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Custom cars on the cheap: neon nightmares or daring dreams?

The line between genius and madness has always been a fine one. Especially when it comes to building a custom car with almost no money.

Exhibit A: Dean Northcott's 1997 Oldsmobile Cutlass. Once you've seen it, Dean's car will be stuck in your head forever – there just aren't that many old mid-1990s Cutlasses that have been painted hot pink and outfitted with glowing neon tubes that spell "Neon Dean."

For good or ill, the pink Cutlass is a Toronto automotive legend.

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I first saw it about five years ago as I cruised down the Don Valley Parkway on a summer evening, bored out of my skull by the endless stream of lookalike cars that surrounded me. Then the Cutlass hove into view. Even after a lifetime of looking at cars, this one stopped me in my tracks – in addition to the pink neon signs in the windows, the hood was strung with pink light strips, and an array of pink lights was mounted on the bottom of the chassis, which made the car look as if it were floating on a moving cloud of cotton candy.

Laugh if you want, but Dean has accomplished what countless car buffs have tried and failed to do – stand out from the crowd. Not even the most finely accessorized German performance car can turn heads like Dean's outlandish Oldsmobile, even though the entire car is worth about as much as a single Porsche headlight bulb.

Although my own automotive tastes run to sleek sports cars, I've always been fascinated by the low-buck custom. The sad truth is that you can spend a lot of money on a high-end car, only to realize that it is as forgettable as a motel room – I admire a well-turned-out Audi or Mercedes as much as the next guy, but will you remember it five years later?

The low-buck custom is the domain of the true individualist – these are the drivers who are willing to mount a set of steer horns on the hood, weld a fighter-plane canopy on to the roof, or deck out the interior with fake fur and swag lamps. All it takes is fearlessness and a vision (although some will argue that a lack of taste is the single most important attribute).

Like any significant art form, the low-buck custom is a lightning rod for controversy, sparking endless discussions on aesthetics, the tension between the forces of form and function, and whether some cars should actually be outlawed for sheer bad taste. Like all low-buck customs, Neon Dean's pink Cutlass leaves behind it an endless trail of judgments – some love it, some hate it, countless others have no idea what to think.

I am one of those who actually likes the pink Cutlass.

I don't judge it according to the exacting standards that are applied at a concours d'elegance competition like Pebble Beach. Instead, I look upon it as a piece of performance art. The Cutlass is accessorized with plastic doodads from the Canadian tire novelty racks, loose wires dangle from the dash, and the paint looks like it was put on with a roller (which is a possibility, since Northcott works as a house painter).

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It may be loud and imperfect, but the pink Cutlass is an original, and that I admire.

Northcott does not go gently into the night – instead, he rages against the dying of the light, rolling the streets of Toronto in a blaze of self-created, bargain-basement glory. With nothing more than a beater Oldsmobile, some neon tubes and a few cans of pink paint, he has created a vision. (You may or may not share it.)

Countless drivers have tried to turn their cars into a form of personal expression. Some go all out.

If you have the money, McLaren will customize your 12C supercar at a special facility in England – among its clients are wealthy entrepreneurs who spend the price of a house putting carbon fibre wings and custom paint on their McLarens and Mercedes. One customer spent more than $1-million to have McLaren design and build a whole new car (I thought it looked hideous, but it was his vision, not mine).

The bargain-basement custom is an entirely different proposition. Unlike those who can afford the skilled technicians of the McLaren centre, the backyard customizer must rely on outrageousness and inchoate artistry to guide their hand as they wreak their creation. (Think of it as a gearhead version of Dr. Frankenstein's process.)

It's easy to miss the mark, but a good cheap custom can be a rolling art form.

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One of my favourites is a mid-1980s Cadillac Eldorado convertible that I see down in Chattanooga. The owner has painted it mauve, and installed a deep-purple convertible top. The wheels are purple, the tires are deep whitewalls, and the hood features a chrome-plated Spirit of Ecstasy ornament (like the ones you see on a Rolls-Royce).

This is not a car that I'd build myself, and yet the mauve Eldorado speaks to me. Whenever I see it, the theme from Shaft plays in my head, and I am transported back to a different era – a time when Detroit ruled the road, when Muhammad Ali was lord of the boxing ring, and Hugh Hefner was only a bit older than his girlfriends.

My affection for this giant mauve monstrosity is odd, given my automotive proclivities – I have always loved small, tightly strung sports cars like the Porsche 911, the Shelby Cobra and the Alfa Romeo GTV coupe. And yet that purple Cadillac does something for me, too, even though it reminds me of Liberace's house after a makeover by a pimp.

I don't want to own it. I don't even want to drive it. I'm just glad it's out there, riding through our consciousness along with Dean's pink Cutlass.

In a world that is increasingly ruled by the forces of dull consensus and grey corporate conformity, it's nice to see a purple tail-fin slicing through the air now and then, or bask in the glow of a pink neon tube. Vive la différence.

For more from Peter Cheney, go to (No login required!)

Twitter: Peter Cheney@cheneydrive


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About the Author
National driving columnist

Peter Cheney launched his driving column after 25 years as an award-winning feature writer, investigative reporter and news correspondent. His writing steers clear of industry jargon to focus on human experience and the passion of driving. More


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