Fiat Chrysler mechanic is quietly transforming muscle cars in an unmarked garage

"The funny thing is, the Chrysler was the poor man's muscle car. In the collector market, they rule."

Dave Dudek, center, poses for a photo between a 1971 Dodge Charger R/T, left, and a 1971 Plymouth 'Cuda with billboard decal at Dave Dudek Muscle Cars garage in Clinton Township.
Dave Dudek, center, poses for a photo between a 1971 Dodge Charger R/T, left, and a 1971 Plymouth 'Cuda with billboard decal at Dave Dudek Muscle Cars garage in Clinton Township. –Junfu Han/Detroit Free Press/TNS

CLINTON TOWNSHIP, Mich. — The men talk of Plum Crazy Purple, Vitamin C Orange, and Sassy Grass Green.

These are the colors of their childhood.

These are the colors of classic cars that bring back memories of a simpler time so long ago, when America had just three TV networks and driving to the grocery store with mom or dad felt like a reward.

It is why a little-known 48-year-old mechanic who works a day job from 7:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. at Fiat Chrysler in Warren, Mich., is considered a top muscle car restoration expert in North America.

Dave Dudek does most of the work in an unmarked garage in Clinton Township, having moved from Warren after someone bought the building and evicted everyone. His small private business is word-of-mouth only and he turns away more projects than he accepts. His clients over the last decade have been mostly men.

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“The funny thing is, the Chrysler was the poor man’s muscle car. In the collector market, they rule,” Dudek said. “This is the first car they took their wife out on a date with — and brought their baby home with.”

Dudek, a skilled tradesman who lives in St. Clair Shores, has repaired lift trucks and carts in the Fiat Chrysler Stamping Plant factory for 23 years. As the son of a hot-tar roofer and homemaker, he fell in love with muscle cars when his dad brought home a blue 1969 Barracuda convertible.

“Dad was into cars a little bit but I fell in love with that car. I was, like, 14,” said Dudek, who grew up in Taylor and Sterling Heights. “If he was getting a gallon of milk or a loaf of bread for mom, I was going no matter what.”

He is working on 11 cars from clients who live in Miami, New York and near Alberta, Canada. Transforming them is his hobby. A single car can take up to a year. And finding original parts is like a national scavenger hunt of junkyards.

“I put in a couple-three hours a day on these cars,” Dudek said. “I am making sure every bolt is the exact bolt the car left the factory with. Each one has an insignia. Who made the bolt for Chrysler or GM or wherever? If they’re supposed to be silver zinc, it’s silver zinc. I’m constantly running into dead ends. I’ve got six bolts I need and I have four bolts and I need to find a junkyard in Arizona or Minnesota to see if they have two bolts for me. It’s just a constant challenge.”

‘Poor man’s muscle’

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Peter Swainson, 61, of Red Deer, Alberta, in western Canada has worked with Dudek for more than a decade. He has a collection of three dozen-plus classic muscle cars housed on his farm.

“These cars represent our youth. For guys my age, it’s about the memories,” Swainson said. “Guys liked to cruise in the cool cars that made noise and had some speed. It was an exciting time with wild colors and individuality. Now all these cars today being built look alike. They’re all gray, black or white.”

Looking back, he noted that the Plymouth Road Runner was supposed to be “a poor man’s muscle car” and the company discovered a niche with guys who wanted high performance on a tight budget. These cars, Swainson said, commanded respect.

He described how Dudek goes beyond restoring cars to their original condition by rebuilding everything to maximize performance.

“He’s using more updated material. I look at my motors and they look completely stock — the appearance, color, engine. All the components attached, all original. But the internal motor is updated with pistons, rods, crankshaft and camshaft. More modern materials give peak performance,” Swainson said.

Watching the process can be awesome.

“You completely disassemble the car. Every nut and bolt is removed,” Swainson said. “We put what’s remaining of the body on a big huge rotisserie, like a roast or chicken or turkey,” said Swainson, who owns Southside Dodge in the province of Alberta. “My father started our dealership in 1971. And I bought it from him. From the time I was 10 years old, I was nuts about Chrysler products.”

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Swainson sometimes races his cars. He also just likes to drive slowly by himself.

“It’s a good mental break, just relaxing,” he said. “Today’s cars are so easy and simple to handle. But this is 50-year-old technology. You feel the car a lot more, you feel you’re part of the car. The dual exhaust thunders and it gets your heart pumping when you step on the gas and hear the throaty sound of the motor. Guys love that.”

The private car restoration business happened by accident for Dudek.

About 15 years ago, he took his repainted 1968 GTS Dodge Dart to a car show in Columbus, Ohio. Someone left a note on his windshield asking to do a magazine photo shoot. Dudek knew his friends were around and thought the note was a prank. But it was legit.

Since then, he has worked on hundreds of cars — from total restoration to special treatment including engine modification. So he does authentic restoration and also engine modification, making the cars more reliable than they were originally. These are called resto-mods.

His current projects include two ’70 ‘Cuda convertibles, a ’71 ‘Cuda convertible, a ’71 Hemi Charger R/T, a ’71 Charger R/T, a ’71 Charger R/T with a rare sunroof, a ’68 Charger R/T, a ’69 Hemi Road Runner, a ’71 Hemi GTX, a ’69 Dodge Daytona and a ’69 Plymouth Belvedere.

“The Belvedere was a low-end Chrysler product but I’m putting one of the Hellcat engines in it,” Dudek said. “The ’71 Charger, he wants to enjoy the car with modern technology. I took an engine out of a Hellcat and put it in the old muscle car. You cannot match the reliability of the new cars.”

Car sells for $450,000

A man from Rochester, New York, paid $450,000 for a rare 1970 Plymouth ‘Cuda convertible in Sassy Grass Green and asked Dudek to tear it to pieces and put it back together.

“The whole car needs to come apart and each detail needs to be redone,” Dudek said. “It may be worth $700,000 when we’re done with it.”

That same guy paid $2.1 million and $3.3 million for two other ‘Cuda convertibles.

Record $3.78 million sale

The current record for an American muscle car to sell at public auction is $3.78 million for the 1971 Plymouth Hemi ‘Cuda convertible that sold in 2014 by Mecum Auctions, noted Jonathan Klinger, vice president of Hagerty, publisher of the Traverse City-based Hagerty Price Guide and the largest insurer of classic cars in the world.

The 1968 Ford Mustang driven by actor Steve McQueen in “Bullitt” sold at auction on Friday for $3.74 million, including the buyer’s premium. Auction attendees wondered if a famous Hollywood car might dethrone the ‘Cuda.

“When you say the most expensive muscle cars ever sold, it is typically something with a Hemi — Chrysler, Dodge, Plymouth. There seems to be a heightened sense of Detroit pride. … The hot rod culture was born in Southern California. American muscle cars were born in Detroit in response. They had all these young servicemen coming back from World War II in high adrenaline combat modes. Automakers wanted to capitalize on that enthusiasm. That led to the muscle car wars.”

‘Crazy custom builds’

Klinger, an expert on classic cars, had never heard of Dudek until the Free Press inquired. After a bit of independent research, Klinger called back and said, “He does great work. It is somewhat unique to do full-blown Concours D’Elegance-level, nut-and-bolt-100 percent-authentic restoration and crazy custom builds.”

Collectors come to Dudek because he has created hundreds of spreadsheets illustrating what the cars used to look like. It is his own reference guide. He fully restores Chrysler muscle cars and has done engine work on the Chevrolet Camaro, Pontiac GTO and Pontiac Firebird Trans Am.

“I’ve done a lot of record-breaking cars,” Dudek said. “One sold for $305,000, a green 1970 Coronet RT Hemi. … It was just attention to detail, every nut and bolt from bottom of the tire to the top of the roof. Every fastener, even under the dashboard things you don’t see. The paint color, everything. Just exactly as it left the factory.”

Incredibly, he does period-correct muscle car restoration with cars that have museum quality and can run a quarter-mile in 10 seconds flat.

140 miles per hour in 9.9 seconds

Two decades ago, Dudek co-founded a racing organization called F.A.S.T., which stands for “Factory Appearing Stock Tire.”

Muscle car owners from across the U.S. and Canada come together about six times a year and drag race around the states, including New York, Ohio, Maryland, New Jersey and Georgia. The race at U.S. 131 Motorsports Park in Martin, Mich., can attract up to 100 racers.

“Many of the racing cars are wearing original window stickers and look like they drove off the showroom floor,” said Dudek, who races his 1969 Hemi-powered Plymouth Road Runner.

He wowed spectators by clocking in 9.902 seconds at 140.31 miles per hour at the Maryland International Raceway.

Re-live our fathers’ stories

Donny Brass, 54, of St. Clair Shores, Mich., is a chief compliance officer for a mortgage company who knows Dudek through racing Brass’ 1966 Corvette.

“My dad bought the car in ’68. It got kind of old showing the car and doing cruise things so I decided to try … racing,” Brass said. “I have a 2006 Corvette Z06 that is faster but not as much fun. Classic cars have a nostalgia and romance. It’s a way to relive stories our fathers’ told.”

He continued, “People tell you these are cars too valuable to do anything with. My dad was one of those too-valuable guys when it came to that car. But I think he’d be proud now. Winning races isn’t the point. You’re grinning ear to ear whether you’ve won or lost.”

He has run the quarter mile race in 12.34 seconds at 110 miles per hour.

Looking back, Brass said, “I can remember riding behind the seats where there is no seat when I was a little guy. They would tuck me and my sister behind the seats in the storage area.”

‘Fast as heck’

Mark Trostle, head of Mopar and Ram Design at Fiat Chrysler, doesn’t know Dudek or his work but said, “The enthusiasm for today’s muscle cars is fueled by the iconic cars from the 1960s and ’70s. … I think it’s great that there are people in the industry dedicated to keeping the soul of that era alive.”

Dudek’s hobby is completely independent of his employer.

“I like working on stuff,” he said. I’m now seven years away from retirement with a pension. I’m not going to mess that up. I’m a cancer survivor, six years now cancer-free of non-Hodgkins lymiles per houroma. You don’t know how long you’re going to live. I like these cars. Working for Chrysler is good money to pay the house payment and everyday life. If I want to take my family on vacation or race my own cars, I’ll need extra money. I’ve got two boys. I like making show cars run fast as heck. I’ve got a little niche here.”

His wife, Kelly, 49, a plastics company administrator, met her husband while cruising with her girlfriends on Gratiot Avenue in Roseville, Mich.

“He was out cruising with his friends in his ’88 Mustang GT convertible looking for a race,” she said. “His passion for cars was abnormal and obsessive at the time. Over the course of 30 years, it has never gone away.”

She went on, “This has rubbed off on me and our two children. Three years ago, I purchased a 2016 Dodge Challenger Hellcat and he prodded me to run it down the drag strip. I did and love it.” She ran a 10.71 at 128 miles per hour.

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