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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

The No Kill Car Shelter in Philadelphia transforms clunkers into something out of a ‘Mad Max’ movie

A 1961 Buick on a 4x4 chassis, left, and a 1960 Dodge Dart Seneca that Brian Smith worked on in the beginning of 2020 at the No Kill Car Shelter in Philadelphia.  (Tyger Williams/The Philadelphia Inquirer/TNS)
By Mike Newall Philadelphia Inquirer

PHILADELPHIA – The old Chevy Nomad is the first clue that the No Kill Car Shelter isn’t your average garage. Walk down Madison Street in the city’s Port Richmond neighborhood and you’ll see it parked outside the shop – sheathed in midnight-black paint, hulking feet off the ground on oversize wheels, Frankensteined onto a shortened SUV chassis like it just rumbled out of a Mad Max movie.

Fittingly, the crew at No Kill Car Shelter calls it Nomad Max. And the souped-up 1956 Nomad is just one of the latest rust buckets they’ve given new life.

For the last eight years, the No Kill Car Shelter has been buying clunkers, wrecks, beaters, and heaps from around the tristate area – and not so much repairing them as transforming them. Sometimes they’ll lovingly restore a burned-out vintage car, like a now-sleek black and blue 1961 Chevy Impala Bubbletop that purrs with a refreshed 327 engine.

More often, they’ll take a backyard jalopy that’s been on the bricks for decades and rebuild it into something that stops traffic on Allegheny Avenue.

These “Mean Machines” are a series of cars rebuilt to look like they were scavenged from a postapocalyptic wasteland. The first of these, a rusted-out, powder blue 1960 Dodge Dart Seneca, was destined for the scrapyard before the crew fixed it up with enormous, equally rusted side mirrors and lifted it high above the street onto a towering dump trunk chassis.

Recently, No Kill Car Shelter’s Instagram account and Facebook page – the posts are a little bit punk rock, a little bit Hank Williams, a whole lot of Tarantino – have garnered a devoted following. The crew’s reels and YouTube videos of their pirate-ship cars steering out of the shop and droning down the streets of Port Richmond draw millions of views. The shop is pleased with their newfound notoriety. But they’d keep doing this even if no one was buying.

“It’s about keeping as many of these cars going as possible,” said Brian Smith, 42, founder of No Kill Car Shelter.

‘Keeping Old Iron Alive’

The shop’s motto is “Keeping Old Iron Alive.” But it could just as easily be “saving old cars, getting greasy, and being weird,” said Sage Binder, 27, Smith’s partner at No Kill Car Shelter, who also runs the shop’s burgeoning social media accounts, a job in itself.

Binder and Smith, who are both from South Jersey and have been dating for the last two years, first met years ago at the old Hot Rod Hoedown and Rock-N-Roll Rumble. The now defunct show, which started in 1999 near Silk City, a popular bar in Philadelphia’s Northern Liberties, was a celebration of mid-century custom car culture and the oddballs who populated it.

The cars at the Hoedowns weren’t the kind of gleaming muscle cars that collectors spend thousands on: They were modeled after the kind of DIY inventiveness that a ‘50s greaser might exhibit, cobbling together their own car in the backyard.

That’s the kind of cars Smith, Binder, and other friends were drawn to. After a few years of attending Hoedowns, they started the Deadbeaters Car Club with a handful of other friends. A drinking club with a car problem, they called it, jokingly.

Smith, who grew up in Burlington County, New Jersey, and has the firing order numbers for a small block Chevy engine tattooed on his knuckles, sweated through mechanic jobs before opening up No Kill Car Shelter. Binder, of Voorhees Township, New Jersey, started going to car shows with her father, Scott – a co-organizer of the Hoedown, who occasionally helps out in the shop – as soon as she could walk.

“The happiest time of my life was going to car shows with my dad,” she said. “That was my jam.”

The Deadbeaters came together out of a sense of shared aesthetic. No one in the club was particularly interested in shiny paint jobs or impeccable chrome. “We don’t do show cars,” Smith said.

They loved the prospect of taking cars at the end of their roads and getting them running again – rusted finishes, patchy interiors, and all. Any parts they could salvage from a car, they did.

The result was a series of cars that look like they shouldn’t be running at all, roaring happily through Philly.

At first, the Deadbeaters Car Club was a hobby. Then it became Smith’s entire life.

“Everyone went their own ways, but I kept rolling with it,” he said.

Eight years ago, he opened the No Kill Car Shelter. Soon, his and Binder’s shared love of rust buckets developed into a romance.

“I never met anyone else with the same level of passion for cool old cars,” Binder said.

Their shared passion caught on with others. People started buying the cars they were building.

In May, Roberto Perez, a 28-year-old auto mechanic and classic car enthusiast from Lancaster, bought a 1960 Chevy Bel Air that Smith had resurrected. Perez now drives the vintage car, which in an earlier life made a brief cameo in the film “A Bronx Tale” to work, the grocery store, and his 9-year-old son’s Little League games. He had fallen in love with the vintage cruiser – and the No Kill Car Shelter– the instant he saw them on Instagram.

“If you’re into old cars, and more importantly, keeping old cars on the road, they would be the place to look,” he said. “They are living my dream.”

‘It needs our love’

Smith brings in new cars each week, bought from Facebook Marketplace, traded for other cars or found by friends. Each one has a story and each one becomes a new obsession.

There’s the 1929 Ford Model A Pickup the crew got working one Saturday night, and call “Scrappy” because they use it for trips to the scrapyard.

“Sometimes it breaks down, sometimes it runs hot,” Smith said. “It gets a hoot every time I pull into the scrapyard, and they ask if it’s getting scrapped with everything else.”

“The answer is always, ‘No,’ ” Binder quickly added.

The Madison Street shop is packed with old cars, the couple’s lounging dogs, Chance and Maggie, and a rotating cast of mechanics, including Cory McGrath, 37, a Deadbeaters veteran. Everything from punk to classical to rockabilly blares over the speakers. The space is decorated as much like a rock club as it is an auto shop.

On a recent visit, Smith tinkered with a 1955 Pontiac that will be more like a 1960’s supercharged Street Freak gasser when he’s done with it. And Binder showed off a 1959 Thunderbird – “Just like the one Elvira had,” she said, proudly – that has become her latest passion project.

“It’s a bit of a rot bucket, and it needs our love,” she said. “But that’s what we’re here for.”