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Doug Clark: Car enthusiast transforms junker to classic chrome

Sun., Aug. 17, 2014

Maybe it comes with my Spokane DNA, but I love car shows – although not in the way you might think.

Sure, I’ve logged plenty of time drooling over row after row of gleaming chrome and polished paint.

But even more compelling to me are the stories. Behind the restored Fords and cherry Chevys are tales of sweat, tapped bank accounts and obsession.

Which brings me to the bucket of bolts 1964 Buick Riviera that Canadian car customizer J.F. Launier bought for 400 bucks.

“And I felt that I paid too much,” added Launier, 39, with a sly grin.

I met the soft-spoken, congenial man inside the Spokane County fairgrounds Friday at the Great Northwest Nationals. This annual gathering of motorheads and 1,500 cool rides is sponsored by Goodguys Rod & Custom Association.

The show continues today from 8 a.m. until 3 p.m., so there’s still time to check out “Rivision.”

That’s the name Launier bestowed on the aforementioned heap after he transformed it into a world-class wonder.

Last spring, the Buick won the Detroit Autorama’s prestigious Ridler Award. “For young J.F. Launier, his 1964 Buick Riviera was as original and ambitious as any Ridler winner in the award’s five-decade history,” gushed a writer for the Autorama.

Rivision is as much art as auto.

Sleek and seamless, the glowing yellow car (“school-bus yellow,” according to Launier) looks as if it appeared by magic in a poof of smoke.

Nothing could be further from the grueling reality, of course.

The Buick’s metamorphosis to this exotic beast with twin turbochargers and 1,000 horsepower, said Launier, came by way of 20,000 laborious hours spread over five years.

And the cost?

“Lots of money. Everything I had.” That’s as close as the builder will come to putting a figure on it.

Maybe he doesn’t want to know.

He will, however, say that he mortgaged two homes during the project. He drained his savings, maxed every credit card he could find and probably shook the couch cushions for lost quarters.

Rivision isn’t Launier’s first entry into the big leagues of car customization, but it sounds like the most expensive.

Launier’s life has been all about cars since his first makeover of a ’51 Mercury when he was 13.

People at the Goodguys show talk about Launier like he is definitely something special.

Car builder Orin Olsen seemed genuinely awestruck at the sight of Rivision.

“The level of skill he brings down here,” he said in an appreciative tone. “This is art.”

Betsy Bennett, a self-described “car person” who has worked with Goodguys for 23 years, is also a Launier fan.

“This man’s imagination,” she said, is beyond what people are used to. “We love working with him.”

Part of what makes Launier’s story so irresistible is the David vs. Goliath aspect.

Launier operates J.F. Kustoms shop in Osoyoos, B.C.

If you’re drawing a blank at that name like I did, the town of about 4,800 is located in the southern part of the Okanagan Valley, not far from Omak.

At least, that’s what the Internet told me.

So being from such a small pond makes winning what is known as “hot rodding’s top award” in Detroit all the more massive.

The car “has made the hot rod and custom car community stand and take notice with its modifications, including a low-slung profile and stance, front fender vents and tight proportions,” states the Autorama website.

“J.F. has clearly created a rolling masterpiece that is aggressive yet beautiful with exquisite attention to detail and functionality.”

I was especially taken by the groovy shapes ala George Jetson in the car’s custom-built dashboard gauges.

“I competed for the Ridler many years ago but didn’t win,” Launier said in the Autorama article. “It didn’t discourage me from building another car.

“When it came time to build the Riviera, I knew in my head what I had to do better. I’ve been known for building really beautiful customs and have an eye and like to proportion cars differently than other builders.”

He sold me.

Of course, considering my classic car history, I probably should confess my bias about Launier’s choice of vehicles.

I have owned not one, not three, but FOUR vintage Buicks, including the ’65 Riviera that was once the pride and joy of the late Speaker of the House Tom Foley.

Like Foley, the car tended to pull a little to the left. Other than that, however, it had that “gentleman’s sports car appeal” that Buick was going for back in the day.

Alas, I didn’t have the commitment or the cash to do it justice. I wound up selling it to a car buff who had it shipped to Alaska by barge and then restored to showroom condition.

See what I mean? There’s always a story.

Doug Clark is a columnist for The Spokesman-Review. He can be reached at (509) 459-5432 or by email at


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