east oregonian

The East Oregonian

Sunday, April 13, 2008

Holton Secret Lab declassified

By Flynn Espe, The East Oregonian

Bill Holton, owner of Holton Secret Lab outside of Helix, has made a living out of refurbishing old cars and making high-quality street rods. His seven "personal project" cars are stored behind his shop in Helix.  Staff photo by E.J. Harris
Carl Koeller grinds down the welds of the old spring mounts off of an axle of a '67 Chevelle on Wednesday so it can be installed into a '55 Chevy pickup that is being turned into a street rod.  Staff photo by E.J. Harris

'Field of Dreams' smells like oil and grease for this Helix family

Bill and Marcy Holton, owners of Holton Secret Lab, like to compare their family business to the movie "Field of Dreams."

Instead of plowing into their cornfields for a baseball diamond, Bill said, "We've built a street-rod shop in a wheat field."

And it's at that shop, remotely situated among the undulous farming landscape outside of Helix, where people from all over come to transform even the rustiest of old jalopies into shiny - sometimes award-winning - gems on wheels.

"We do complete frame-off restorations on muscle cars and classics and antiques," Holton said.

Depending on the customer's precise wants, Holton will restore cars to their prime, stock condition - as if coming off the original showroom floor for a second time - or convert them into the most advanced, custom-fitted street rods.

Bill pointed out the progress on one 1936 Ford Coupe currently receiving a total modern overhaul. Fitted in the classic shell was a maze of wires connecting various technological amenities that might have been science fiction 70 years ago.

"That thing has got a lot of trick stuff on it. It will be as nice as a Lexus," Bill said. "I mean it's got air-conditioning, power steering, power brakes and cruise control. ... And you do all this stuff and make it look like a stock car."

To facilitate a job like that, however, Bill might employ a wide array of tools to fabricate the necessary custom parts - the coupe containing, among many other things, custom-made fenders, dashboard and body top.

With any vehicle, Holton will disassemble the frame, body and every nut and bolt, mounting both the body and frame on a rotisserie device.

"What makes it nice with this is you get to all the nooks and crannies, see the rust," Marcy said as Bill rotated one metal body like a pig on a spit.

The 7,500-square-foot shop also contains a metal-paneled media blasting room, where workers strip all paint from the metal bodies by blasting them with a special plastic granule. They eventually take those same pieces into a surgically-white paint room where Bill can mix and match to stylize just about any color palette imaginable.

And for each vehicle in progress, the Holtons have a series of separate locked rooms where they store and organize each and every piece of the disassembled vehicle.

The entire shop operates with three full-time and one part-time employee. From start to finish, Bill said, a typical job can run from 500 to 1,000 hours, some clients spending more than $100,000 when all is said and done.

Needless to say, the work is garnering attention. Taking 10 cars to the 2007 Portland Roadster Show (theirs was the largest display at the event) the Holtons and their clients came home with eight trophies. Taking four cars again this year they won two best-of-class and two runner-up awards from 350 total entries.

Sharing in that success is Ron White of Hermiston, whose 1931 Ford Tudor Sedan (aka "Mr. Blue") has won a best-of-class (2007) and two runner-up awards (2006 and 2008) in Portland. It also was featured in Salem Roadster Show, an event limited to 110 cars and invitation only.

A three-year project completed in 2001, White's vehicle now packs a 302 engine with two four-barrel carburetors underneath a sleek blue exterior with subtle ghost flames that toy with the eye. It's the cover piece on the company Web site at www.holtonsecretlab.com.

"Never had enough money in high school to have much of a car like that," White said. "To get one guy to basically do it all, there's not a lot of shops that do that."

White said he later had the Holtons restore his wife's 1968 Ford Mustang California Special, which eventually attracted an offer to purchase. White said he thought about it and decided to put up a hefty price tag.

"They said, 'OK.' And the car ended up in the Netherlands," White said.

To many longtime Pendleton-area natives, Wayne Swearingen's 1948 Chevy pickup was a staple sight on the roads. A 41-year employee with Pendleton Grain Growers, Bill said, "He delivered gas to everybody - every ranch out in Umatilla County."

Swearingen said he'd planned only on restoring the vehicle's front end, but after about 10 years of off-and-on work, the Holtons recreated the old utility vehicle into a shiny red masterpiece. His is a stock car with an authentic Chevrolet Thriftmaster engine.

"I've only put 67 miles on it in three years," Swearingen said. "I get just as much enjoyment looking at it."

As do others. His Chevy has picked up two best-of-class awards (2006 and 2008) and one runner-up (2007) at the Portland Roadster Show and also was featured in the Salem invitational.

"It's so funny because he's in his big overalls," Bill said, recalling Swearingen's first Portland event. "He stood around by his pickup the entire show. ... He's really into that now."

Quite often, it seems, the Holtons deal in more than just fancy toys - sometimes lifelong dreams.

"Every car has a complete story," Bill said.

On-hold in the paint room was one 1967 Mustang convertible belonging to a Yakima lady who grew up in Milton-Freewater. Years and years ago, upon first getting her driver's license, her father let her drive the Mustang to McLoughlin High School where she accidentally backed into a post and was never allowed to drive it again.

"When he passed away, he left it to her," Bill said, adding the restoration is in tribute to her father.

Building cars since the late 1960s, Bill financially supplemented the old farming business with his hobby, until going full-time with it in 1993. Then, trusting in his time-proven talents, the couple made a step of faith by expanding their operation in 2004. That's also when they renamed the business to Holton Secret Lab, a moniker that intrigues while capturing many unusual aspects of their operation - such as their almost hidden location.

"Sometimes people are still really surprised when they walk through the shop doors and they're just going, 'I had no idea,' " Marcy said.

The Holtons considered relocating to a more populous area, thinking that would be the only way to gain the world-class notoriety they were seeking. But being country people at heart, they decided to stay at the historic family homestead, which Marcy's Norwegian grandfather built in 1920. Even today, their shop building preserves much of the original barn architecture where Marcy sometimes keeps her horses.

The Holtons plan to continue building on their success, with plans to continue entering the bigger and better car shows. And as their work continues to attract attention, people continue to come.

For more information about Holton Secret Lab, visit their website at www.holtonsecretlab.com or call 1-866-FLAME IT (1-866-352-6348).

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