”It’s an impulse buy, ” said Mr. Lauria, whose shop, Total Performance Inc., also makes other model replicas of cars from bygone eras. ”You don’t need one. You just want one.”
For 31 years, Mr. Lauria has provided the means for indulgence, first selling parts for people restoring their own cars out of a shop in North Haven before moving to Wallingford and selling assembled cars, or the kits to make them. Last year, sales were ”in the millions, ” he said.
Seventy percent of his customers assemble their own cars. The assembly manual is 134 pages long, but Mr. Lauria insists the car can be put together in a weekend (clearly by those adults whose childhood featured model-building rather than say, Hula-Hooping).
Ron Wcislo, a 50-year-old who worked in a Fairfield factory until his recent retirement, is one of Mr. Lauria’s customers. He owns a T-bucket that he built for $12, 000 and is now selling. He also owns a 1932 Model B coupe that has been featured in industry magazines.
The cars, he said, rarely fail to elicit smiles and thumbs-up signs from other drivers. He drives his car in parades and shows like the National Street Rod Association Show in Louisville, Ky., an event that draws 12, 000 cars. Owning one, the Stratford resident said, means being part of a club.
”The camaraderie between street rodders is just great, ” he said. ”If I’m on the road and someone needs help, I’ll stop even if I have to turn around 20 miles to the next exit and they’d do the same for me.”
Many of Mr. Lauria’s customers travel to cruise nights at places like Bethel’s Sycamore Drive-In, the Heavenly Donut in Seymour and the Mohegan Sun Casino.
T-buckets may look as though they should be screaming down a race track, but appearances can be deceiving. These street rods are the vehicular equivalent of a silver tea service, polished to perfection but not for every day use. Owners favor sunny, dry conditions. They steer clear of busy parking lots and shun water like a cat. Because?
”Who wants to wash the thing?” Mr. Lauria said. ”It takes a long time.” An hour or two? ”Try five or six.” That’s with the Q-tips for hard to reach places, air hoses to blow away dust, and hand-cleaning the engine. The bodies are molded Fiberglass. On certain models, the doors deliberately don’t open necessitating a youthful hop to gain access.
These days, Mr. Lauria ships and sells cars to such far-flung places as Malaysia, Japan and Amsterdam or just around the corner in Wallingford. His shop employs 22 people and is 8, 000 square feet. He said he wants more space to expand the research and development aspect of the business.
Dressed in a sweatshirt, jeans and cowboy boots, a cigarette never out of reach, Mr. Lauria, 62, would not be out of place working a wrench under the hood. Yet business keeps him more on the phone fielding orders or at the computer, checking his company’s Web site, the one that enables you to build the car you might buy from him online, registering the price with each extra feature to complete a kit.
Routinely featured in auto magazines, Total Performance was also written up in People, Playboy and Penthouse magazines as well as showcased on television, Mr. Lauria said.
He reports that hot rods (those vehicles used for racing and are not street legal) and street rods have ”gone legit, ” and points out the name ”hot rod” can be found in Webster’s Dictionary. The street rod evolved because some drivers yearned for a legal hot rod.
”People said, ‘I want a hot rod I can drive from point A to point B and go to a car show, ”’ Mr. Lauria said.
Hobbyist of all stripes won’t be surprised to learn the cars are not inexpensive. The basic T-bucket kit of a basic chassis and body costs almost $4, 000, but a kit-built car could easily cost between $25, 000 and $35, 000. A replica of a Model A or B costs as much as $50, 000 complete.
Customers are an economically diverse group and mostly male, but women are becoming more frequent buyers. Ten years ago, two of Mr. Lauria’s three daughters, Gina and Lisa, drove a T-bucket across the country to promote the business and ”also for fun.” Today his three young grandsons are frequent visitors to the shop.
Dave Goduti said it was assembling the car with his 17-year-old son that he most enjoyed. Mr. Goduti and David Jr., who live in Wallingford, built a Total T-bucket, bright yellow with white leather interior.
Mr. Goduti, a computer technician and his wife, Chicky, drive the car to cruise nights or shows, places they used to go as a family when the children were little, and talk with other owners. Street-rod owners are down to earth, he said, adding that something about the cars makes owners forget their differences.
Image by vinayr16 from Pixabay