Q&A: ‘Junkyard Gold’ Host Thom Taylor

We’re trying something new on Motor Trend onDemand: a showdown between pilots of new shows. In this first duel of awesome shows, MTOD has pitted Junkyard Gold against Forbidden Drives. Forbidden Drives features British hosts Tiff Needell and Jonny Smith driving cool cars we don’t get stateside. Junkyard Gold stars HOT ROD Magazine writer Thom Taylor and former HRM editor/Barrett-Jackson host Steve Magnante as they traipse through junkyards full of amazing old cars.

We caught up with Thom Taylor to talk about his history and the show. Be sure to watch both pilots right here on MotorTrendOnDemand for free,  and decide for yourself which is better.

Why don’t we start by talking a little bit about who Thom Taylor is?

I’ve been doing stuff with the magazine since…I don’t know when. A long time. I had a business for many years doing custom-car design and graphics and things like that. Then things started to slow down in the mid-2000s and I was thinking about doing something else. I was doing race car stuff and doing some toy design. I had been writing on the side; I did a number of books like “How to Draw Cars Like a Pro” and “Crazy Cars and Mad Monsters.”

Then I got an offer from Freiburger to come work for HOT ROD. I’d always done work for them and had a love for the magazine. It seemed like a fit so that’s what I did.

It’s interesting that you mention you used to be a designer because one of the features of the show, Junkyard Gold, is that you look at a car and discuss your visions for it. Yours seem to be very specific.

Part of what comes with design is the history. I love that part of it. Over the years, I’ve tried to seek out who was involved in these designs and what led to them. You start to connect the dots and see eras and trends. You learn about styling with different companies and things like that.

When I look at these cars, I think of that, but the other side is options and engines and models and things like that. The thing is, I have all this stupid knowledge of things like that and it’s funny, but this is about the only place it’s ever gonna come in handy. [Laughs] It’s weird that this found me or I found it. My wife, even my kids will ask me basic questions or say, “You’ve never read that book or don’t know this.” And I’ll say, “Yeah, I know, but I know the last year they made Hudsons or when the last straight-eight was made in America.”

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How did the show come up about? Was that something where Freiburger knew your knowledge and said, “You’d be great for this?”

He and I have talked about it for years. We kind of tossed it around. I think he did something along these lines—I don’t know if it was ever edited or what—but he did one on his own. He’s gotten so involved in all these other projects that there was never any way he could have participated in another. Julia Smart, who used to be an editor, she left and then came back as head of production at Studio TEN. She and David put their heads together and said, “Well, let’s get Thom and let’s get Steve Magnante.” And that was fantastic.

I didn’t know Steve. I was obviously very aware of everything he’s done and his crazy Bad Seed car. He was very visible when he was technical editor at HOT ROD Magazine, but I never really knew him. He and I immediately clicked. That’s what makes this a lot of fun for me.

I was always thought I was car geek, but Steve’s insane. The thing that blows me away most—and I just have to stand back and watch this—is when he’ll go right to the VIN. He can read it and can tell on any car, not just Mopars or Fords, just from the numbers where it was built, options, and engine options. I stand back in amazement because there’s no way I could do that. He just goes right to it.

In shooting the episode, how do you decide what you want to shoot in that yard? In the particular yard where you shot this first show, it seemed like there was an embarrassment of riches. How do you narrow it down to what you wanted to talk about?

We went in there with an idea and it kind of turned into something else. Originally, we were trying to base this on “What would be one of the cooler but also more feasible cars to rescue?” The key is “feasible.” You can take a car that’s fairly rare or really cool, but if it’s rusted halfway up, it’s going to take $100,000 to fix it and make it nice.

In the end, we got away from exactly what we would do with it and kept it a little broader. And I think that’s how we’re going to shoot episodes, moving on. Maybe we’ll just show more cars. There’s really cool stuff in these yards, but sometimes they’re so far gone that nothing will ever be done with them.

There was a ‘67 Plymouth Barracuda that was completely stripped: no front end, no engine or trans, no rear end, no doors, no hood, and no interior. It was a stripped shell. When Steve looked at the VIN, it was a 383/four-speed car. So it was a really rare and desirable car. That would have been one of my picks, except…

There’s nothing to show.

Yeah, [restoring it] would have involved finding window trim and doors and more…It would have been insurmountable to start with.

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Have you spent a lot of time in junkyards?

Not so much lately, but we used to. When you did hot rods in the ‘70s—which I hate to admit was mainly when I was fooling with them—there were no aftermarket manufacturers for ‘34 Fords or ‘40 Fords. If you wanted a rear end or a steering box, you went to a wrecking yard and pulled it off a car. That’s just always how it was. You didn’t look it up in a catalog and buy it.

I always find it fascinating. We know the value of a Ford 9-Inch rear end or a Corvair steering box because we used to use those on a lot of hot rods. Now when you see them, you know it had or has a lot of value and a myriad of uses. There’s all this gold out there in these little pieces. Like certain steel wheels that were, in a few models, a little wider. So you go to these yards and say, “Oh, there’s one of those steel wheels that they put on the high-performance cars.” We used to kill for those.

And I know this is really geeky, but 1957 to 1959 Ford Station Wagon rear ends; Those were like the gold of gold for rear ends in hot rods. They were the right width, they were real beefy, and they had a smooth pumpkin on them. We geek out over all this stuff. [Laugh]

I get excited about going and so does Steve. I think what we’re going to do on the next one is that the [production team] are going to mic us and we aren’t going to be allowed into the yard until we’re wired up. And then they’re going to get cameras and we’re just going to geek out on things there and talk about it. He and I go back and forth and it’s geeky, again, but it’s knowledge and hopefully fun stuff for viewers to see these two guys get excited like little kids.

There were a lot of things that didn’t get used for the pilot, like talking about specific things on the cars or differences from year to year. There was a ‘65 and a ‘66 Impala sitting right next to each other and I was talking about the differences and why they did what they did. That didn’t get used, but it’s good tribal knowledge and I think we’ll get more of that in future episodes.

That’s awesome and it’s stuff I’m interested in, personally.

We’re genuinely excited at seeing this stuff. The other bad thing is—and maybe Steve is a little more this way even than I am—when we go into a wrecking yard, it’s like when you go into a dog pound. You want to rescue everything. We’re both that way. Like that really stripped Barracuda? That bugs me. I’d kinda like to drag it out of there and put it back together.

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Being a writer, do you see a junkyard as more than the sum of automotive parts? Broadly speaking, what is a junkyard to you? Like modern archaeology or a less-tangible element to you?

It is always a little sad with these cars. It’s one of the most expensive things a family ever purchases, a car, and to think that these beautiful, gleaming things that someone put a lot of effort into purchasing and brought home and the family went for a ride in it and it smelled new and it was shiny…and then it ends up there. It’s sad and you think, “How did this happen?” It’s always a little sad going in, but then it’s the other side where it’s like, “Let’s try to save all of them.”

With regard to you and Steve, you both seem to be like Swiss Army Knives of automotive knowledge, but is there some specialized area where one of you is stronger than the other?

Definitely, Steve is stronger in that he knows engine options—I do, too—but he knows variations in horsepower. Like, let’s take a Mustang with a 302; there may have been a two-barrel, four-barrel, and high-performance version. Steve knows those stats with torque, compression, and things like that. I’m not as versed as that. I’ll know the engine and the horsepower range and whether it has a C4 or C6 transmission, but he goes deeper. I think we’re both good with the design and styling. I was always thought that was my forte, but he knows that really well, too.

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Is there one aspect of the show that’s made it enjoyable to make for you?

It’s weird, but it’s probably the dedication of the crew and the effort they put into it. That’s something I haven’t been exposed to much. I just thought it was going to be a one-and-done deal with a lot of goofing around and back-slapping and drinking beer, but these guys—all the way through to the editing process and definitely the filming process—they were real professionals and they put in a lot of time and effort.

So many times, they’re literally working before the sun comes and then when the sun goes down and we’re having dinner, they’re in their hotel rooms editing and preparing for the next day. It’s a 12-to-14-hour day for them every day. When you look at it, even if Steve and I are a couple of knuckleheads, the production quality and the effort really come through. That’s impressed me.

Is there anything else you want viewers to know or what you want them to get out of it?

I just hope it’s fun and I hope it comes across how it is because it is genuine. Sometimes on these shows, there’s this dumb made-up drama. I think that’s one of the great things about Roadkill and all the shows on Motor Trend OnDemand: There’s none of that built-in phoniness. It’s just a two knuckleheads roaming through a wrecking yard just discovering these really cool cars that have potential to be drug out of there and put back together.

Like I said, I used to go to wrecking yards and Steve did and still does. We just love it. It’s just this weird thing and we enjoy it and we hope people also enjoy getting to see it vicariously through us, too.

 

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