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Middletown Life

A place where old cars get a new lease on life

Mar 31, 2015 03:57PM ● By Steven Hoffman

Out behind the nondescript business park location of One Off Rod and Custom, there are battered cars – and chunks of cars – that most people would dismiss as hopeless. But Gary Corkell can see their potential.

One of them – a rust-pitted 1953 Chrysler New Yorker – will one day be his. Indicating the huge, sleek fenders of the car, he said, “Who wouldn't want to rock this? There's something simple, and raw and mechanical about these cars. Today's cars have too many sensors and computers and all that stuff, and they're cheaply made. These old cars are always going to be cooler, no matter what.”

Inside the brightly lighted garage, there are usually about 15 vehicles in various stages of repair or redesign. Each one is a labor of love for Corkell, who took over the business in Middletown last year from former owner Larry Stewart.

Corkell grew up on the Eastern Shore. “I was a farm boy, but was always mechanically inclined,” he said during an interview at the shop. “When I was a kid, I got a job at a body shop, and I guess I just followed that. I've always had a passion for cars, and I raced motorcycles. Eventually, it gave me a skill set. I've always been an artistic, creative person, too, so I was always good at drawing and painting. I started painting motorcycles for all my friends.”

He ran a motorcycle and aircraft paint shop in Naples, Fla., until selling it in 2008 and moving back to Dover in 2009 for family reasons. “We did custom paint and fabrication on motorcycles. It was a pretty big shop, 10,000 square feet, 15 employees,” he said.

He was introduced to Stewart, who was contemplating retirement. “We clicked, and hit it off,” Corkell said. "He made it easy to transition in. I've been running the place for over a year now, and in three years, I'll be full owner.”

Corkell has changed some of the staff, and now has nine employees. "I'm kind of a sheep herder, and not really a sheep," he said, smiling. "I'm pretty aggressive with marketing and I like to do things for myself."

Corkell handles the painting in the shop, and takes pride in the final results, which take weeks to accomplish. Each layer is applied and buffed to a sheen that looks better than showroom-new. It takes time.

"It's harder to find people who are qualified, and not expecting instant gratification," he said of the people who work with him. "What we do here is not instant gratification. You have to hone your skills over a period of years. This is a skill that is taught, but it's not taught in a trade school or anything like that. You learn the basics, but you have to have a knack for it. You need someone who is intelligent and has an inner passion."

Corkell said he works closely with the team, taking everyone out to dinner, or for bowling excursions and barbeques a couple of times a month, to build camaraderie.

Corkell has added motorcycles to the shop's projects, and he enjoys the wide range of subject matter that people want painted onto the gas tanks and sides of their bikes. "You can get really crazy with the paint, because people who ride motorcycles like loud, artistic stuff painted on their bikes," he said.

The shop is aimed at making high-quality work affordable, Corkell said. "Not everyone can afford $200,000 cars -- although we can build them. There's guys out there trying to build their own cars and do the work that they can do, but I like to be here to help them with the harder parts with the equipment that I have here. I offer services for the working guy, because I feel like everybody should be able to hot rod."

Some of the clients at One Off Rod and Custom have 80 or 90 cars in their collections, Corkell said. Most of the cars are either designed to be driven and shown off, or they are hauled around on trailers to keep them in mint condition. "Most of the cars we do are between classic drivers and full-blown show cars," Corkell said. "I like the driver type myself. These cars should be driven and enjoyed."

He particularly likes the elegant designs of pre-World War II cars. "I like the 1930s and early 1940s. The Art Deco cars with the old chrome," he said. "Those designers really had an eye."

Getting a car back into shape -- whether it's to the original specifications or a custom redesign -- is a matter of what the customer likes and can afford, balanced with a reality check. If a car is too far gone, or too rare, it can be cost-prohibitive to recreate all the necessary parts. "If a car is really intact, we should make it the way it was," Corkell said. "If it needs big repairs, we can get creative and turn it into something different."

In the case of rare cars, parts can be made. If it's something like a classic '69 Camaro, though, you can build one from brand-new parts. There's one in the middle of the shop right now, with a basic black body and bubble-wrapped reproduction parts that will eventually be assembled into a working classic car.

The shop draws clients from the Carolinas, New York, Pittsburgh and beyond, Corkell said, and there's a waiting list. One Off Rod and Custom is regularly featured in automotive magazines like Street Rodder, "and we have several of the top 100 cars in the nation," he said.

During a walk through the busy shop, where he was accompanied every step of the way by Roxy, a bulldog, Corkell pointed out several works in progress.

A 1955 Chevy is being rebuilt, but it's getting modern disc brakes for safety's sake. Several cars are getting new Corvette engines designed for durability and power -- at a cost of about $12,000 each, Corkell said.

At one side of the shop is the gleaming red body of a 1967 Jaguar XKE, a stunningly rare, hand-built automobile. "Just the bonnet is worth about $30,000," Corkell said, pointing to the hood.

Corkell handled the paint work, which took 15 coats. In all the time spent painting and buffing, "I get really attached to some of these cars," he said. "We're doing the body and the paint, then giving it back to the owner, who will build the rest of the car. When it's done, it'll be close to a $300,000 car."

With that kind of investment, customers like to keep tabs on the progress of their babies. Each step of the way is documented and posted on the business website, and on Facebook. "We build such great relationships with customers," Corkell said. "They can look at our Facebook page and YouTube to see how their cars are doing, and they share that with their friends. Whenever we put a video out, people from all over the world are watching."

In the case of a blue Chevy convertible in the middle of the shop, "when we started, all that was left was the firewall and the rockers," Corkell said. "We built everything else."

For Corkell and his team, "You've got to love this," he said. "We are passionate about these old cars. There's nothing cooler than the way it used to be."

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