Can you assemble your own car?

The Art of Car Assembly
A finished Mercedes 500K replica
A finished Mercedes 500K replica
Courtesy of Vern Hance

Vern Hance can say with assurance his 1935 Mercedes-Benz Special Roadster is indeed special. The sleek lines and Great Gatsby appeal of the convertible two-seater draw admiring stares when he pulls up in front of car museums. But little do people know that under the graceful fenders, the custom top, and the blue-blood air lurks a very pedestrian frame culled from a Ford LTD and other assorted American components.

"People are surprised when they find out," Hance, a retired mechanical engineer, said with a laugh. "It's like Rodney Dangerfield said, 'I don't get no respect.'" Hance, 78, is treasurer and newsletter writer for the Northern California Kit Car Club. He's also a car builder with more than 30 years of experience. Hance has produced replicas of the Ferrari Dino and a 1952 MGTD, and he has his eye set on a 1937 Cord replica -- that is, if he chooses to embark on another project.

He said it was rare for one person to have all the skills needed to complete a car from start to finish, especially when it came to the body and upholstery, where science leaves off and art comes in. "How the car looks when it's finished is what attracts people," he said. "But that's what people take a lot of pride in."

Each year the club holds a concours event, inviting the more than 70 members to show off their cars to each other and the public. "You want to see and be seen," he said. "And the real classic cars are works of art."

Steve Graber found the look of the car was important as well. When he developed the lines for the custom body on his La Bala he was surprised at the feedback from people. "They didn't comment so much on how it worked, but how it looked was something everyone could have an opinion on," Graber said.

Some of the comments were positive, others negative. "But whatever the comment, they were looking, they were interested, and that was satisfying," he said.