To Chris Carlson, cars are more than merely a way to get around.
He sees them as a form of artistic expression.
“That car is as much a work of art as it is transportation,” Carlson said of a blue 1934 Ford coupe in the shop of his Mulvane business, Chaotic Customs.
The vivid-blue coupe is one of seven cars Carlson has customized that will be on display at the BlackTop Nationals, which gets underway Friday in and around Century II. Organizers have said they expect the fourth annual classic car and bike show, which runs through the weekend, to draw more than 150,000 people from more than 20 states.
Carlson hasn’t been to the BlackTop Nationals the past two years because he was busy finishing cars for customers, so he’s looking forward to this show.
“It’s like hanging out with your friends,” said his wife, Karma. “It’s a ton of fun.”
“It lets people know what we’ve got in the store,” she said, “but mainly you get to hang out with all your friends.”
The Carlsons are regulars on the car show circuit, but this one will be different.
“We’ve never set up with this many cars all at one show,” Karma said. “It’s the logistics. It’s a lot to coordinate. It’s a lot to organize.”
But they are convinced it will be worth it.
“A lot of people don’t realize what we have, since we’re clear out here in Mulvane.”
Custom car building has been a part of Chris’ life for as long as he can remember. His father did it as a hobby and it rubbed off on him.
He’s made it his livelihood for the past 10 years.
“When we first got married, Chris built a truck,” said Karma, his wife of 22 years. “I called the truck his ‘affair.’”
Chris openly calls it a passion, and he admits to being thrilled that he can make a living doing it. Every car he does is built for driving, not just showing – including the 1934 Ford coupe with the vivid custom blue paint.
“You don’t want to go anywhere in a hurry” with the coupe, he said, “because everyone wants to talk to you. Everyone wants to look at it.”
And lots of people have a relative or a family member who had or has a car like it.
Among the other cars the Carlsons will display are a black 1968 Camaro, a 1929 Model A Ford with an award-winning flamed paint job, a bright red 1935 Ford, and a just-completed 1965 Ford Thunderbird that his wife likes to drive – though it’s not her 1966 Ford Mustang, which is sitting in a barn awaiting his attention.
“It was a good time to tear it apart,” she said. “It just hasn’t been a good time to put it back together.”
She won’t drive a car that he hasn’t worked on, she said. The business has become a family affair, with all of their children and their oldest son’s wife all contributing in some way.
The children have grown up going to car shows on weekends in “Stella,” a 1960 Pontiac Ventura named for the character in “A Streetcar Named Desire.”
Not that long ago, Chris said, he put Stella up for sale.
“Nobody in the family would talk to me,” he said. “They were all mad at me: ‘You cannot get rid of her.’”
He learned his lesson. Stella’s still in the family and figures to be for many more years.
Chris said he likes to keep a notebook nearby for when inspiration strikes that allows him to solve a problem or come up with a creative look. He even drew sketches for a modification after the solution for a vexing problem came to him while he and his wife were singing in church.
“He sees potential in junk,” Karma said. “He looks at a rotted-out shell and sees a project. I look at it and see a rotted-out shell.”
People often ask Chris where he came up with his ideas.
“I tell them it’s the dancing penguins in my head at night,” he said with a chuckle. “I don’t sleep much.”