Tom Venezia was driving a 1932 Ford around western Howard County a few years ago when he was spotted by Eddie Hatter, who lives nearby.
"I would see it going down the road and tell myself, 'I have to have one of those,' " said Hatter, with a laugh.
That never happened. But Hatter, who didn't know Venezia when he saw that Ford, has been able to experience the next best thing. A long-time expert auto mechanic, Hatter has since worked on some of the cars owned by Venezia.
"He's my right-hand man," Venezia said.
A salesman and manufacturer representative who lives in Dayton and works in computer electronics, Venezia now owns two cars and one truck that he spends time fixing up on evenings and weekends, with help from Hatter and others.
"Some guys play golf. I go into the garage," said Venezia. "I don't have time for (golf). And I am not very good anyway."
Instead of golf, Venezia collects old cars that he rebuilds and restores into hot rods. Hot rods, also called street rods, are vehicles manufactured before 1949 that are altered from the original design.
Venezia's vehicles include a 1941 Willys coupe, a 1941 Ford truck and a 1934 Ford coupe.
One of them, the Willys coupe, has won awards at a handful of shows. In June, the car was one of 10 honored at the National Hot Rod Association Hot Rod Reunion, in Bowling Green, Ky.
By the end of November, according to Street Rodder magazine, 100 street rods will be chosen to compete for the title of Street Rod of the Year. The winner will be featured on the pages of Street Rodder, and the owner's name will be engraved on a trophy.
"The Painless Performance Products presents the STREET RODDER Top 100 has been spectacular thus far," Brian Brennan, editorial director of the Performance Group of Source Interlink Media, said in a news release. "We've seen some amazing and pristine street rods this season, and the work each winner has put in to their vehicle is truly exquisite. I know that when all is said and done, picking the 'Street Rodder of the Year' is going to be a very difficult decision."
While Venezia has been invited to bring the Willys coupe to Indianapolis during Labor Day weekend for the U.S. Nationals, staged by the NHRA, he is not sure if he will go. The cost in time and money, he said, might keep him away.
Awards are nothing new to Venezia anyway, as his cars have garnered regional and national attention. Last December, the 53rd issue of The Rodder's Journal hit the newsstands with a huge story on his 1941 Willys coupe, which has won awards at other shows — including one in Ocean City earlier this year and another in Annapolis about two years ago. When his cars were featured in the magazine, photos were taken at the Inner Harbor with the Domino Sugar sign in the background.
"Whenever I bring it out, it seems like it won an award," Venezia said.
"That Willys that he has is the top of the line," said Howard County resident Rick Myers, president of Liberty Street Rods of Carroll County, of which Venezia is a member.
"It is one of the best in the country. It is a beautiful car. It is immaculate."
Myers, of Sykesville, has known Venezia for about three years, when the Dayton resident joined Liberty Street Rods. There is no similar organization in Howard County. "He is a true street rodder," Myers said of Venezia. "He has a lot of street rod knowledge, and he helps anyone out that he can."
Early love of cars
Venezia, 53, who has lived in Howard County for about 17 years, developed an early love of cars and motorcycles while growing up in northern New Jersey, near Andover, in Sussex County.
"I had a lot of sisters, and they had boyfriends that came by with cars," he recalls. "It certainly was not my father. He had no interest in that stuff.