WEIRTON - John Travis Maxwell admits he can't get rich building hot rods. Not yet, anyway.
What Maxwell will tell you, however, is that every day brings him closer to his goal.
And that goal? Well, it's simple enough: To turn ordinary-looking old cars into eye-catching hot rods that look so perfect people will think they're strictly showroom pieces - known in the industry as "trailer queens" - yet make them beefy enough under the hood that he can race them, do circles in the snow or take them out on the road no matter the weather.
1930 FORD SEDAN DELIVERY RESTORED — Involved in restoring this 1930 Ford Sedan Delivery were, from left, Travis Maxwell and his wife, Esther, who own Street Dreams Rod & Custom shop in Weirton, along with mechanics Bill Richardson and Shane Evans. Wayne Cairns also helped with the project. - Linda Harris
PLENTY OF HORSEPOWER — A 600 HP small block Chevy engine and modern suspension make his restored 82-year-old Ford handle like a Corvette, owner Travis Maxwell says. Maxwell inherited the vintage car from his father, whose keen interest in racing fueled a passion for them in his young son. - Contributed
TO BE RESTORED — A 1954 Studebaker Commander is just one of the many vintage cars Travis Maxwell has been commissioned to restore. Maxwell owns Street Dreams Rod & Custom shop, now located in the old Pavlik dealership in downtown Weirton. - Linda Harris
In other words, he prefers "working" cars.
Maxwell, owner of Street Dreams Rod & Custom in the old Pavlik dealership in downtown Weirton, has already married the two very different end uses in a 1930 Ford Sedan Delivery, the kind of car the old moonshiners used, that he inherited from his father in 2009. The end result is an eye-catcher: Synergy Green with black fenders, a 600 HP small block 400 engine and a host of other custom touches. It won "Best in Class" at the 2011 Pittsburgh World of Wheels show and was the "Hot Pick" in a recent issue of "Cruisin' Times, earning him the cover photo and a pictorial inside.
"I was on Cloud 9 the whole time in Pittsburgh," he said. "When they asked me to take it up and put it indoors, I thought, 'I can't do that, it doesn't belong with all those cars on the top floor.' I'm maybe 20, 30 feet away from those really nice cars, but my car fit right in. It caught your eye as much as any of them. It was heady, but at the same time it was humbling."
That's because the Sedan Delivery, which he races, looked every bit as stunning as the "trailer queen" cars whose wheels never touch asphalt.
"It handles like a Corvette," he said, because of it's new suspension, coil-over shocks and an engine "built for a late-model race car."
"There's a misconception in the industry that you can't build a nice car and drive it, that if it's nice you have to trailer it," Maxwell said. "We refer to those cars as 'trailer queens.' Basically, what we did was make it look like a trailer queen but we drive it.
"If you don't drive it, what's the sense of having all that money in it? I wanted a car that looked like a trailer queen but was driveable."
Maxwell said the notoriety he gained from the Pittsburgh show has led to invitations to bring the Sedan Delivery to major shows in Canton and Philadelphia, "and I also nailed a couple different builds just from being up there, talking to people."
Last week alone he picked up three new builds - a '70 maverick, a '64 Falcon and a '47 Ford. He said while most people just want their classic cars to look and run good, Maxwell doesn't mind accommodating them.
One individual had a car shipped to him from South Dakota. Another had a '54 Studebaker shipped to Street Dreams from Virginia so Maxwell could work on it. A friend who died recently of cancer bequeathed his race car to Maxwell, which he plans to turn into a tribute car and run on the race circuit.
The entire building, in fact, is filled with old cars - some of them his, most of them belonging to other people - in various stages of production.
"If I had to live on selling hot rods, I could never function," he said. "I have to be able to sell, service and accessory any vehicle, hot rod or not, for the everyday driver.
"This is like a big boys' toy store," he adds. "We get to play with cars all the time. I started the detailing and accessorizing shop just so I could afford to do the rest."
It was his dad, a rod enthusiast himself, who drew him into the world of hot rods when he was a teen, using the allure of fast cars to keep him off the streets and out of trouble. Working alongside his father, he customized one vehicle after another, starting with a '57 Chevy S10 pickup "that we restored basically from the ground up," he said.
When his father passed away, he'd planned to leave the Ford Sedan as it was. "I swore I'd never redo it, I'd never touch it," he said. "Then I hit a deer and totaled it. It was almost a blessing in disguise, really."
Street Dreams, he points out, is the only full-blown custom shop within hours of Weirton.
"We do everything from custom autobody and paint to wheels and tires, speed and performance parts, truck accessories it just goes on and on."
Since moving to Weirton, he said he's picked up a lot of everyday business, doing minor mechanical work, brake jobs, oil changes, even changing head gaskets.
"We're getting a lot of mechanical work as well as installing accessories, even outfitting commercial vehicles," he said.
He's also picked up a deal with a major corporation, a high-profile project he's hoping will put the shop on the national map and be the big break he needs.
"We're already at the point where I'm probably going to start hiring more people," he said.
Maxwell said he currently has about five people working for him, in addition to himself and his wife, Esther, who handles the upholstery.