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Local shops cater to trends

Brad Littlefield rebuilds cars for street rodders, baby boomers and 1970s muscle-car junkies - people content to invest up to $150,000 or more in the "rides" that define their era.

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Brad Littlefield rebuilds cars for street rodders, baby boomers and 1970s muscle-car junkies - people content to invest up to $150,000 or more in the "rides" that define their era.

"Tuners," the high-performance sport compacts that are the current craze of the younger generation, are Shane Noble's specialty.

You've seen them - the ground-hugging Honda Accords, Mitsubishi Eclipses and Chevy Cavaliers that pass you in a flash, sporting glittering chrome wheels, dazzling flame graphics and expressive exhaust systems.

Whatever your liking, it's local shops like Littlefield's Aurora Rods and Customs or Noble's Tintmasters Motor Sports that are making car lovers' dreams come true.

From his Moorhead shop, Littlefield customizes and restores cars, trucks and motorcycles. The building at 119 9th St. N. is filled with vehicles dating from the 1930s through the '70s.

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Among their owners are street rodders, the group converting many of the 1930s and '40s vintage cars and trucks into hot rods.

Littlefield, 50, says many of his customers are baby boomers caught up in wanting - and now being able to afford - the toys they grew up with in the 1950s and '60s.

And, of course, there are the muscle cars of the late '60s and early '70s, with their huge V-8 engines that on long-ago Friday nights propelled them down secretly marked, quarter-mile drag strips in almost every American town.

"A lot of them are family cars that people have owned since they were new and want them redone," Littlefield says.

Some customers want their "ride" customized to include the latest creature comforts - air conditioning, cruise control, power windows and seats, television sets and DVDs.

Others prefer having their cars restored - putting them back to exactly like they were when new.

Either request costs about the same to accomplish, taking up to two years or more to complete, Littlefield says.

Chopping and reshaping the cars is what takes time, he explains. Older cars from the '30s often contain wooden framing.

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"Replacing that takes quite a bit of time and skill," he says.

Littlefield says another option is to "resto-rod" your car, like the 1946 Chevy Suburban he is working on. When done, it will look original on the outside but contain all the recent mechanical and electronic bells and whistles.

Littlefield's seven employees specialize in different areas: sheet-metal fabrication and welding, custom body work, painting and installation of electronics such as stereos, television and DVD players.

A 1930 Ford Model A, its underbody just as flashy as its ruby-red exterior, rests atop a car hoist at Aurora Rods and Customs.

Owned by a dentist, the car's rear differential carries the slogan: "Happiness is good teeth."

In the shop's rear corner sits a 1935 Buick four-door sedan with a fully chromed, 2002 Corvette LSI engine and a metal flake-candy auburn paint job.

"There will be no other car with that color," Littlefield says of the paint specially mixed in Aurora's state-of-the-art auto paint shop.

Outside is parked a nearly completed 1937 Ford pickup truck.

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"It was in such bad shape, we really shouldn't have done it," Littlefield says. "But the fella insisted, because it had to be done for his son."

His customers come from all over the country - Seattle, Iowa, Georgia, Florida and, of course, Minnesota, North Dakota and South Dakota.

Most are referred by word of mouth or have seen cars shown at hot rod meets that were built by Aurora.

All the work keeps his employees busy.

"It's like Fargo-Moorhead is just catching up," Littlefield says. "Believe me, it's not letting up a bit."

Tuner mania

Tuners are a new breed representing a new culture - small cars boasting a lot of muscle.

With hopped-up four- and six-cylinder engines - turbo-charged or injected with nitrous oxide to reach incredible horsepower and speed - tuner cars are making a statement all over the country.

What sets tuners apart from traditional hot rods is what's under the hood, says Noble, who runs Tintmasters shops in Fargo, 2704 Fifth Ave. S., and Grand Forks.

The engine of a tuner can be altered by upgrading computer components, rather than opening the motor for an overhaul, he says.

"On newer cars, everything is computer-controlled," Noble says. Increasing horsepower can be done by adding a computer chip or computer.

Noble has witnessed the tuner car trend spread from its 1980s' roots in California to its reigning popularity in Fargo-Moorhead.

"Got Nitrous?" read a bumper sticker spotted recently on a blue subcompact in Moorhead.

On the drag strip, tuners are called "pocket rockets," reaching engine performance in excess of 500 horsepower and speeds surpassing 200 mph on the national racing circuit.

The act of tripling or quadrupling the horsepower of four-cylinder compact cars and racing them on drag strips took off in the early '90s, Noble says.

"That's when I really started to see it in magazines. It started from guys street racing."

The tuner car culture arrived in Fargo-Moorhead about 1996-97, he says.

Noble was already in business, opening his first Tintmasters in Grand Forks in 1995 at age 22, and the Fargo store in 2001.

His stores sell the goodies that tuner owners need to be part of the new culture - things like chrome exhaust systems, custom-styled wheels, engine manifolds, vertically-stacked engine gauges and nitrous kits.

Tuner car owners range in age from 16 to the 30s, Noble says. When they have a little extra money to burn, they spend it on their car, he says. "We have kids that come in that save half the summer to buy a $200 intake system."

Others spend $2,000 to $3,000 on a set of wheels. Some buy lowering kits to drop the car closer to the ground.

"It's pretty random," he says.

It's not uncommon for customers to put $20,000 in accessories into cars they may have bought for $8,000 to $10,000.

"I'm sure the 40-something-year-old dad wants to see his son get a '69 Camaro, but the kid says, 'No, I want to get an Integra,'" Noble says.

The tuner trend is still in high gear in Fargo-Moorhead. "It's not slowing down at all," he says.

Readers can reach Forum Business Editor

Craig McEwen at (701) 241-5502

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