Car restorer Joe Cruces’ lifelong passion for classic cars has made his downtown shop a local tourist attraction
Here’s a little riddle for you: What do Beach Boy Mike Love and Hollywood legend Steve McQueen have in common with Joseph Stalin, Hitler’s mistress Eva Braun, Judy Garland and the King of Spain? Everybody knows this one. C’mon. They’ve all owned classic cars that later were restored by Chicoan Joe Cruces. That’s just too easy.
I recently had a chat with Cruces about his life and business during a tour of his downtown showroom space, Cruces Classic Cars, Inc., located at 720 Main St. in Chico—a shop listed in the Visitors Guide and brochures as a local tourist attraction.
When I arrived, the 65-year old Cruces bounced from the back garage with a smile and hearty welcome to his palace of automotive delights. Around us shone a number of gorgeous classic cars, most from the mid-20th century, many in varying states of disrepair and others for sale that were polished to a nostalgic, show model sheen. Among them were: a 1954 Buick Skylark carrying a reduced sales tag of $80,000; an extremely rare 1933 V-12 Packard Victoria convertible; and a 1969 XKE Jaguar convertible just sent from England for custom work.
But before we got to his lifelong love affair with cars, Cruces wanted to show me two of his latest projects, whose skeletal structures dominated the back garage: two 1935 Staggerwing Beech single-prop planes (B-17Ls)—one being the oldest unrestored plane of its type in existence. I could tell by the beam in his eye that Cruces was enjoying restoring these to their original conditions.
“These were used by the Navy in WWII,” he explained. “At over 200 miles per hour, they were very fast little spy planes used around the coast. It’ll probably be a three- to four-year [restoration] project. It would be a shame if nobody restored these.”
Cruces doesn’t own a pilot’s license ("I’m too old to get off the ground,” he joked) and the planes may well end up in a museum someday.
“I recently retired. Everything you see here is pretty much a labor of love. The planes are just something different to work on. My wife says she hopes nobody ever tries to sell me a submarine.”
Originally from Vacaville, Cruces began his love affair with classic cars when he was 12 years old. His father had abandoned an old 1924 Model T, and the ecstatic youth soon got it up and running. He was instantly hooked on learning everything about cars, and he took a job shortly thereafter at Stith Chevrolet Body Shop, where he was hired to sweep the showroom floor.
“I kept sneaking into the body shop,” he recalled fondly. “I loved body work so much—everything from sanding, masking, painting, you name it. Some of the body shop guys recognized my love for it and eventually got me transferred to join them.”
By 1960, a young, hip-looking Cruces had been featured on the cover of Hot Rod magazine. Back then his customizing work, including futuristic projects such as a hand-formed, steel body hot rod known as “Crucifier,” was being hailed in automotive specialist magazines and Cruces was attending hundreds of car shows and customizing hot rods for the Sacramento and Oakland areas. But it wasn’t until later, after participating in the esteemed Pebble Beach Concourse D’Elegance, the most famous car restoration show in the world, that Cruces began to truly make a name for himself.
After competing a number of years (and “always taking first in class,” he said), in 1979 he won Best of Show for a brilliant restoration job on a 1931 Chrysler Imperial LeBaron. The offers from private owners soon came pouring in.
In 1974, Cruces moved to Chico after being hired as a full-time restorer by a wealthy rice farmer and private collector. He soon began to run his own full-blown body shop at 1420 Locust with 12 full-time employees. Since then, he has worked on classic cars, antique motorcycles and scooters, the occasional rare plane—and even restored a 1910 horse-drawn fire engine steamer for the Chico Fire Department that is often featured in local parades.
“I moved here and started to love Chico. It was great for my family,” he explained.
Besides being an avid hunter—mounted trophy heads line his shop, including a 1974 national-best 20-odd-point caribou—Cruces loves working with mechanics, no matter how small the project. With both his children raised in Chico, it’s made him a popular family figure at times.
“I now have two beautiful little granddaughters, Lana and Mattie. They love rides, so I made them a big, electric, belt-driven merry-go-round with four rides just from parts around the shop. … I may look more into that line of work. I’m a popular guy at all the kids’ parties.”
When asked what has fueled his passion for car restoration for nearly a half-century, Cruces rubbed his chin.
“I always loved the competition and bringing cars back to life,” he answered. “You go back to your school days. What I like about old cars is that I used to be able to look at every individual car on the road and tell you the make, model and year. Nowadays there are all these different cars I couldn’t tell apart. They run great but are made of cheap plastic and just don’t last. There’s no chrome anymore, no all-steel grills. In the old days, the cars were more ornate and individual. … You can feel the history when working on some of these cars.”
Of course, security is always an issue with such expensive cars, and Cruces says his insurance rates have always been high. But his current shop is well secured with accordion steel gates (floor to ceiling), and the high insurance has never slowed him down.
Cruces’ dream car since high school has been a ‘51 Mercury convertible, and he is currently working on restoring one. When he does a restoration job, he goes all out and totally strips everything, from the chrome to the upholstery if necessary.
“The crucial thing about restoration is to make sure it’s the absolute original,” he explained. “The car has to be identical to the original model; you do the research, and you make the parts if you have to—but you couldn’t, say, put a fiberglass fender on a car when it’s supposed to be metal.”
Five years ago, he moved all his restoration work downtown and centralized his showroom and garage operations on Main Street, where he spends his retirement working solo on classic cars. Though he operates a consignment option for other owners, Cruces says he still takes on occasional clientele as long as the owners are “looking for quality work on classic cars” but generally deals only with sales and pet projects. The only new cars he works on are those made by Porsche, Corvette and Mercedes.
Most days, he answers numerous phone calls from owners looking for rare parts, as well as people trying to get rid of antique vehicles they’ve inherited from their parents. Cruces still offers his professional appraisal service, and there’s also quite a bit of foot traffic.
“I get about 40 to 50 people a day in here,” he said. “A lot of times, adults bring their parents, and older people will just be amazed at how much these antique cars are sold for after restoration. They remember getting rid of it for 50 bucks!”
But, bottom line, it’s always been fundamentally about the love—and you can still see the sparkle of a young man’s enthusiasm in Cruces’ eyes when he talks about cars.
“I still get charged up 100 percent,” he said. “Whenever I run into a problem with one car, I have another waiting to go … and this turned out to be a good place to be—lots of car enthusiasts and clubs. Chico is a good little car town.”
Cruces added that, in retirement, he is just as excited as the first day he ever began restoring cars back in 1949.
“As long as my health holds out, I’ll probably do this till the day I die."