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IN SEARCH OF A CHEVY

Restoring old cars? John Latour has the pedal to the metal.

FRANK METHE PHOTOGRAPH

“Brilliantly new for ’52 ... the only fine car priced so low!” – advertising copy for the 1952 Chevrolet

Somewhere out there is John Latour’s holy grail: a 1952 Chevrolet. Right now, Latour’s dream car may be only a boxful of rusted parts sitting behind a barn in rural Kansas, or it may be one of those immaculately restored beauties offered online by a guy named Bob over in Colony, Texas. But you can bet it’s out there somewhere: a preordained match of man and machine, whose realization, Latour believes with all his heart, is waiting only for an introduction. He will not be denied. And you can bet your hydra-flow transmission on that.

For now, suffice it to say, the 69-year-old native of the 9th Ward has sated his passion over the years with a string of some 40 classic beauties ranging from 1932 Fords with chopped tops and chromed out engines to artistically rebuilt panel trucks that have turned countless heads as they glide along the streets of New Orleans in pristine showroom condition and at “Cruise Nights” coast-to-coast.

“I rebuild my cars for myself, for friends and for my children,” (There is an 11-year-old grandson waiting in the wings.) Latour says. “I really don’t do it for money. That’s never in my mind. It’s strictly a hobby, something I get a real kick out of: taking an old car that maybe is nothing but a rusted out hull and rebuilding it … everything – body, seats, doors, glass, engine … It can be a really expensive hobby. You might buy a car from $8,000 to $15,000! One that needs work. You buy parts and if you want a paint job that might cost another $1,000 to $5,000. I usually have a friend of mine do the paint. But I do most of the body and the mechanical work. You have to know what you’re doing and where you want to go with the car you’re rebuilding.”

A lot of those Latour-rebuilt gems you see rolling down the street or sitting as objects of desire in Frost Top parking lots got their start sitting in a junk yard as Latour walked by.

“That’s where it starts,” Latour says. “You may find an old body there, then you see what you have to do to put it together and you comb around that junkyard to see what will fit. You may swap out a rear end or steering column. You change this and redo that. In the end, you want it to be the equivalent to a new car … but it’s still an old one.”

Although few people who have seen Latour’s work would swear to that.

Between classes (and sometimes during classes) at Francis T. Nicholls and Warren Easton high schools eons ago, Latour’s mind swirled with images of custom cars and those gleaming chopped and channeled beauties he gawked at endlessly on the pages of Hot Rod Magazine.

After classes and into the night, he and a buddy would hang out at his buddy’s dad’s body shop on Tonti Street and tinker with their own cars. “That’s how I picked up on it all,” the retired railroad worker says. “It just seems like it was always in my blood.”

And when Latour married and eventually had three children, it was only natural that any four-wheeled wishes his kids had could, and would, be fulfilled by Dad.

“I built two Mustangs for my daughter,” he says. “I bought her her first Mustang when she was 12. It was just a body with no motor and no windows … nothing. It took me three years to rebuild it for her. By the time I was finished with it, she didn’t want it. She wanted a different Mustang. So I bought her a different Mustang in ’66 and she drove that until she got a ’73 Mustang. The last thing she got was Volkswagen. So you see, my kids don’t need mechanics. Every car they’ve owned has come with a lifetime warranty.”

Latour pulls out a book of “before and after” photos of many of the 40 or so cars he’s performed life-restoring surgery on over the years. A few of them are so beaten down and rusted out in their “before” photo session they look like they’re part of the landscape that they’ve grown into. Turn the page: Holy Bill Haley and the Comets! These aren’t just hot rods refurbished back to life by skilled hands. These photos show works of art that have been lovingly coaxed along by a deep passion and transformed from junk into a part of pure Americana: Shades of Chuck Berry singing (though not really being heard) for six guys and chicks stuffed into a Chevy parked in a far corner of the back lot at Lenfants Restaurant on a steamy summer night in 1962.

That passion is every bit as hot and driving John Latour’s creative juices today as it was back during his long-sideburn days.

When you mention “cruise night,” Latour breaks into a smile and he points out the T-shirt he’s wearing, the one emblazoned with faded images of Chevys and Fords and greasers from some cruise night past.

 “I go to a lot of cruise nights,” Latour says. “Most of them are out of town. It’s an excuse to take a vacation. I’ve been to shows all over the nation: Detroit; Kalamazoo, Mich.; Myrtle Beach, S.C.; Knoxville, Tenn.; Springfield, Ill.; Pueblo, Colo.; Oklahoma City. This year I plan on going to Ocean City, Md.; San Bernadino, Calif.; and Sacramento. I’m also looking at the Richmond Nationals. That’s going to be a big one. There’ll be a lot of cars there. Some real beauties. We’re pretty much always on the go. A lot of people take their cars there in a trailer and they’ll pull it off the trailer and display it when they get there. When it’s time to go home, they put it back on the trailer. Not me! I drive my cars there and back … to all cruise nights. On the road, it turns a lot of heads. There’s a cruise night somewhere just about every weekend. But, of course, we can’t make them all. My wife and I will look at the schedule, and we’ll pick out the ones we want to go to.”

The master car rebuilder sits back in his chair and closes his eyes. In a brief moment of silence, you know he’s not thinking about those 40 or so street rods and classic cars to which he’s given new life over the years. Instead he’s thinking about Ocean City, San Bernadino and Sacramento and Richmond – the best of the past is always in the future for John Latour.   
 
And he’s thinking about all those piles of iron sitting around somewhere in America just rusting away into nothingness and forgotten in their own purgatory – just praying for a casual walk by from John Latour before they’re hauled away as scrap and melted down never to turn heads on the streets again. A faint smile crosses Latour’s lips and you know that’s not what he’s thinking about at all. He’s got that 1952 Chevy on his mind.
“That will be my ultimate car,” he says. “A 1952 Chevy. That was my first car. A two-door sedan or a two-door hardtop. It was my first car. I was 15 and I can’t forget that. How do you forget your first love? It was great – until my sister wrecked it. I’ve looked at a bunch of them, but I haven’t found just the right one, one that’s really solid. I want to do everything I wanted to do to it to rebuild it back then when I was 15 ... but didn’t have the money then.

The ’52 Chevy I want is out there. I’m going to find it!”

Consider this: 1,229,986 1951 Chevrolets rolled off the assembly line in Detroit and were scooped up by the public. Production of the ’52 model was cut to a mere 818,142 because of a government ordered reduction in production due to the Korean War.

John Latour gives an offhanded “so what” shrug of his shoulders. He knows you can’t keep a man and his first love apart forever. Not even a war can do that!
 

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