from floor to floor, followed by a retinue of nurses, staff and children.
The Batmobile would have been hard to top if not for the arrival into my shop one day of a chap who asked me to build him a custom 50 Mercury. The idea was very firmly resisted by me, but Nick was very persuasive and after a long talk I agreed to do the job, but not to chop the car. He then started on my staff who eventually talked me into a full chop and a whole bunch more and we started a project which still lives with me as the car is currently prepared to start a year long tour, starting at the International Auto Show in Toronto and ending on the sunny shores of California.
Ghost has been a epic project and is one which is termed by the American Hot Rod press as a high buck custom. Although by no means as expensive as many American projects it has been a very special project for a Canadian shop and has been created as a piece of sculpture where form and function are blended into one. Look for this car to appear in shows and magazines in the next year or so.
Along with the special projects that I have done I have also enjoyed very much the restoration of more common cars. I have to admit I love the sound of a properly tuned Model A engine and I have always delighted in restoring Model As. Fifties Cadillacs have also been a favorite although I have had good and bad experiences with them. I just had the ultimate one of those come through the door. It is a 1958 Eldorado Brougham, a car fashioned after one of the Cadillac show cars which has a stainless steel roof and a lot of design features not found on any other Cadillacs.
I have two real loves as far as automotive periods are concerned. I am very fond of the late twenties and very early thirties cars and their restoration is at one time very challenging and also very rewarding.
My greatest passion is for cars built before 1914, the cars of the Brass Age, simply because they were built by craftsmen who had no real pattern on which to base their designs. As a result they showed an inventiveness and ingenuity not found in any other period of automobile design. To a restorer they offer the truest form of the art because everything on them must be hand fashioned or really restored rather than replaced. They also have, when finished, the same fascination for people as do Sailships and Steam locomotives. They seem to defy modern logic when they fire up and run, and they touch a part of us that often we don't even realize exists. This is proven when running one of these cars around people who have never even seen or heard of them before. They are usually transfixed whether they have an interest in old cars or not.
The greatest regret that I have currently is that the interest in the older cars is gradually slipping away to be replaced with a clamor to restore cars from the seventies and even the eighties. These cars are poorly made and are grief filled for restorers and owners alike. I have always resisted their restoration but, as was pointed out to me recently, a seventies car is now an old car of over twenty years. These cars are often no longer repaired by ordinary shops, which leaves their owners high and dry if they can't have them restored properly. I have to admit I am reluctant to work on these cars, but the writing is on the wall. They do have a following.
As for the most often asked question I receive. What do I drive in the summer? Sadly, I get very little time to drive old cars for enjoyment in the summer time, especially now that our facility is open seven days a week in the summer, but the vehicle that you will see me in and which is near and dear to my heart is a 1941 one ton Fargo Stake truck which I have owned for several years now but on which I have had to do virtually no work whatsoever.
I also own a couple of classic wooden boats, a small 16 foot 1957 Shepherd Ski about with a Universal Jeep motor and V drive which I just love, and a 34 foot Cocktail Cruiser built up on Lake Huron in 1938 which I am restoring presently when I get small moments of time and which is powered by a huge Chrysler Royal Marine in line eight cylinder which was the same motor used for some of the landing craft during the Second World War. I have always maintained that I like antique and classic boats because they allow me to break down in an entirely different medium.
To just confirm my insanity, I have just acquired the old World War Two Bomber, an A 26 Invader that has sat on the Mackie Transport Company building in Oshawa Ontario for the last 26 years and on which a team of volunteers will labor for the next year or two to bring back cosmetically. When she is done she'll be dressed in all of her second war markings and sport her twenty one cannons and machine guns.
The restoration of old cars, trucks, boats, airplanes and any old piece of machinery is certainly a disease of which I am quite fatally smitten, but I wouldn't have it any other way. I'll bet a whole bunch of you suffer exactly the same affliction, one which defies all logic, and which requires the most understanding of wives and partners.