John Dubois' artistic and mechanical genius is best appreciated when you see the "before'' pictures of the junked 1960 Chevrolet El Camino he rescued from the Arizona desert.
It had sat for years beneath a eucalyptus tree outside Phoenix with little chance of ever amounting to much more than salvage parts for some other vehicle. Not that it had many parts left. The hood and tailgate were missing. You could see the ground through what was left of the floorboard.
A friend found the car on eBay and knew Dubois couldn't resist the challenge. His love affair with cars began more than 50 years ago, and he understands better than anyone the romance and nostalgia attached to certain vehicles. He not only brings them back to life in a 1,500-square-foot garage behind his house in New Port Richey, he makes them better than ever.
The El Camino is just the most recent example, but it's dramatic and getting plenty of buzz since October when judges pronounced it among the best of 1,500 vintage cars at the National Street Rod Association's annual southeastern U.S. show in Tampa.
Dubois, who founded Mint Restorations in 1993, let the El Camino sit for a few years before searching the nation for parts. He took 18 months to create what you see now, a sleek silver bullet with flawless chrome, red leather bucket seats and matching ash wood truck bed carved by a custom cabinet maker who gave it six coats of paint. From a purely aesthetic point of view, the El Camino is spectacular, but it's the 450-horsepower LS6 engine he took out of a Corvette that creates a rumble deep in your chest when Dubois turns the key. Even with all that thrust, Dubois says he gets 24 miles to the gallon "if I'm a good boy.''
Aficionados stand around the coupe/truck for hours at regional shows and gush about all the extra touches, including a performance camshaft, air suspension system and polished aluminum fuel tank. This car reflects Dubois' attention to detail and mission: to restore classics with the latest in technology and equipment, right down to the air conditioning system, digital instruments and iPod jack in the stereo hidden in the dash.
Restored 1960 El Caminos that can't match this vehicle are advertised for more than $50,000, but Dubois isn't certain what he would ask for his masterpiece. "Everything's for sale,'' he said, "but I'd like to enjoy this one for awhile.'' He plans to show it off at the Goodguys Rod and Custom Association All American Nationals, one of the premier shows expected to draw more than 70,000 visitors to Kissimmee from April 25-27.
If you go to mintrestorations.com, a website Dubois admits could use a little update, you will see examples of the custom classic cars and turn-key hot rods he has created — working by himself, taking his time. He started with Corvettes and remains a certified judge for the National Corvette Restorers Society. Then he later moved to building 1932 and 1937 Fords and other classics like a 1965 Pontiac GTO, 1968 Chevy Camaro and other special orders, all with the same modern upgrades that make the El Camino such a head-turner.
It's probably no surprise that Dubois evolved into such a master mechanic with a total vision for restorations. At age 13, he began hanging around his uncle's Pontiac/Buick/Cadillac dealership in Hamilton, Ontario, where his dad was sales manager. Young John's first job was sanding cars in the body shop. "I'd sand and sand until my hands bled,'' he said. "I'd just tape them up and keeping sanding.''
His father got his own dealership in Winnipeg where at 18, John worked on weekends and summers as a mechanic's apprentice. Meanwhile, he couldn't get enough of drag racing, hanging out at the local track.
"I raced everything I could get my hands on,'' he recalled. His father's dealership provided a 1971 Pontiac Firebird that Dubois raced to a National Hot Rods Association speed record he said still stands.
More important than records, he insists, is the education he received at tracks where mechanics constantly tinkered to make their cars run faster and better. "I kept my mouth shut and just observed,'' he said.
Pictures and magazine articles from his racing days hang on the bathroom wall in his workshop, a room he calls the "Garage Mahal.'' He prefers to work alone but welcomes customers checking progress on their babies. They enter what Dubois' wife of 21 years, Jean, refers to as "the man door.''
At 65, he still goes through that door at 6 a.m. every weekday. He plans to finish restoring two Chevy Impalas, a '61 bubbletop and a '62 hardtop.
"But after that,'' he said, "I have no plans. I expect I'll keep busy. I'm my own worst critic, always wondering if I'll ever build the perfect car.''
Some would argue he found it in the Arizona desert.