It was a frigid December morning in 2009 and the snow was flying outside the unmarked bay door of The Hot Rod Garage in Denton. Owner Ray Bartlett had made the nearly 30-mile trek from his Kent Island home despite the weather. Earlier in the week, a man from Pennsylvania had called and said he was eager to see one of the cars for sale at the garage: a blindingly red 1934 Ford. But inside the shop, as Bartlett watched the rural Eastern Shore landscape disappear under a blanket of snow, he doubted the guy was even going to show.
Before long, however, a four-wheel-drive truck with Pennsylvania tags pulled into the gated lot and the customer stepped out. Bartlett already had the '34 Ford perched on an automotive lift in his uncluttered and uncommonly tidy showroom. Introductions were made, and the two walked over to take a closer look at the Ford. After a cursory inspection of the car's exterior, the visitor simply said, "I'll take it." He didn't sit in it. He didn't even start the engine.
"It was a weird deal, man," the usually matter-of-fact Bartlett says with a chuckle. "I said to him, 'That might not have an engine in there! You never asked me to open the hood!'"
But the customer didn't waver. He just said, "Believe me, I know everything about that car. I want that car."
While it might not be unheard of to make such a hasty decision in a new car dealership, this was a 75-year-old relic the guy was buying. One that carried a $175,000 price tag. But then again, it also carried a Hot Rod Garage emblem on the front of its chrome-plated grille. And to an increasing number of vintage car gearheads, that insignia is more than endorsement enough.
Bartlett, 51, began forging his reputation in the automotive industry in 1982 when he opened Superior Auto Body, a collision repair shop in Gambrills. At the same time, as if starting a new business wasn't challenging enough, he and wife Terri were also starting a family, welcoming the birth of son Brandon in 1982 and daughter Jessica in 1985. Through the couple's hard work—and often with the children in tow—Superior quickly established a reputation as one of the best body shops in the area.
It also afforded Ray the luxury of pursuing his passion for resurrecting—and hot rodding—vintage automotive tin. It started with working on one or two hot-rod projects as space and time would allow, but eventually the prospect of spending his days straightening crinkled fenders on Hyundais dulled in comparison to the excitement of dealing in the custom body mods, mile-deep paint, and raw horsepower of the souped-up antiques. So as Terri and other staffers took over the day-to-day management responsibilities at Superior, Ray capitalized on the ever-increasing demand for Bartlett-built speed demons.
"I built an addition onto the end of the garage, and I was doing the hot rods out of there," says Bartlett. "We outgrew that, so I built another building in the parking lot." The Bartletts' decided that if the hot-rod business was going to have its own building, it needed its own name, too. So with that matter-of-fact tone intact, the business was simply named The Hot Rod Garage.
The new shop soon reached full capacity, and Ray and Terri realized that what started as a side business had taken on a life of its own—and was going to need a lot more space to grow. Property values being what they were in 1999, it quickly became apparent that building a new shop in Anne Arundel County was not realistic. So the couple looked across the Chesapeake Bay Bridge and found an interesting opportunity on the outskirts of Denton: a 15-acre plot with an existing building offered for less than a quarter of what they would have spent west of the bridge. And as fate would have it, the circa 1940 building originally housed a Ford dealership. A deal was struck, and The Hot Rod Garage had a permanent home.
By 2006, the Bartletts' business wasn't the only thing that was growing. Their kids were young adults by then and starting families of their own. After the Bartletts' first granddaughter was born, Terri decided she was tired of making the commute across the bridge to manage Superior. They sold the collision repair business, and Terri now spends two or three days a week doing administrative work at the garage and the rest of her time enjoying her four granddaughters.
And those grandkids, like their parents before them, are being raised on the fumes of classic American cars.
"We started taking the kids to car shows and other events when they were babies," Terri says. "Our kids really grew up around the shop, and our grandkids spend time there, too."
At one point, the shop was at work on a 1941 Willys fitted with a brand new Chrysler hemi engine. During one visit to the shop, when the car had been moved to another part of the building, their oldest granddaughter asked, "Who moved the hemi?"
It must be in the blood.
Inside the showroom today, a 1965 Corvette sits next to a 1934 Ford pickup truck that was recently completed for George Poteet, a well-known performance and specialty car collector from Memphis. Poteet bought the truck from Ray as a weathered, all-original hulk, then immediately told him to take it back to The Hot Rod Garage and rebuild it as he saw fit.
"In my opinion, Ray's done some really, really neat vehicles," Poteet says in a thick Southern drawl. "He's done enough of them that I didn't have any problem leaving it with him without having to give him too much direction."
The resulting truck, with its understated maroon and black paint and well-concealed Chevy Corvette engine, is simple, fast, and stunning.
In the main fabrication area of the shop floor, everything from late-'20s roadsters to late-'60s muscle cars can be found in various stages of modification or assembly. There are even a number of 1940 Ford coupes, sedans, and trucks that could very well have seen the inside of the old dealership when they were brand new.
Given the number of vehicles in progress or waiting to go under the fabricator's blade, there is little evidence that the economic turmoil of the past few years has had much of an impact on business.
"I remember 9/11," Bartlett sighs. "I figured that was the end of my business. And, at first, I had [customers] calling, saying, 'Stop my car.' And then within two weeks, they called back and said, 'You know what? I could be dead next week. I want my car done now.'"
There are currently eight full-time craftsmen on the Hot Rod staff, and Bartlett is getting ready to add a ninth to the interior department. Beyond that, he's in no hurry to expand.
"More than that and I can't keep track of them," he says. "Then you start to have quality issues."
He emphasizes that his cars are more than pretty exteriors. "We definitely build them so you can drive them," he notes.
Sounds like a foregone conclusion, right? In fact, there are many shops that perform the same caliber of work as The Hot Rod Garage only to have the final product spend all of its time on a trailer being hauled from one car show to the next, its tires never touching the pavement.
When a customer recently asked for such a show car, Bartlett respectfully declined.
"I told him, 'Nothing personal, but I just have no interest in that.'"
The two parted ways as friends, and the customer went on to spend $2.8 million having the car finished. "I'm just not into trophy queens," Bartlett says bluntly. "I like to build cars you can drive."
Bartlett doesn't just like to restore these classic cars, he likes to drive them, too. He built a new car for himself last year—a 1932 Ford roadster powered by a 1966 Corvette engine. With only 100 miles on the odometer, Ray and a small group of friends (two of whom are also customers) set out on a cross-country road trip in their hot rods.
"We left on a Tuesday morning and put 7,500 miles on our cars," he says, smiling. "We were gone for three weeks. It was a blast!"
During that trip, while at a well-known California hot-rod shop, Ray noticed an older gentleman quietly examining every detail of his roadster. "Is this your car?" the man asked. "That thing is bad."
It was then that Ray realized he was talking to legendary hot-rod builder Vern Tardel, who builds cars and consults for movies that rely on period-correct authenticity like American Graffiti and The World's Fastest Indian.
"That was pretty cool," Bartlett says, laughing like a kid who just got his first Hot Wheels.
The only drawback? Three weeks in a roadster—with only a loose cloth top to protect passengers from the elements—meant that Terri sat this one out. "We've been married for 32 years, and I've never been away from my wife for two nights," Bartlett says. "I told her we're going to have to build a car with a top so she can come with me next time."