Rev On

When you wax nostalgic for the '50s and '60s, aren't the cars what you think of first -- the '57 T-Birds and '62 'Vettes of your (or someone else's) bygone youth? It doesn't matter if you weren't alive then: They're the stuff of popular folklore and, truly, the style barometer of the baby-boom generation: Wherever their wheels went, they followed. It's no surprise, then, that those self-same cars have now recaptured the collective imagination of the middle-aged.

That's good news for people like Lee Bumgardner, whose Zoomers Automotive Garage, Inc., is riding the wave of pricey restorations by turning the old wrecks of the past into cherry beauties guaranteed to turn heads on any modern freeway. Bumgardner will show off some of his creations this weekend at the Rocky Mountain Rod and Custom Car Show as part of that expo's Kustom Korner, a regional showcase glorifying the automotive prestidigitation of local customizers.

"I don't know why I have a sickness for cars," says Bumgardner, but he readily admits he turned his passion into a moneymaker. He's a poster boy for the do-what-you-love set: A onetime service man for a Chevy dealer, Bumgardner opened Zoomers on North Washington Street about ten years ago; before that, he worked across the street at Masterpiece Rodding and Restoration, a shop he still mentions with great respect. There's no reason, after all, to go head-to-head with the competition: "Not too many shops do what we do," he says. Classic-car culture seems to originate on the coasts before filtering through the nation, he notes, and a regional style is still developing in these parts. "The West Coast does one style, the East Coast does another. Here in Colorado, we don't get the same recognition as the big guns on the West Coast. It's tough to get cars in magazines, but we've had our fair share."

That recognition, it turns out, is key to success in the restoration business, and Bumgardner's had his prouder moments. "There was this purple truck, a '63 Ford pickup," he recalls. "And then there was a '55 Chevy pro street car -- that put us on the map. It was our first high-end car. It cost $150,000 and was pretty exotic for this area. I know it sounds corny, but after that came out in a magazine, we had calls from coast to coast."

Who's calling? "Most of my customers are retired or wealthy," Bumgardner says. "Or retired and wealthy." And as time goes by, the range of classic cars they're interested in is growing younger and younger. The traditional hot rods, souped-up '30s and '40s models with racy paint jobs, are now giving way to the Woodies, Sting Rays and Mustangs favored by those currently experiencing second childhoods.

The most popular model? There isn't one, really, but Bumgardner says he does do a lot of '55 Chevys. "It's one of the mainstream cars, almost the icon in the Chevy lineup -- it had one of the best body styles Chevy ever built. But nothing's sacred; we'll cut up anything. I've put Chevy motors into Jags. I just finished a '64 Galaxy with a new Lincoln Continental engine. I can't put it in the show, though -- I couldn't convince the owner to leave it here." Though Bumgardner plans to show some older models -- a '32 Ford two-door sedan and a '33 Ford three-window coupe, for instance -- he expects to make the biggest splash with the younger ones, including this hot number: a '56 Corvette hopped up with a '98 drivetrain. "It looks all original until you open the hood," says Bumgardner, hinting that this kind of work -- installing contemporary horsepower under a classic hood -- is the wave of the future for his ilk.

Cars such as this aren't built in a day. "It takes three to five years, a lot of patience and a lot of money," Bumgardner points out. "Most cars we build cost as much as a starter home these days," he adds, before amending, "I'm doing work that costs anywhere from $30,000 on up to $150,000." And that's nothing. Bumgardner's own hero, Southern California customizer Boyd Coddington, has sold cars for a half-million dollars or more. "He's the guru," gushes Bumgardner. "He's the man. Here's an example of how this industry has changed: He went public in the stock market, and then he filed for bankruptcy. Now he's starting over again."

Though certainly a classic-car fan, Bumgardner's too busy at his shop to keep up with the car clubs and cruisers who get together to admire and compare their shiny new rides after they leave the garage. But he still understands them. The grease monkey and erstwhile folk psychologist knows exactly what they're looking for. Why do people want these classics? "It's a little bit of childhood," Bumgardner says. "There's probably a car you remember from high school, isn't there? And that's what all of us do. We want what the rich kid had in high school. I recently did a '56 Corvette for a guy who'd wanted one since he was a little kid. He sold his business, he sold his home -- now he's building a Corvette." It just doesn't get more basic than that.

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Susan Froyd started writing for Westword as the "Thrills" editor in 1992 and never quite left the fold. These days she still freelances for the paper in addition to walking her dogs, enjoying cheap ethnic food and reading voraciously. Sometimes she writes poetry.
Contact: Susan Froyd

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