Local Car Builder's "Fab Five" at Food Lion AutoFair
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His wild dream machines are among the best-kept secrets of the street rod crowd, but local fabricator David Watkins will be in the national spotlight Sept. 13-16 when five of his custom-built machines are featured at Lowe's Motor Speedway's Food Lion AutoFair.
The China Grove, N.C., resident has worked on and raced cars since childhood, but his professional career began in 1980 when he started fabricating race cars. During the 1980s, Watkins worked for various NASCAR teams, including Hendrick Motorsports where he built cars for drivers such as Darrell Waltrip, Tim Richmond and Ken Schrader. He even prepared some of the machines featured in the movie "Days of Thunder."
In 1991, Watkins opened Watty's Speed & Fabrication next to his home and began building cars from the ground up for discriminating clients who wanted-and could afford-the very best materials and craftsmanship. He made it clear that his was not a restoration service or repair shop, that he was only interested in projects that challenged his fabrication and engineering skills.
Many of Watty's creations start with nothing more than a few pieces of factory sheet metal or an original radiator grille, around which the customer envisions a coupe, roadster or fastback to match his personality.
Watkins does not specialize in any particular period of time or style of car, but his clients generally want a custom that blends the hot rod culture of the 1940s through 1960s with the latest high-performance equipment.
One example of this formula that Watkins will display as a "favorite" at Food Lion AutoFair is a 1953 Studebaker Champion he built in 2000. At first glance, it could be a stock Studebaker riding on modern wheels. A closer look reveals body panels either built from scratch or massaged into subtle new shapes, a 502-cubic-inch big-block V-8, heavy-duty four-speed manual transmission, modern Corvette suspension and brakes, and-tucked out of sight-a hand-built frame. The rear seat has been replaced with handmade, leather-covered storage bins with lids that hide modern stereo equipment.
Watkins doesn't discuss the dollar value of his machines, but an educated guess suggests that more than 50 new Champions could have been purchased in 1953 for what this red-and-flamed two-door cost in the 21st century.
Watty's never advertises, but word-of-mouth has kept the small crew so busy that more than 100 dream machines have been produced during the company's 17 years.
Rounding out the "Watty's Fabulous Five" display at the Sept. 13-16 Food Lion AutoFair are a:
. 1935 Ford - orange and pearl with a hand-built chassis and 427-cubic-inch V-8 engine
. 1936 Chevrolet - black with flames, Pro Street-modified with a supercharged 350-cubic-inch V-8 engine
. 1941 Willys - red with flames, Pro Street-modified with a 500-cubic-inch V-8 engine and automatic transmission
. 1954 Chevrolet truck - Pro Street-modified, wearing pearl yellow paint
"This is my first time to assemble a group of my favorite cars for a display," Watkins said. "Most of my clients buy these cars to drive, and for their own personal enjoyment. They usually don't care much about showing them, so it's pretty rare to see this many of my cars together at once."
Other attractions scheduled for the Sept. 13-16 Food Lion AutoFair include a trio of cars from Dale Earnhardt Jr.'s personal collection; TV host John Walsh's unique amphibious vehicle; Bumblebee and Ironhide from the hit movie "Transformers;" Dale Earnhardt's No. 3 "pass in the grass"
Chevrolet from 1987; and two awesome Audis-the R8 supercar and the R10 diesel race car.
Food Lion AutoFair is the world's largest automotive extravaganza.
The four-day event includes a car show featuring various makes and models from more than 50 clubs; more than 7,000 vendor spaces that offer a plethora of automotive parts and memorabilia and a car corral that features nearly 1,500 vehicles available for sale or trade.
Hours are 8 a.m. to 6 p.m., Thursday through Saturday, and 8 a.m. to 4 p.m., on Sunday. Tickets are $10 for adults. Children under 12 are admitted free when accompanied by an adult. Parking for the event is $5. For information, contact the speedway events department at (704) 455-3205.