COE HILL, Ont. - Hidden in the woods about an hour north of Peterborough, amongst the rough terrain of the Canadian Shield, sits a tiny community of about 650 residents called Coe Hill. Like many smal...
BRIGHT LIGHTS, SMALL CITY: Howard fashions his customized creations at his steel workshop (right background) in the Northern Ontario “metropolis” of Coe Hill, population 650. Howard said the setting gives him some peace and quiet after working in the city for many years.
ALL FIRED UP: Truck “kustomizer” Lee Howard got his kicks customizing and detailing his friends’ trucks in his spare time, but that one-time hobby is close to becoming Howard’s full-time job as he looks to expand his Coe Hill, Ont.-based business, Inferno Kustom Werks. For the full story, see pg. 52.
– Photo by Adam Ledlow
THE FEEL OF STEEL: Though steel can be a difficult material to work with since it damages easily, Howard says he enjoys the challenge.
OLD SCHOOL: Howard (centre) discovered his love of trucking and his artistic flair at an early age.
COE HILL, Ont. – Hidden in the woods about an hour north of Peterborough, amongst the rough terrain of the Canadian Shield, sits a tiny community of about 650 residents called Coe Hill. Like many small towns in Northern Ontario, you’ve probably never heard of it, and if you did happen to drive by it, you might miss it if you blinked.
The residents seem from another time, content to leave big city life to the jet-set in favour of a quieter, simpler form of life. It’s the kind of place where neighbours not only know each other’s names, they know their children’s names, their pet’s names and they take the time to say hello to each one.
Among the properties that line the town’s narrow dirt roads you will find one with three very different buildings on site. The first building is a quaint, wooden house that has the sort of cottagey look reserved for most country dwellings in the area.
The second appears to be a kind of shed, littered with rusty signs telling people where and when to park and encouraging them to dump debris into the garbage bin. The third is an open-aired steel composition, curving towards the sunlit sky like a massive metal rainbow. This building seems the most out of place, and yet because of its minimalist design, it almost fits with Coe Hill’s primitive, backwoods nature. It is here that those primal instincts find a home, where fire and metal clash to breathe new life into old designs.
It is here that you will find Lee Howard’s ‘inferno’ – Inferno Kustom Werks, that is.
Long work days
It is a business devoted to anything and everything customizing, all for heavy trucks and all created by Howard with help from a small band of family and friends.
By day, Howard drives a gravel truck for C & A Nicholson Trucking, but by night his workshop comes to life as he slaves over his latest creation.
With workdays that often reach the 20-hour mark, there isn’t much free time to go around, but that doesn’t bother Howard, who loves his craft.
“They love the end result,” he said during an interview in his kitchen, adorned with vintage knick-knacks and classic memorabilia. “When the customer shows up and sees that it’s exactly what he wanted or it’s better than he expected, that does it for me. I was just a guy who was doing it for himself and for someone else to like it that much, it’s really a great compliment.”
People other than his customers seem to enjoy the end result as well, as trucks featuring Howard’s designs can often be spotted at truck shows across the province, with a few placing first in their respective categories.
Howard’s up-and-coming business got its start out of necessity more than anything else.
After purchasing his 1968 Western Star, he realized it wouldn’t be possible to outfit the truck from new dealership parts, so he’d have to create them himself. Once the customization was complete, a friend took a shining to the truck’s newly fashioned visor and asked if Howard would make one for him. Word of mouth spread from trucker to trucker and soon Howard was getting phone calls from strangers looking for help creating their own modifications.
Willing to try anything
With no real specialty to speak of, Howard just does truck customizing – period. Whether interior or exterior, Howard is willing to try anything. Bumpers, visors, exhaust, lighting – heck, he’s even done in-cab hardwood flooring for one trucker who was looking for a touch of class.
“I’d never done hardwood floors before so I had to read a lot. I’m not afraid to try anything. If you’ve got an idea bring it to me and I’ll try it,” he said. “I’ll read up on it, research it and go to it. I’ve really got nothing to lose.”
During the last year, Howard said demand for his services has really taken off, meaning his stint behind the wheel of his gravel truck may soon be coming to an end. For a guy who grew up as the son of a trucker and professes a love for everything about the industry, moving from behind the wheel to behind a blowtorch won’t necessarily be easy. But Howard said business is getting to the point where he doesn’t really have a choice.
“It’s either that or I’ll be giving away a lot of business that’s not going to be coming back,” he said.
At present, his wife Linda handles promotions, suppliers and any office work, while friends and family like his uncle Gary (a.k.a. “Joe Boy”) help with all the side projects, such as completing the construction of the workshop. With Howard alone handling all customers and their orders, he admitted he will eventually have to hire some additional staff to help with the customizing, albeit grudgingly.
“I’m funny like that because I’m a bit of a perfectionist. I have trouble letting control go to someone else,” he said. “I like to make everybody happy, but I got behind because I was taking on too much. I’m afraid to say to somebody, ‘Okay, I can do that but it’ll take me a month to finish.’ I have to learn to do that, but that’s all new to me.”
Howard’s perfectionist attitude traces its roots back to his teen years when he spent hours watching guys work in a hot rod shop in Hampton, Ont. One of his mentors at the shop was a man named Mike Roman, now a close friend of Howard’s and a teacher at Central Technical School in Toronto.
“I used to just watch him because he was meticulous and always looking for a different way to do something, to set it apart. He used to let me hang out there for hours and hours and he’d explain things and let me help him out,” Howard said. “He helped me acquire a bit of the know-how, but a lot of the perfectionism.”
Coupled with Howard’s keen attention to detail is his love of original work as opposed to factory-brand cookie-cutter designs.
“I’d prefer to make something a little different every time,” he said. “You can go into a Peterbilt shop and say, ‘Okay I want this, this and this’…The problem is the last 10 guys before you did the exact same thing. There’s no distinction between them.”
Howard’s reverence for originality has also helped his name in the business from the get-go. Customers know that if they come to him with their own customization idea and they want the item to be the only one, they won’t see the same design on another truck a few weeks later, he said.
“I say, ‘If it’s your idea and you want it to be the only one, I won’t do another one.’ And I think that gives people peace of mind,” he said. After many years living and working in the city, much of Howard’s peace of mind comes from living the simple life in the serene landscapes of Coe Hill. There he can melt, hammer and mould his creations into the stuff of truck stop legend, proving great things often come from small places.