Custom cars are this man’s hobby

Published 12:42 am Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Hobbies can be expensive, but for those who pursue them, they are highly rewarding.

One local man, Mickey Penton, spends his free time rebuilding old cars into muscle cars and at times dabbles in building street rods.

To the unacquainted, there is a difference between a muscle car and a street rod. Rebuilding a muscle car aims to restore the vehicle to it’s factory state, while building a street rod involves turning a classic car into a modernized version of itself.

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Penton, president of the Boulevard Cruisers, and his two accomplices, his stepson John Everett and fellow car enthusiast Merle Defels, tear down old cars and build them back to the way they once were. For the most part. There is the rare instance where they dabble in the construction of a street rod, such as the one recently built for local entrepreneur Bill Stegall.

Thursday night, Penton unveiled the newly renovated, updated and repainted 1948 Mercury. Once a classic car in it’s own right, it now sits on modernized suspension, sports a new paint job and also accepts modern music media formats. This transformation involved Penton and crew removing the stock front suspension and installing a more modern version and basically stripping the car down to nothing to build it back up again.

In the cab is a new stereo system, complete with CD changer in the trunk. The addition of a new engine added one of today’s feats of technology usually taken for granted, air conditioning. Power windows, and tilt steering and cruise control are other additions to the modernized package.

“It’s not taking it to a body shop to get a paint job,” Penton said. “When you get through with it, you basically got a new old car.”

To update the look of the vehicle Penton and his crew removed the two piece windshield and installed a one piece in its place. The once divided and vented driver and passenger side windows also were removed and replaced with one piece motorized counterparts.

Custom parts, including the bumpers, were used to add to the look. Construction of most of those parts in-house prolonged production time, Penton said. To build the car up took about 18 months, usually working only on the weekends. The job involved completely tearing down the whole car and starting from scratch.

Most of the time Penton said he rebuilds old cars to turn them into muscle cars, which usually takes about a year to do. Also on the weekends.

Penton said the cost to build a street rod in his shop can run about $75,000. Comparatively speaking that is cheap. At most shops a similar job could cost the car owner about $150,000. In contrast, turning an old heap into a muscle car would cost between $30,000 and $35,000.

While the cost of rebuilding an old car may seem out of most people’s budget, Penton said a large number of new cars cost about the same as it would take to rebuild a muscle car. Defels pointed out that a new car depreciates in value, while muscle cars become more valuable.

“It’s better than the stock market,” Penton said.

The shop in which Penton builds his cars, while not open for the public, has been in operation for about four years. Penton uses his 30 to 40 years of experience in that shop while he works on cars.

The bulk of Penton’s day is spent at his job maintaining medical nuclear cardiology equipment. His hobby of rebuilding cars is a way to relieve the stress he encounters in his daily job, he said.

In his own collection, Penton has five classic cars: A 1956 Chevrolet Bel Air, a 1964 Corvette, a 1966 Mustang, a 1972 El Camino and a 1962 Bel Air that needs some restoration. Defels has a ’55 Wagon of his own.

In his lifetime of restoring old cars, he estimates he has competed about 25. Penton said it all began when he was about 15 years old and his dad’s 1949 Chevrolet truck broke down. His father bought a new truck, so Penton asked his dad if he could have the old one. Penton said he father told him that if he could fix it, it was his.

“Two days later my friend and I fixed it and we were driving it down the road,” Penton said.

Parts for old cars can be easier to find than some might think, depending on the car. There are still manufacturers that make new parts for a large number of old cars. For those that are harder to find, word of mouth or a stop at the junk yard can provide results. Some old vehicles are so popular, such as Camaros, Chevelles and Mustangs, that an entire car’s worth of parts could feasibly be ordered out of a catalog. The cars that are hardest to find parts for include early Impalas and other low production muscle cars, especially those from 1961 and later.