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Luke Zentil in his workshop. (Matthew Sherwood for The Globe and Mail/Matthew Sherwood for The Globe and Mail)
Luke Zentil in his workshop. (Matthew Sherwood for The Globe and Mail/Matthew Sherwood for The Globe and Mail)

Car restoration

The beauty of the car rebuild Add to ...

Tucked behind an Etobicoke, Ont., plaza in an inconspicuous three-car garage, Luke Zentil is slowly and meticulously breathing new life into a very old car.

The rusty, hollowed-out 1950 Buick Sedanette doesn't look like a project eight years in the making. But Zentil, 31, isn't building just any car. He is building the perfect car, and he's doing it on a shoestring.

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“It's almost like a junkyard-dog-lookin' car,” Zentil says of the Sedanette. “I like that about it. They only produced it one year with the grill so big and aggressive, and the fact that it's a torpedo-back means it has a really long, back-sloping window.”

It took the Kingston, Ont., native four years to find an affordable Sedanette body from the right year and with its title paperwork intact so that he could cross the border with it from Michigan. At just $1,400, it didn't come with an engine and transmission, which was fine with him.

Zentil plans to install a super-efficient, robust Mercedes turbo-diesel engine and transmission to haul the 3,800-pound body. The car will have two fuel tanks: one for diesel and one for vegetable oil, which he's already tested on the engine and works nicely.

His current project is to replace the old car's primitive suspension with that of a Ford Mustang, which involves cutting and welding new frame rails on the front of the car. Upgraded disc brakes will make stopping the hulking vehicle safer.

Inside the car, a touch screen that tethers his phone's Internet connection will serve as an entertainment and GPS console. The technology doesn't really exist yet, but he's sure it will soon enough.

Once the car is running, Zentil will take it all apart again to take the rust off and have it painted “candy brandy wine” – a silver layer reflects the light beneath a translucent candy apple red. Then he'll put it back together..

“I'd be a little overwhelmed with it,” admits Zentil's brother Steven, who is working on a Dodge Demon in the same garage.

“But he's fearless. He just keeps plugging away on it. Where there's a will, there's a way. And he certainly has a will.”

As a kid, Luke loved riding BMX bikes, and he started taking them apart and putting them back together. In Grade 9, his mom would drop him off at a Kingston bike shop where he volunteered until he knew enough to get paid for his work.

After high school, Zentil decided to go to college for sales and marketing in Kingston. He set his sights on finishing post-secondary in Australia and finishing one year early, so he moved in with his aunt and his grandmother in Toronto for a summer so that he could go to summer school. His schedule wasn't conducive to working full-time, so he started buying and selling old cars, mostly of the Dodge variety, to save up enough to go Down Under.

“It was really risky because I didn't know what I was doing,” he says.

But, by making use of manuals, online forums and the skills he already had, he saved up approximately $10,000 flipping cars – enough to finish school at the University of Western Sydney.

Well, almost.

“While he was there, he ran out of money,” says Luke's little brother Dan, who is 25. “He called me and said, ‘Hey, I need you to fix up a car and sell it for me so I have something to live off of.' ”

So Dan, who had just recently joined the Reserves, bought himself a manual and followed in his brother's footsteps. Dan is still a reservist, but he also works as a mechanic in Kingston.

After Luke returned from Australia, he took a job at a rental car company. He noticed a garage nearby that looked like it wasn't being used. He tracked down the owner, Sergio Gosio, who runs a dry cleaning firm, and asked if he could rent it from him as a place to work on his cars. Gosio agreed.

“They have work ethic,” Gosio says. “And that is a big thing when it comes to stuff like this. Who would take the initiative to take a piece of junk and turn it into something you can actually drive?”

Luke and his brother continued to flip cars. They bought an old wheelchair access bus and converted it to a “hippy bus,” which ran on filtered vegetable oil they got from restaurants.

They furnished it with bunk beds and drove to every beach they could on the fuel they could bring on board.

Luke and an engineer friend designed a battery charging system where they could plug in their iPods and blend frozen drinks at the beach without depleting the car battery.

Eventually, he sold the bus to a naturopath who wanted to see if he could make it to the west coast on fryer grease.

But the modified Sedanette will be the most ambitious project he's initiated to date, what with the planning, design and craftsmanship entailed.

He's also committed to doing it as cheaply as possible. He will wait excruciatingly long periods for a deal on a part to come up. Other times he'll buy a car for a part, and sell the rest of it.

Zentil is also busy, working full-time as an account executive for Over the Road, a trucking magazine. He bought his grandmother's old house and he's renovating the kitchen himself.

Luckily, he's not in any hurry to get the project done.

“A lot of people don't realize that it's not the end result, it's the voyage of building it,” he says. “That's the enjoyment of it. If I just wanted to drive something, I'd just go buy something.”


Don't forget to check out our gallery: In pictures: Rebuilding a 1950 Buick Sedanette

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