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In Photos: The Hottest Customs in Motown

The Hot Wheels Legends Tour rolls into Dearborn.

An elegant roadster—15 years in the making and a composite of an amazing array of ideas and parts—was competing with a rat rod covered in skulls and bamboo. A Mad Max–style special breathed flames near a Suzuki Samurai on snow tracks: fire versus ice. The savvy spied the Karmann Ghia with a T-Top and appreciated the cool Chevy van rescued from the side of the road. Kids lined up to peek inside a sinister school bus.

The Motor City is known for grit, hard work, and a passion for cars. So it was no surprise that the Dearborn stop on the 2019 Hot Wheels Legends tour drew a big crowd and diverse array of modified vehicles—220 in all—vying to be made into the next die-cast model.

Paul and Cheryl Jurewicz of Shelby Township drew praise from the judges for their Dream Roadster, which traces its roots to a ’57 Studebaker Golden Hawk. But that was just the beginning of a 15-year project that drew inspiration from a sketch and used imagination and parts from about seven makes and models to make it a reality. Paul is no stranger to Hot Wheels. He had a 1968 Python—one of the original 16 Hot Wheels ever offered for sale. The Python was based on a car designed by the staff of Car Craft magazine in 1961, and the “Dream Rod” was built in 1963. He used the same sketch to build his own car but as a roadster, using a model car to see how it would look without a top. He took a Frankenstein approach. Like the original Dream Rod, his Dream Roadster has a windshield and other parts from a Studebaker, front fenders and doors—which he shortened—from a ’60 Pontiac, Corvair portions in the rear, some Lincoln touches, and a pair of headlights donated by two Harley-Davidsons.

Perhaps the most ingenious move was taking the sunroof from an ’80s Audi wagon and laying it across the back of the car, creating a unique trunk. Who even envisions that, let alone tries it? Another cool touch: The shifter knob is a wooden wine stopper he found at the Ann Arbor Art Fair. Ultimately, the car received a House of Kolor Sunrise Pearl paint job and the Dearborn show was the first time the Dream Roadster ventured outside. Its paint sparkling in the natural sunlight, it isn’t quite finished, he said.

Judges, who included Hot Wheels designers and car buffs, quickly put the Dream Roadster on the short list of potential winners.

“The ones that stood out, really stood out,” Natalie Neff, an editor at AutoWeek, said. The panel, which also included a couple members of the Chevrolet Camaro team, a state senator, and other car buffs, was on the lookout for the car that best combined three attributes: Hot Wheels–style spirit, creativity, and DIY craftsmanship.

There was also admiration for the work put in by David Rappley on his matte-blue ’77 Chevy van, notable for its clean design and simplicity. It didn’t start out that way. Three years ago, Rappley drove from his Grand Blanc home to Georgia to buy a ’59 Chevy Impala only to discover too much rust to make the purchase. He was on his way home with an empty trailer when he spotted a Chevy van on the side of the road in South Carolina. It had a bad transmission and had been sitting there for five years, long enough for grass to take root. But it had a solid body, so $800 later it was on the trailer headed to Michigan. The reserve deputy sheriff used his spare time to bring it back to life.

Rappley created his own personal trim level: the SS 383. The van (which never had a Super Sport badge from the factory) has a 430-hp 383-cubic-inch V-8 stroker engine with a nitrous-oxide system. He cut holes in the hood for a functional cold air intake and had a little fun by giving it googly eyes. In back, he mounted ’59 Cadillac taillights. The van was painted Sand Blue with his own SS 383 badging applied. This was Rappley’s first van, and he hadn’t given any thought to finishing the interior. In the end he decorated it with wood from Home Depot with white LED strips. The project has taken three years, and the next step is installing hand controls so that Rappley, who uses a wheelchair, can drive it. “I built it to enjoy it.”

One of the judges, Michigan state senator Mallory McMorrow, had a unique perspective. She worked for Mattel from 2009 to 2012 with the Hot Wheels global brand and licensing team, developing a style guide for the brand and designing backpacks, skateboards, and other merchandise—essentially everything but actual cars. McMorrow said she knew Hot Wheels sought unique customs with a sense of imagination. “I interviewed kids to see what they like,” she said. Their favorite: a modified school bus with graffiti, a “Drop’d Out” sign instead of a stop sign, and comfy seats and floor lighting inside. Fellow judge Neff also liked the bus. “There was a joyous mood about it.”

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The 18-city Hot Wheels Legends tour started in March and continues with one vehicle chosen at each stop to move onto the finals at the SEMA Show in Las Vegas, Nevada, this fall to immortalize a vehicle as a Hot Wheels 1:64-scale die-cast metal toy.