Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Picker's Paradise

Willy reflects on the past and vows to clean up his garage in 2012

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In my travels, folks often ask me if there really is an actual Willy's Garage. To offer a little history, 2012 marks our 25th anniversary. With the benefit of time now on my side, the coast should finally be clear enough to share the tattered tale of how it came to be.

It all started in 1986 when I was 19 years' old. I was a junior football player with the Fort Garry Lions and worked at a long-gone nightclub called Scandals. In my mind, we were security officers but, back then, they called us 'bouncers'.

Protecting the quarterback, washing cars and throwing drunks out of bars were pretty much my main skills.

To help fund my burning desire to one day own a car or motorcycle that didn't need a push-start from my buddies, Willy's Garage was born. I delivered hand-written flyers photocopied at Ringer's Drugstore all over the area, offering my auto-detailing services.

As the son of a greaser, I was already a seasoned gearhead and had also honed my car-cleaning skills as a teenaged lot jockey at a Ford dealership. (I'd tell you where, but they hired me when I was only 15 years' old. They assumed I had a licence. I was big for my age.)

The response to my flyers was miraculous. When a call came in for a car-cleaning job, I'd arrive on my noisy Yamaha Virago or behind the wheel of my rusty Chevy Nova. I'd leave my ride behind and drive away in their car. (Folks were a lot more trusting in the '80s.)

As far as my customers knew, I'd headed straight back to my spacious shop to work my magic. One of my regular customers was Bomber legend Tyrone Jones. He had a Ford Bronco II Eddie Bauer edition. He was a big tipper.

The truth is, back then Willy's Garage was little more than a pair of parking spots and a storage locker in the dark parkade of the apartment building I lived in. The deal was if I washed caretaker Larry's prized Ford LTD once a week, the spots were mine free of charge. In those days, I charged $30 for a wash, hand-dry, polish and vacuum. One cold winter night, I even painted an entire car in that parkade with spray cans.

Life was good. But this dream arrangement, however, came crashing to a halt when I knocked on Larry's door one afternoon to ask him why he hadn't put his car keys in my mailbox for his weekly wash and polish.

"Hey, where's Larry?" I asked when a different guy with a similar-looking stained white undershirt and the same brand of beer in his hand answered the door. "Um, actually his name wasn't Larry, it was Fred," the guy muttered. "He was wanted for robbing a bank or something in Alberta and a couple of cops from Edmonton took him away last week."

Wow. You never know people until you know them.

The new guy didn't have a car and didn't like to barter. With no space to work out of, I had no choice but to get a day job. Later that week, my friend got me a gig selling cars instead of cleaning them and I did that for the rest of the summer. I was really bad at it. I could talk people out of buying a car all day long.

In the fall, they offered me the job as bar manager at Scandals. The radio jingle was "Scandals, everything you hear is true." For a 20-year-old kid from the neighbourhood, that job was epic.

I may have taken a brief hiatus from playing with cars, but the gasoline was still in my veins. In 1988, my gal, Melanie, and I bought our first house. It may have been a fixer-upper bank foreclosure in St. Boniface, but it was all ours. The tiny detached garage was small, but I crudely wired it up, insulated the works and covered the walls with used panelling from the Habitat Store.

The first official Willy's Garage was barely big enough for a full-sized sedan, but it was my private sanctuary.

Shortly after buying the house, I was hired on as a corrections officer at Headingley jail and on my days off I provided auto detailing and 'quality' used cars to my fellow guards. Willy's Garage was hand-painted on the door of my puny shop.

In addition to detailing, I also bought cars and cleaned them up for resale. They used to call it 'curbing cars'. My dad, Dave, called it polishing turds. Those were the days. For a few hundred bucks, you could buy a decent-running car at the auction, slap plates on it, clean it up and make a tidy profit.

One afternoon, my neighbour came around the corner, hollering mad, and caught me with a paint gun in my hand applying thick black primer to a battered Nova. I'm half-Frenchman and understand enough of this beautiful language to recall him uttering something about overspray, his new Buick and how I was the spawn of Satan.

My next garage came with a cute little Flair home in Transcona. It was an oversized single and was already insulated, drywalled, heated and wired up for a welder. My young bride told me how nice the house was inside, just perfect for our new baby girl, Katelyn. I took her word for it.

In short order, I had that garage humming. I transferred to the new Winnipeg Remand Centre a few months later and found even more guards with dirty cars.

This is also when I fell in love with Jeeps. Although I was a lawman, I was certainly not above the law. On more than a few occasions, a nice man from the city stopped by to ask me why there was a Jeep with no wheels on blocks on the street in front of my house and six cars lined up in the driveway. Another neighbour reported that, despite my friendly disposition, when the sun went down he was convinced I was building a weapon of mass destruction in my garage.

I remember one night the police stopped by for a visit. When I opened the shop door, smoke billowed out and the officer said "OK, Willy, shut it down for the night; it's 3 a.m." I replied, "How did you know my name?" "It's on your shirt," he replied with a smirk.

In hindsight, a quiet Transcona street probably wasn't the ideal spot to grind rusty rocker panels in the dead of the night. I learned to keep the noise down, but still managed to do some serious shade-tree mechanical repairs out of that garage.

In 2001, against the advice of everyone but my wise father, we signed our lives away and bought a 10-acre property with a sprawling bungalow near Birds Hill Park. This time the wife won. The house was awesome. The garage, not so much.

Although our country home came with a triple garage and a storage building attached to it, the previous owners were definitely not car people. It wasn't insulated and had only been used for parking cars. Weird. Who parks their cars in a perfectly good garage?

The week we moved in, my friends helped me insulate and drywall the works to shop specs and Willy's Garage was back in business. I was moving my tool boxes into the garage on the morning that 9/11 struck. Around this time, I stopped working on other people's cars, started restoring my own cars, and started writing about cars.

It took a couple of years but, just like my dad predicted, real estate out here skyrocketed, so we dipped into the mortgage in 2003 and finally built my dream garage, adding a 1,200-square-foot metal shop from Olympic Builders onto the existing structure. The combined square footage is now more than 2,200 sq. ft.

My original plan was to knock down the wall and open up both buildings, but before long we started cramming stuff into the old garage and never looked back.

The truth is I've never thrown a single thing away in my life. When I moved out on my own, all I had was a hockey bag. I'm now emotionally attached to all my crap. There's a show about people like me on TV called Hoarders. I don't watch it.

One side of my garage is awesome, the other side is awful. For the past nine years, my buddies and I have pimped more rides than we can count on the good side of the garage. We also play our guitars, sing songs, drink beer, laugh and even occasionally cry in there.

It was in this very garage, sitting on a seat from an old Ford van, that my dad told me he had cancer and only had a few months to live. After we dried our eyes, he opened the door to the other side of the garage and started giving me the gears. "Hey, Fred Sanford," he said with a sly grin. "Your shop could be twice the size if you knocked down this wall and got rid of all this junk."

Then he disappeared into the abyss and returned with the old wooden steering wheel from his '39 Ford hot rod. We restored that car together on the clean side. Whenever he went looking for parts on the dark side of the shop, I'd chuckle when I heard crap falling on him. He'd be griping and cussing about how I needed to clean up my act, but he always seemed to find exactly what he was looking for.

We finished that car just in time, and he took a few long cruises before he died. That was five years ago. Sorry dad, but the old garage has only gotten worse since then. My buddies now refer to it as Picker's Paradise.

A quick scan of the contents reveals everything from old motorcycles, bicycles, exercise equipment, sporting goods, antique bottles and cans to a gum-ball machine, at least 100 hubcaps, wheels, tires, broken lawnmowers, old street signs, a snowblower that doesn't blow, an old Winnipeg Sun box (hey, they gave it to me when I worked there) and enough car parts to build a machine even Mad Max would envy.

When you open the door, stuff falls on you like Fred Flintstone's closet. Come to think of it, I'm pretty sure there's even a bowling ball in there. Narrow paths are carved through the piles of treasure, so you have to be really careful. In addition to wooden Pepsi crates precariously stacked five high and loaded with jagged motorcycle sprockets and spiked ice racing tires, there's also surely a family of vermin with razor-sharp teeth.

When my partner in grime, Evel Dave, ventures in there on a parts scavenging hunt we tie the air hose around his waist so we can pull him out if he goes down.

I've been talking about knocking down that wall and cleaning and renovating the other half of the shop for so long now that my friends don't even hear me anymore. But on New Year's Eve, after the Jets game and after the fireworks, and after the band, and after the beers, I made a resolution.

2012 is the year Willy's Garage reaches its full potential. Picker's Paradise needs to get gutted, painted and decorated. It's going to be a pile of work, but I already know how liberating it's going to be.

I really want my shop to feel like home to my awesome buddies-- the ultimate man cave. These guys grow amazing beards in winter, proudly wear flannel shirts and fur hats, own hot rods, Harleys and tractors, and know what the numbers and letters on a can of oil mean. I'm fortunate to have such great friends and I want to transform my garage into a place where they can feel at home and be free from dubious looks related to their greasy hands and colourful vocabularies.

Jayman is a talented carpenter, Evel Dave can paint like Picasso and Solid Wade is a wiring wizard. If it sounds like I'm sucking up to my buddies it's because I am. This gang of gearheads have stuck with me through thick and thin -- and are the very men who will help me clean up the mess we've made.

As an added bonus, everyone who pitches in will surely leave with a variety of amazing parting gifts. Hint, hint.

For car guys, particularly here in Manitoba, our garages are so much more than simply buildings. They're studios where we create amazing works of art. They're meeting-places where friends and family gather to laugh at ourselves, laugh at each other and, for at least half the year, laugh at old man winter.

When I was a young punk, detailing cars in a grimy parkade, all I could dream of was building the coolest garage around. Life got in the way, and I never stopped to smell the exhaust fumes.

But all the pieces of the puzzle are finally right here in front of me, and 2012 is the year to put them together.

Have a cool garage?

Send Willy a picture of it and your garage could be featured in an upcoming Willy's Garage feature. As an added bonus, if your garage is selected, the cleanup crew will dig a cool piece of garage art out of Picker's Paradise for you to hang on your wall.

Send high-resolution digital photos of your garage to

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition January 6, 2012 F3

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