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Fuelling the future

Customs for Urban Teens (CUT)

Customs for Urban Teens (CUT)

“We brought a perfectly good car in here,” says Mark McKim. “And then we cut it up.”

McKim is pointing to a hulking piece of dark blue metal. It’s a car alright – a 1965 Impala SS – but only just. The rear end is propped in the air, there are large pieces missing, the gas tank has been cut out, the interior stripped bare, the front end — motorless — sags onto the floor, and the once proud chrome grille nuzzles a questionable rear axle. The frame sits 10m away, waiting.

We’re in a non-descript warehouse near Hastings and Commercial, in Vancouver’s east side. This is home to CUT (Customs for Urban Teens) – the brainchild of McKim and fellow car enthusiasts (and youth worker) Chiho Chan, and Adam Clark. They are running a four-month pilot program that is giving at-risk, urban youth hands-on experience with auto restoration and customization.

Six youth meet here every Monday and Wednesday from 3 to 8 p.m. They start with a meal, and then work on the car. Under the watchful eyes of McKim, Chan, and Clark, the six participants — Cameron, Gordon, Jack, James, Mark and Matthew — are learning the skills of rebuilding a car from scratch. They are also learning the power of what can happen when people connect with a shared vision and goal — in this case, a re-built Chevy.

It doesn’t get much more ‘scratch’ than this. It’s hard to think of this sad array of parts and rusting metal as a classic North American automobile. But this was, and still is, the highest-selling full-size car in automobile history. From 1958 through 1996, Chevrolet sold more than 13 million Impalas. In 1964, more than 1 million of the vehicles — named for a southern African antelope — were sold in the U.S. (a record that still stands today) and 1965 wasn’t far behind.

It takes a bit of imagination to see this particular Impala as a shiny blue and chrome chariot that could fetch $20,000 when they raffle it off in a few months.  But that’s what’s going to happen, albeit slowly, and methodically.

Clarke, McKim and Chan have re-built almost 40 cars between them. And they love passing on those skills to others. Teaching is an important part of the project, because it’s the youth who are doing all the work.

“Look at Gordon here,” says McKim. “He’s a natural. He’s got a real feel for it.”

Gordon, 18, is grinding away at a quarter panel, cutting out pieces of rust. The grinder fills the air with a hail of incandescent sparks, and the angry whine of metal on metal. A member of the Coast Salish First Nation, he got into the CUT program when someone else dropped out.

“You actually need to commit to it,” he says. “It’s pretty interesting, and you learn a lot. I was a bit nervous grinding on the frame. I thought I was going to mess up, but I actually did pretty good.”

McKim agrees. “Gordon’s just started, but he’s doing a good job. He’s got a talent for it … more than some people who’ve been doing this for years.”

None of the six has ever worked on a car before, but the CUT project is becoming a focal point in their lives.

“Most of my family would say it stops me from getting into trouble,” says Gordon. “I come in here and I’m pretty busy. . . It’s fun … a lot of work to do, and I get to learn a lot of new things. And I’m too tired to go back out when I get home.”

Cameron, 23, is working on the frame, adjusting the air suspension they installed just last week. He proudly shows off his handiwork, as a hiss of air makes the frame rise magically. “I’m doing a lot of the framework,” says Cameron. “I took out the gas tank and the dashboard. But I'm not much on the bodywork. I'm more of a nuts and bolts dude. I’m sticking to the frame.”

“We’re going to trick it out with air ride, disk brakes, a really absurd sound and alarm system, and some remote controls, maybe touchscreen.” says McKim. “It’s going to be awesome. And these guys are gonna do it.”

The goals of CUT are more than just learning the skills of welding, bodywork and how to put together an engine. With every piece of sheet metal they weld onto the frame and hammer into shape, with every nut that threads smoothly into place, these six youth are developing confidence. They learn the value of working together. And as they build this vehicle, they are building self-esteem. The Impala is literally the vehicle for that transformation.

“It’s difficult,” says Chan, “because, after 18, there’s a real drop-off in youth programming. A program like this can keep kids out of trouble. They get to know all the parts of a car. They get the benefit of working with some very experienced re-builders, and they get a taste for the industry.

“I’d be ecstatic if some of these kids ended up in the trades,” he enthuses.

First of all, though, they have to finish the car. They hope to raffle it off to make enough money to do it all again and fund another re-build.

The whole CUT program runs on little more than enthusiasm and goodwill. A local aboriginal urban youth organization -- Knowledgeable Aboriginal Youth Association (or KAYA) -- donated the space in exchange for half the seats in the workshop. Britannia gets the other half. McKim, Clark and Chan all volunteer their time. They also bring in their own large tools. And they’ve called in a lot of favours. Hundreds of dollars in parts and tools have been donated or sold at cost by local suppliers. Some people have committed money; another is paying for the food.

But when Vancouver Foundation’s Youth Philanthropy Council sent a cheque for $5,000, that was enough to jump-start the program.

“Yeah, we basically started the day we cashed the Foundation cheque,” says Chan laughing. “And we’ll finish some time this fall.”

Gordon for one, can’t wait to see the finished product. “Hopefully we get this done soon so we can actually see it up and running.”

Ironically, he and the other youth will each spend more than 150 hours rebuilding the car, but they won’t get to drive it -- none of them has a driver’s licence.

But riding in a classic muscle car that you’ve put together with your own hands, the deep-throated rumble of a V-8 in your ears, and the smooth, cushioned ride of air suspension, that will bring a smile, and a sense of satisfaction, that no one can license. These six youth are recreating a bit of the past, and may be fueling their own future.

If you would like to learn more about the CUT program, or donate to it, visit the website at or call Chiho Chan at 604.789.9391.

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Your Comments:

July 29, 2010
hey im the one in the video my name is mathew just want to tell everyone that im going into BCIT for welding i made it and you can to just dont give up on your self thank you to vancouver foundation and mark you know ho you are lol
mathew, van

September 23, 2009
I am so proud of the founders of this program and even prouder that the youths themselves have taken the time and interest and committment to do it! WAY TO GO!! I CAN'T WAIT TO SEE THE FINISHED PRODUCT, that you guys built with your own to hands and the head god gave you to use for something like this. KEEP UP THE GREAT WORK! YOU ALL SHOULD HOLD YOUR HEADS HIGH. I wish there was something like that when I was younger, it could have made all the differences in my life. AWESOME JOB, GUYS KEEP IT UP, THERE'S ALT OF PEOPLE PULLIN FOR YOU!!! SHELLEY WATSON
shelley, Victoria BC

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