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The Globe and Mail

Custom roadsters, classic muscle and more, oh my

Visitors to the Toronto auto show's Classic Concours expecting to see restored examples of marques from the past, will instead have their sensibilities assaulted by the 29 Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flaked Streamlined Babies featured in the Canadian Hot-Rod Builders Showcase.

Apart from a few "sleepers" that might look "stock," it will be immediately evident this toy-box-for-big-boys assortment of old and not-quite-so-old vehicles, have had magic worked on them from the book of hot-rod incantations. In which chapter headings read – chopped and channelled, sectioned and suicided, Frenched and louvered, nosed and decked, bored and stroked, and ported and polished – by wizards wielding welding torches, English wheels and planishing hammers. Magicians spinning lathes that shape-change billet aluminum into polished pieces you could put on your coffee table. And alchemists concocting and spraying paint colours that would make a 1960s-era acid trip's visuals look muted.

Essayist Tom Wolfe's "kolorful" title for his back-in-the-day Esquire piece on America's custom car culture would serve just as well today to describe the creations of our home-grown hot-rod and custom builders. A multi-talented and creative group, that carries on a hot-rod tradition that has also been part of Canada's car scene for more than six decades.

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The Hot Rod and Canadian Custom Builders Showcase is sponsored by paint makers BASF and oil company Castrol, and presented on the 700 level of the Toronto Convention Centres South Building, to showcase the talents and high-calibre craftsmanship of 14 of Canada's top hot-rod and custom car creators.

"These guys, with a welding torch and a couple of hammers, have fashioned some of the most beautiful vehicles ever seen," says organizer Jon Rosenthall.

What showgoers will see, he says, is everything from a 1970 Chevy 210 pickup, now sitting on a 2006 Corvette chassis and powertrain ("the ultimate sleeper"), to the "wild, totally crazy Toe-truck. Slammed, tubbed and misspelled. This thing you gotta' see." Along with a customized 1939 Bell telephone repair truck, and old-school hot-rods, resto-mods and modified muscle cars.

First-generation North American car-guys began turning early flivvers into dirt road racers in the days of Ford's Model-T, and the term "hot-rod" seems to have arrived in the 1930s. But the origins of today's hot-rod and custom car culture were in Southern California in the post war years.

Down among the orange groves and on Sunset Strip, a generation of thrill-seeking young guys, either over-stimulated by service in the Second World War, or starved of excitement by its austerities, began modifying cars from the 1920s and 1930s.

At first, it was strictly do-it-yourself, with hot-rodders stripping old cars to their essentials and replacing their stodgy fours and sixes with souped-up Ford flathead V-8s, and then the hot new V-8s emerging from Detroit. A small aftermarket of performance parts makers soon appeared, drag racing became an organized sport, speed trials were held on California's dry lakes and hot-rodding took off. With "customizing" soon following, and taking on a unique life of its own. Clubs and magazines fostered these emerging interests.

All of which didn't go unnoticed in Canada, the hot-rod scene here soon paralleling its counterpart south of the border, albeit on a smaller scale, and remaining popular today.

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Terry Denomme, owner of Nanaimo-based Canadian Hot Rods magazine, is planning a nostalgia issue later this year, and put out a call for material, soon receiving pictures of Canadian rods from the 1940s and early 1950s. "California may have been the mecca, but we were part of it."

Denomme says Canadian interest in hot rods may have peaked in the 1990s and early 2000s, a generational thing, but says "there's still lots of people my age [47] around and younger who are into cars." And the hot-rod hobby has broad appeal. "People are interested in different things, street rods, rat-rods, resto-mod-musclecars, pro-street, pro-touring cars, there's something for everybody."

Denomme is confident continuing enthusiasm will keep his magazine, launched in 2005, around for a long while yet. And former Canadian Football League player Blaine Schmidt, who launched Boot Hill Automotive Resurrection in Erin, Ont., in 2009 – one of the hot-rod builders taking part in the Toronto auto show – feels the same. A shared passion aside, none of the builders being showcased can be describe as "typical" as all have driven down uniquely creative paths. And many have been doing so for years, but the arrival of relative newcomers like Schmidt, would seem to be proof the hobby's life-force remains strong.

North Bay boy Schmidt attended university in Guelph, where he focused his efforts "mostly on beer and training for football." He put the latter to good use during 12 seasons in the Canadian Football League, playing on the offensive line for Edmonton in 1986, then Toronto and Hamilton.

Schmidt says he's always liked cars, but first became involved professionally as a salesman while in Edmonton. "Playing in the CFL, you're not making a ton of dough, so you've got to get a job on the side." A "big Chevy guy and muscle car" fan, he'd been involved as a collector for a couple of decades, but "what started as a hobby, turned into a business."

Initially operated from his farm, it has evolved into Boot Hill, which now occupies a 26,000-square-foot facility, equipped to handle just about every task related to hobby cars, from the restoration of classic Ferrari sports cars to full hot-rod builds. "We had no real business plan. It was just one of those build-it-and-they-will-come kind of ideas," he says. "But so far, it's paying the bills."

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From the customer side, this can require deep pockets at any hot-rod-shop. Many still build their own hot-rods on a budget, but somebody who hands an old car over to a professional builder to turn into a cool resto-mod, is likely looking at $100,000 as a starting point. "There are guys spending $2-million. It's ridiculous. It's whatever you can dream up, and the time and material involved," says Schmidt.

Two Boot Hill cars on display in the Classic Concours, are a 1968 pro-touring Camaro and a 1929 Essex resto-mod. The Camaro was built (taking 2,500 hours) for a customer who loved the original Camaro look, but wanted all the latest technology underneath, while the Essex, which also has mostly modern bits underneath, is more old-school.

For more Toronto AutoShow coverage, please click here.

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