Runnin’ Down a Dream
With top-notch building skills and an eye for design, custom-car enthusiast Steve Heller transformed one car from commonplace to first place
Driven to Win: One local artisan transforms a vintage vehicle into a first-place prizewinner at two prestigious auto shows
Photograph by Steve Orbach
California is home to the Grand National Roadster Show, a competition and showcase featuring some of the fiercest hot-rods and coolest customized cars around. Across the country, in the bucolic Catskills, lives Steve Heller, who dreamt of winning first place at the Roadster exhibition ever since he began assembling his own custom autos at age 14. Fifty years later, his dream has come true.
Heller’s creation, the Marquis DeSoto, is the automobile version of Frankenstein’s monster: Although it’s mainly a combination of a 1998 Grand Marquis and a 1957 DeSoto, parts from 20 different cars made in the 1950s help bring the beast to life. “People ask me all the time why I chose to put those two models together,” Heller says. “A Grand Marquis is sort of the same size as a ’50s car, so I knew the proportions would be correct. But to get the vision I was going for, all those other parts were used.”
Heller shows off his four-foot trophy at the Roadster show
Photograph by Aaron Weisblatt
A Boiceville resident, Heller owns Fabulous Furniture, the eccentric shop that sells trash-to-treasure creations made from scrap metal, wood, old cars, and other recycled items. (As he puts it: “We use junk cars, and junk trees, and junk junk, and make beautiful things out of them.”) One of the items he’d found was the DeSoto; it had a perfect back end which he had thought about using to customize a newer car. The ideas started rolling from there.
With the help of assistant Mike Karpf, the project took one-and-a-half years — or about 1,000 hours — to complete (not including the time spent scavenging for parts). “God only knows” how much cash went into the car, Heller laughs. “I don’t usually keep track of the money, my business partner does. I just do what I want to do, how I want to do it, and I do it right, with the best quality.”
All the hard work paid off when the Marquis DeSoto gained national recognition by winning last year’s New York Times Collectible Car of the Year contest. The following day, California collector Steve Luth offered to buy the car. Heller sold it, but it wasn’t easy. “I almost cried when we loaded it on the truck,” he remembers. “It was like giving away my baby.”
Heller kept in touch with Luth, and asked him about entering “his baby” in this years’ Grand National Roadster Show. “You have to apply to get in,” Heller explains. “Being accepted is like getting nominated for an Oscar.” Luth applied, and not long after, Heller was on a plane headed west.
Cool Cruiser: Steve Heller’s prize-worthy Marquis DeSoto
Photograph by Steve Orbach
The car was a big hit — “even car guys had to study it to figure out all the parts,” he says. When first place in the Full Hardtop Sedan class was announced, a picture of the blue and white cruiser popped up on the big screen. Luth insisted that Heller go up and claim the four-foot trophy. “I almost fainted. I just couldn’t believe it,” he recalls. “I had to blink my eyes and pinch my arm. It was like winning the World Series.” Two weeks later, the car won first in class at the Sacramento Autorama, the second oldest indoor custom car show in the world.
Even though he no longer owns the car, the Marquis DeSoto and the awards it’s won have given Heller more opportunities than he could have imagined. Aaron Weisblatt, a writer and director currently living in the Valley, heard about the prize-winning auto and filmed a documentary series about its creator and his hobbies. Heller has also started doing custom car work. He and Karpf have already designed a few paint jobs — flames are popular — and built a custom trailer out of an old Cadillac (which will be dragged by a 1960 Corvette, by the way).
And, of course, he’s still building his own unique cars. The latest is a 2000 Dodge Magnum with a Hemi V8 engine, with fins from a 1960 Chrysler and other Cadillac parts welded on. “I’ve got hundreds of projects in mind,” he says. “I’d like to keep taking newer models and making them look like older cars — the kind of cars that look like they’re going 100 miles per hour when they’re standing still.” And he plans to continue entering these cars in showcases, as he did the Marquis DeSoto. “I was never sure if I could build a car of that quality and stature,” he says. “But I did. Winning that award was a childhood dream. It doesn’t get any better.”