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Former Glory By Tom Mast Casper Star-Tribune staff writer

 

As any red-blooded American with a penchant for hot wheels knows, cars and trucks are about much more than simple transportation. They're also an expression of self, or perhaps, a wannabe version of self.

 

Maybe the color matches the lady's baby-blue eyes. Or the mystique of a four-barrel muscle car arouses some long dormant, once-upon-a-time juvenile longing to be, or at least to appear to be, the baddest cat in the high school parking lot.

 

As Shane Miller can tell you, nostalgia runs deep when it comes to old cars.

 

Miller is general manager of S&L Classics, Inc. in Casper. He and his crew restore aged vehicles, transforming derelict hulks into beautiful moto-swans, with stylist lines and seamless tail-lights, glistening pipes and fancy trimming, and mirror-like paint jobs. On a recent day at the 7,000-square-foot shop, Jody Hooton was turning a 1933 Ford coupe into a stunning emerald jewel with a hint of green flames swimming in the glossy finish. Elsewhere, a GTO body was cocked at an angle on a rotisserie, the better for custom-finishing.

 

S&L Classics is no mass production operation. The men on the shop floor work at a deliberate, calculated pace, craftsmen who turn out one-of-a-kind works of art in metal. A custom street rod can take 2,000 hours to complete. "That's a solid year's work for one guy," Miller says.

 

The goal of the shop is teamwork, and variety, the better to keep the work challenging and fun. "I don't direct them, really," Miller says. "There's a lot of pride at the end."

 

There is some debate in automotive circles about what constitutes a "classic" car. The Classic Car Club of America defines classics as "... fine or unusual motor cars which were built between and including the years 1925 to 1948. All of these are very special cars which are distinguished by their respective fine design, high engineering standards and superior workmanship."

 

This reckoning does not take into account later models that many people consider "classics," like the 1965 Ford Mustang. Nor would it include a 1954 Oldsmobile concept car which sold at auction in Scottsdale, Ariz., recently for $3.24 million.

 

Miller takes a different view of "classic." Mostly, it's a perception thing.

 

"What they had as a kid seems to be the main draw," he said. "It was either a car they wanted or a car they had."

 

And the business has changed to reflect changing demographics. Many customers are now in their fifties; Model T Fords of the 1920s are being replaced as objects for restoration by Pontiac GTOs of the 1960s: "We have GTOs in the shop all the time," Miller says. "We have two in here right now."

 

Sentimental attachment often weighs heavily in a project. Miller had a customer who wanted a Ford Falcon restored. "This one was rusted away where everything was daylight under the floor board," he said.

 

So Miller told the customer that rehabilitating the car could cost over $30,000, and that he could buy a top quality Falcon of a similar vintage for $15,000. But the man wanted the work done anyway. It was his Dad's car, and his dad had passed away.

 

S&L Classics does both restorations and custom work. Restoration essentially means taking an old car apart, refurbishing it and bolting it back together again. This process can cost between $15,000 and $50,000, depending upon the model year and complexity of the job, and take four to eight months.

 

Custom work, like building fancy street rods, is an entirely different matter. Many street rods start with the shells of trucks or automobiles from the 1930s and 1940s. They then might be retrofitted with aftermarket engines capable of cranking out 450 horses. And since the frames and suspensions of 70 years ago were never intended to accommodate such powerful mills, these components must be modified or replaced. Other alterations might include new transmissions, modifications to the firewall, cruise control, air conditioning and tachometers -- in short, it's a very expensive process in which the parts bill alone can total $40,000.

 

S&L Classics also does work for collectors. "They don't even drive the cars," Miller says, but lock them away in a safe place.

 

And sometimes, cars are used for investments. "You'll see that when the stock market goes down. People will investment more in these cars."

 

Some of the muscle and collector cars have increased in value by $5,000 over the past 18 months, Miller adds. Over the past five years, he watched as one rare breed of Mustang increased in value from the $40,000 range to over $100,000.

 

While other vehicles don't appreciate as much, Miller says a person usually can at least get their money out of a high-quality restored or custom vehicle. "I guess you can't beat that when you're having fun and buying toys, because most toys aren't worth much when you're done," he says.

 

This is a business built on reputation and word-of-mouth references, and the walls and shelves of S&L Classics are stuffed with trophies and plaques citing superior workmanship. In their private collection, the Millers have a 1950 Ford convertible with an unblemished record in show competition. In addition to states in the region, the company has worked on cars from as far away as Florida and New Jersey.

 

Among the more than 30 autos in the family inventory, Miller's favorite is a 1969 Ford Mustang Mach 1 Cobra Jet. "I always liked the body style of it," he says.

 

But he is not nearly so nostalgic as some people might be about their first auto.

 

Miller's was a 1972 International.

 

"Ugly beast," he declares. "It was nice to get rid of that one."

 

Business Editor Tom Mast can be reached at tom.mast@casperstartribune.net, or by calling 1-307-266-0574.