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Dayton man collects and restores hot rods

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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.

"I was a big drawer. I was always sketching.

"Slot cars fascinated me. I found myself drawing. I was always fascinated with it.

"I was a kid growing up seeing cool cars.

"I did not come from any money: I worked for it. If I wanted a car, I had to buy it myself. We had a lot of kids (eight) and not a lot of money. My dad was an engineer, and my mother was a homemaker.

"The first car I bought was a 1962 Corvette," he adds. "I was 15 years old, and it was probably 1975.

"It cost $1,500, and I still have the savings book from the bank in Andover with the date in it. It took a lot of lawn mowing to pay for it."

His mother kept a drawing that he did in the late 1960s, when he was in the fifth grade, of a hot rod. When he was in his early 20s he went to the local track, Island Dragway in Great Meadows, to watch races.

He attended night school for about eight years in New Jersey and then attended the University of Maryland, from which he graduated with a degree in economics about 22 years ago. He is now self-employed and lives with his wife, Clarissa, and two sons in Dayton.

"My wife is very supportive" of his hot rod habit, Venezia said. "My boys aren't as interested as I am, but they are helpful" with the cars.

Street rod lovers

Venezia is among a handful of residents in the western part of the county who have a love of street rods.

John Goodman, of Glenelg, began driving a 1930 Model A Sedan on the road in the early 1970s. "I met Tom a few summers back when I was driving my Street Rod. Then he got one," said Goodman, a life-long Howard County resident who is a member of the National Street Rod Association.

Many of the car lovers gather on Sunday mornings in a parking lot in Burtonsville, where as many as 500 cars can be found in the lot. "There was a Dunkin' Donuts nearby, and we called it the church of the Holy Donut," Hatter said.

Venezia tries to find time in the evening and on weekends to work on his custom cars. "They are a hobby and not a business," he said of his vehicles. "Some weeks, I don't even see them."

When judges see the 1941 car, Venezia usually comes home with another award.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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