C.U.T- (Customs for Urban Teens)

“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’s large pieces missing, the gas tank has been cut out, the interior stripped bare, the front end – motorless – sags into the floor, and the once proud chrome grille nuzzles a questionable rear axle. The frame sits 10m away, waiting.

We were in a warehouse in Vancouver’s east side but now are sponsored by KMS in Coquitlam. This is home to CUT (Customs for Urban Teens) – the brainchild of McKim and fellow car enthusiasts Chiho Chan and Adam Clark. The pilot program gives at-risk, urban youth hands-on experience with auto restoration and customization.

The program participants meet here every Monday and Friday from 3 to 8 p.m. They start with a meal, and then get to work, learning to rebuild a car from scratch under the watchful eyes of McKim, Chan and Clark.

Clark, McKim and Chan have re-built almost 40 cars between them. But it’s the youth doing all the work here.

“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.

“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.”

“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.”
CUT's goals go beyond 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 youth are developing confidence. As they build this vehicle, they are building self-esteem. The Impala is literally the vehicle for that transformation.

“It’s difficult,” says Chan, who is also a youth worker, “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 they have to finish the car, though. They hope to raffle it off to make enough money to do it all again and fund another re-build. In May Legendary car builder and customizer Gene Winfield came in from California to paint the car then over the summer the teens will work hard to reassemble and finish it off so it will be a full working driving car for the lucky sponsor who will win this car.

The whole CUT program runs on little more than enthusiasm and goodwill. McKim, Clark and Chan all volunteer their time. They also bring in their own large tools. And called in a lot of favours. Hundreds of dollars in parts & tools have been donated or sold at cost by local suppliers. Some have committed money; or 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.”

Ironically, even though the youth will each spend more than 150 hours rebuilding the car, but they won’t get to drive it, since none of them has a driver’s license.
But riding on a cushion of air in a classic muscle car you’ve put together with your own hands, the deep-throated rumble of a V8 in your ears -- that will bring a smile to your face, and a sense of satisfaction. No license needed.