*State AP Wire
CANTON — He reclines in his chair, inside a cramped office surrounded by wall-to-wall framed magazine clippings and 40-year-old photographs of his drag-racing days.
By most measures, Gary Hatfield is a modest man, wearing white tennis shoes with crew-cut socks, denim shorts and a mauve work shirt for his business, Hatfield Restorations, located on his family’s more than half-century-old farm.
“When I was a kid, I always wanted to own a filling station,” Hatfield said.
Now 60, his dream has transformed into more than that — it is a million-dollar business of restoring and customizing icons of America’s past: Antique cars.
Hatfield got an early start in the car industry. He purchased his first car, a 1944 Chevrolet Coupe, at 11 years old. He sold a cow and a calf to pay for the paint and sold a horse to pay for interior work. The car was road-worthy by the time he got his driver’s license when he was 14.
His father usually kept nice cars around but never was involved to this extent. Cars are part of Hatfield’s heritage. It is in his blood.
“I’ve always been a car guy,” he said.
After graduating from high school, he went to work in the oilfields, took a year of drafting at Henderson County Community College — now known as Trinity Valley Community College — and became a commercial artist in Dallas.
In the meantime, he typically was working on friends’ cars.
But the day he was drafted in January, 1973, put things in perspective.
“I kept thinking, ‘I’ve got to get out of this Army to get back to doing cars,’” Hatfield said.
After two years in the service, he was back home and racing a 1962 Corvette and a 1968 Camaro on the Owentown drag strip, northeast of Tyler on Texas Highway 155 He also raced on the salt flats in Bonneville, Utah.
He remembers when drivers from Dallas and Tyler would come out just to race him.
Eventually, he stopped racing and joined his father in a commercial construction company, building schools and a hospital in Canton. Throughout that venture, he kept working on cars.
Coming from a family of builders, he said the mechanical aspects and working with his hands are his biggest draws to cars.
In 1990, although his father doubted a restoration shop’s financial stability, Hatfield decided to take his passion full time.
Most of what he knows about painting and upholstery work is self-taught. He averages seven cars a year with about 2,000 working hours on each car. At $65 an hour, Hatfield’s hobby has grown into a million-dollar business with 15 full-time employees.
In 20 years, he has not met a project he could not finish.
“‘74, ’75 is our cutoff,” Hatfield said of the years of the cars he works on. “That’s when cars went south on us.”
While he prefers doing custom work, he never settled on a favorite car.
“I like the challenge of every car being different,” he said.
In some of the 70- and 80-year-old hand-built cars, he finds doors of different sizes and even wooden frames shrouded in sheet metal.
Luckily his shop has the ability to make parts because finding 80-year-old headlights, the right door handles or bumpers can be a challenge.
When he started in 1990, he relied mostly on what he calls “The Restorer’s Bible” – Hemmings Motor News. Over the years, he developed a wrecking yard with about 150 cars to use for parts. Now he does most of his part searches online.
The process is a labor of love.
“You wonder about all the cars’ history,” Hatfield said.
And most of them he knows.
There’s a crude 1926 Nash Roadster he calls a “basket case” because it was disassembled and thrown in baskets in 1961. With only 60 horsepower, he said it sounds like a tractor running.
In the fabrication shop is a 1932 Ford owned by a Dallas man who boasts a collection of 58 other ‘32 roadsters.
“The ‘32 Ford is kind of like belly buttons,” Hatfield said, a very popular car.
This car’s engine 1936 engine won the 1938 New York National Championship and Hatfield is shooting for it to win America’s Most Beautiful Roadster at the Pomona, Calif., show.
There is a hand-built 1940 Packard Darrin Convertible Sedan that sold 60 years ago for $7,410. Hatfield estimated it is worth about $725,000 today.
The rare car, just one of 11 custom built in Los Angeles, belongs to a couple from Waxahachie, and won a class award in August 2010 at the prestigious Concourse d’Elegance Pebble Beach show in Monterey.
Perhaps his pride is in a 1935 Ford truck that once belonged to Gene Winfield, a legendary custom car builder from California, who sold it in the 1960s.
Hatfield found the Winfield truck, once famous for its golden sheen, in 2009. It had sat in a barn in Oregon for several decades, had no engine, rust damage and cracking blue paint.
Among his long resume of projects is a 1954 custom Ford he built for guitar legend Jimmy Vaughn, and in his personal collection is a 1940 Buick he restored for and drove to a Roadster Show in California this summer and a 1948 jeep station wagon he uses for short trips into town, among 10 other classics.
Looking at new client’s project, a 1951 Cadillac, Hatfield can see past the rust and grueling hours of work.
“It was in their family and belonged to their father,” Hatfield said. “I can see a car and think, ‘We could do this or take it to the next level.’”
On most of the cars he restores, he adds power steering, disc-brakes, fuel-injection engines, air conditioning and more.
“The cars we do now were never this nice,” Hatfield said. “But it’s easy to have $100,000 in a car and that car may not be worth half.”
Canton Mayor Cary Hilliard said the town is fortunate for Hatfield and his legacy, which all started in Canton.
Hatfield’s work is artistry, Hilliard said.
“He adds a new dimension to our town and he’s making it famous from a whole different unique way,” Hilliard said.
Hatfield Restoration will participate in the Canton Autumn Stroll Festival Oct. 7-9 in downtown Canton.
Hatfield said he looks forward to sharing some of his finished projects at the car show, which will be at the First Monday Trade Days pavilion.
In his office, across the wall from the black and white photograph of his ’62 dragster, he points to a framed article featuring a 1934 Ford 3-Window Coupe.
When he owned it, it was a Pros’ Pick at the National Street Rod Association competition in Louisville, Kentucky, the Boyd Coddington Pros’ Pick at Goodguys Southwest Nationals in Scottsdale, Ariz., and in the Goodguys Lone Star Nationals in Fort Worth. It won the Street Rodder Magazine Choice at the Daryl Starbird Show in Tulsa and the Turtle Wax top 100 Goodguys Del Mar Nationals in Del Mar, Calif.
Even after selling the blue beauty in 2006, it continues to win awards and fame across the United States, he said.
His business can be boiled down to a love of driving, he said.
Although he generally sticks to cars earlier than 1974, he has worked on a 1978 Ford Mustang II and anticipates working on some later model Camaros. While the heyday of the automotive industry has passed, he said the new Chevrolet Camaros, Ford Mustangs and Dodge Challengers are encouraging.
Without the 1932 Ford or the Ford Mustang, Hatfield doubts if America could have developed the car culture it has today.
“They’re American icons,” he said.