Quitting Was Never An Option

A father and son’s six-year journey of building a car from the bottom up.

By Peggy O’Dell

When Dave LaDuke and his teenage son Dillon were looking for a way to spend more time together, they weren’t just thinking about taking in a football game or going fishing. They wanted a project. Something big. And they found it in a 1978 Chevy Nova.

Dillon was only 14 when they bought the old car, with plans to rebuild it. They had worked on family cars in the past, but on a much smaller scale. “We were basically just figuring it out as we go,” Dillon recalled. “The engine was in pretty good shape. It ran and could be driven, but I tore it down because I wanted to know what was in it.” It would be six years before he heard it run again.

The father-son project turned into a family project as Dillon’s uncle Don LaDuke joined in. They spent nights and weekends dismantling the car, and then searching for the parts they needed to rebuild it. By the time they were done, the only thing original was the body, newly painted a shiny granite gray with help from Dillon’s cousin Tracy Armentrout, a professional body and paint man. Dillon replaced the old engine with a Chevrolet Big-Block 700 HP engine with no mufflers “so people would notice it,” he said. And notice it they did. It was a long road, and Dillon admits there were plenty of times they were frustrated. “But we knew we could do it. Quitting was never an option,” he said. The car was finished just in time for the 2023 Detroit Autorama. Dillon entered it in the Street Touring 1949 – current Class and won first place. He also won the Rising Start Interior Award and the Cruising News Spirit Award.

It was his first car show but definitely not his last. He spent the summer going to smaller, local shows. “I really like driving it around town, taking it to shows and getting people’s reactions and comments. It’s not something you see every day,” Dillon said. “You can’t enjoy it if you don’t drive it.”

Last summer, Dillon was proud to be awarded the Young Guns Golden Ticket to compete in the SEMA (Specialty Equipment Market Association) trade show held the end of October in Las Vegas. He was one of only eight young builders from across the country aged 18-29 who received a Golden Ticket, which included an all-expense paid trip to the show. Dillon competed in the Battle of the Builders against 175 other vehicles from around the world. He made it into the top 40 before his car was eliminated and was in the Top 10 in the Young Guns category. “It was really a great experience to be at SEMA. I was happy to be a part of it,” he said.

Looking ahead, Dillon doesn’t plan to turn building custom cars into a career. He is focused on finishing his business degree, and hopefully working for American auto maker someday. “Turning wrenches is fun, but not if you do it for a living. I just want to keep it as a hobby,” he said.

Look for Dillon and his 1978 Nova at the 71st Annual Detroit Autorama, March 1-3, 2024 at the Huntington Place/Cobo in Detroit.

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