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Polished Craftsman Makes Old Cars New

Nothing is too weird for Vince Laviolette, the Dr. Moreau of cars.

He married a 1956 Volvo station wagon to a 1990 Eagle Talon. Can you imagine it? Of course not. It’s not natural - and that’s how Vince likes it.

“He’s a real creative type,” says Marty Mueller, the owner of the two cars. “It’ll look like it was built in a factory, which is a tribute to his craftsmanship.”

The workshop at Vince’s Auto Customizing is full of old, bruise-colored bodies, disemboweled and awaiting the transplant of youthful engines and chassis.

“What’s better than all modern insides and a vintage outside?” Vince asks.

For all his outlandish operations, Vince is as down-to-earth as it gets. No mad scientist hair or maniacal laughs. He’s a likable father of two who’s proud that his wife, Shirley, often works beside him.

But there’s no doubt he inhaled engine exhaust with his first breath 39 years ago. Everything about cars consumes him. He even measures his customers’ feet to fit pedals precisely.

“A car has to fit like a glove,” he says. “There’s nothing worse than a car that’s too tight.”

Vince’s father and grandfathers tinkered with cars. One grandfather raced Jaguars.

Young Vince’s mechanical skills were so impressive that he won a Pacific Automotive Award for California high school students in 1974. At the awards assembly, a man offered him a job building boat engines.

For 15 years, Vince collected experience, determined to reach the point where no customizing job intimidated him.

He moved from boat engines to a custom car design shop in Canoga Park, Calif. An older worker there recognized talent in Vince and taught him to build fender flares, chop and lower cars and paint the flames that are common on 1950s-style hot rods.

Tex Smith’s book, “How to Build Custom Cars,” features Vince in a series of photographs building and attaching fender flares to a 1949 Mercury.

A photo in Vince’s private album of a purple hot rod with a lowered roof and shorter windows (remember “American Graffiti”?) shows off his chopping work.

Vince learned to work with the aluminum bodies of Ferraris, Rolls Royces and Bentleys and the fiberglass bodies of Corvettes.

The shop also occasionally catered to the movie business. Vince helped design a special Corvette for the movie “Corvette Summer,” and custom vans for the television shows “Hardcastle and McCormick” and “The Fall Guy.”

He supplemented his education with work in a dealership’s body shop, then in robotics. Following blueprints, he built frames and installed hydraulics for Japanese theme park monsters.

The California rat race finally got to Vince in 1992. He followed family to Coeur d’Alene and worked in several body and car restoration shops before opening his own five months ago.

In Coeur d’Alene, Vince is using everything he’s learned in his lifetime.

He and Shirley restored old parking meters and gas pumps for the Hot Rod Cafe that recently opened in Post Falls. Cars had run over the 1960s-era pumps.

Marty’s a magician with metal. He rebuilt and painted the pumps until the Mobil Gas Pegasus and the Texaco Fire Chief sparkled.

He built a giant steaming cup of coffee with a face to top his neighbor’s espresso stand. The facial features are changeable, and Vince makes new ones for each holiday.

He’s restoring the century-old clock that stands in front of Clark’s Jewelers in downtown Coeur d’Alene.

But his favorite jobs are the cars, and he has 40 waiting for his attention. He’s so busy he hasn’t found anything fancy for himself. He drives a ‘76 Jeep. He and Marty, who designs motion picture cameras and built cars in high school, were destined to find each other.

“I’m a hot rodder at heart,” Marty says. “I wanted some power, but I always loved that model of Volvo. That body was designed in 1944. It’s a favorite shape of ours.”

Marty started merging the Volvo body and Eagle parts himself, but found it was too complicated. He took it to a body shop that called in Vince.

“He’s got a reputation as a great metal guy,” Marty says.

Vince cut the body off the Eagle and built new mountings to fit the Volvo body. Whatever he can’t find, he makes.

When Vince is finished, Marty will be able to drive his vintage Volvo into any Eagle dealership for repairs and replacements of parts. The little car also will have the Eagle’s power and a five-digit price tag.

Vince smiles self-indulgently when he talks about his 60-hour weeks working on Marty’s car and two others. In his extra time, he’s building racing go-carts for his entire family.

“I like doing things differently and working with metals. I’m a tinkerer,” he says. “One nice thing about old cars: I get to do everything and I never get bored.”

, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: Color Photo


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