Richard Hudgins, barefoot on the driveway of the Durango house where he lives, inspects a newly acquired, junky 1986 Mitsubishi van that runs on propane.
It’s a hulking metal mass of gray, filled with odds and ends and a laughing hula Buddha jiggling on the dashboard.
Hudgins sees a potential “killer robot.”
The 68-year-old, known since his days with the U.S. Marines as “Hudge,” said he has transformed more than 30, but fewer than 50 old cars.
With salvaged steel parts welded to the bodies, some of the cars are made to look like rockets, or aquatic creatures, and others are just spattered Jackson Pollock-style with paint. A lot of years and dates are a jumble in Hudgins’ memory, so he’s unsure when he designed his first car.
“There was some house paint lying around and a paintbrush. I took a torch to it,” he recalls. “I can’t help myself. Sometimes a car just looks like it needs a tailfin or a Mohawk.”
It’s only paint, but, Hudgins said, it fights the doldrums of driving.
“Instead of seeing people bored while they’re behind the wheel, they’re laughing.”
Those who live or work in Durango may have seen Hudgins’ most ubiquitous work cruising around: the “yellow submarine,” a bright yellow, 1995 Nissan with a Seussian periscope protruding from the top. When it sold this summer from a previous owner to Ashley Garcia, it came with a tape deck and a motley collection of tapes, including George Michael, Willie Nelson, “weird German pop duos” and spoken word.
“When I bought it, people asked, ‘are you going to be embarrassed driving this around?’ Hell, no,” said Garcia, 28, who lives in Durango but doesn’t know Hudgins. “I really needed a car, and it looks way cooler painted than it used to.”
The artist has been a machinist and welder for most of his life, which began in Port Huron, a small town where Michigan meets Ontario, Canada. After four years in Hawaii with the Marines during the Vietnam War, he moved around, deploying the same scheme to get by: Lie to get the job; then learn the skill.
“When I left the Marines, there was a recession going on, and I had a wife and kid,” he said. “My brother was a welder in Michigan, so I just watched him at work, and then lied and said I knew what I was doing.”
He did the same while living in St. Louis, where he learned after being hired how to be a machinist and work on cars.
Vintage cars have come and gone along with wives – Hudgins has had a 1960s Volkswagen Beetle, which he said went to his first wife after their split, and he’s had a Triumph TR3, a 1950s British sports car.
“I was good at being a husband but bad at staying a husband,” he said of his unfaithfulness.
He moved with his third and now ex-wife to Bayfield in 1982, and has lived in the Durango area off-and-on ever since.
Apart from writing a little poetry here and there, which he used to read aloud at the Steaming Bean, Hudgins said the cars are really his only outlet for creativity.
“I think I have a little artistic ability, but I know people with way more,” he said.
And he thinks of his cars as a pragmatic, not artistic, endeavor. His remodels go for little or no money to people who can’t afford a new car or thousands in repairs.
“Folks seek me out when their cars need more repairs than they can afford,” he said.
Garcia said she bought the submarine car for $700 at a critical time.
“Finding this car was absolute serendipitous timing,” she said. “My loved ones are in Mancos and Bayfield, and I needed to be able to get there.”
Before they’re sold, Hudgins has gotten some personal use out of his creations over the years: He arrived at his 45th high school reunion in Michigan in the “rocket,” and a “land shark” made a few winter jaunts to Boulder.
Now, he relies on public transit, at least until the Mitsubishi is fixed up, and various health problems in his advancing age keep him from working, Hudgins said. He’s retired in Durango, where he intends to stay, and he paints cars sporadically, when he wants to and gets around to it.
“I have a lot of friends here now, and at my age, that’s good to have,” he said. “I complain about aches and pains, but I shouldn’t. I have it really good. I have a good life, and Durango is insular, so you see everyone you know.”
That also means Hudgins tends to see some of his creations rolling by occasionally:
“When I see one drive past, I get a boost – there’s my car!”