There are countless automotive custom shops these days, and apparently almost as many reality TV shows about custom shops. But Hiltz Auto Co., the subject of Discovery Channel’s Bad Chad Customs, stands apart for a variety of intriguing reasons.
First off, Hiltz is located in the tiny Canadian town of Canning, Nova Scotia (pop. 2,500). This means that its proprietor, “Bad” Chad Hiltz, has to improvise and adapt to whatever scrap materials are available to him. The resulting hot rods are truly unique, award-winning works of art created with only basic tools, Hiltz’s imagination, and his signature thriftiness. (“Why would I need to buy welding wire when I can use a coat hanger?” he once quipped).
Hiltz thinks outside the box and defies convention at every turn. He actually prefers to work with junked vehicles rather than start with pristine “donor” cars. He has salvaged parts from RVs, boats, and planes for his builds, and even used the knobs from kitchen cabinets on one of his breathtaking creations. Hiltz’ outlandish Chrysler “Green Goblin” show car has its engine in the back, trunk in the middle – and has no doors (seen above).
Bad Chad Customs Reality TV Show
Tattooed and sunken-eyed beneath his snapback cap, Hiltz is at a glance an archetypal grease monkey. But there’s so much more to the man and his show than just engineering and fabrication. Bad Chad Customs also follows Hiltz as he sources materials from the most unlikely places and characters. And it explores the evolving dynamic between him and his fiancée, Jolene, and son, Colton, who both work at the business.
Chad Hiltz Interview
We sat down for a chat with Hiltz about his shop, his show, and how his tight-knit team – completed by lifelong friend and builder Aaron, and mechanic Alex – functions amidst tight deadlines and high expectations.
First off, Chad, can you just give me a brief history of your professional life and how you arrived at where you’re at today?
Well, I never ever thought of myself as a professional. But I’ve come to where I’m at today, because, y’know, I’ve worked a lot of places, and it just didn’t fulfill me. And I had to find something that I was good at. And then when I went to work, I made sure that every mistake I made, I learned something and moved forward. And that’s why I’m at where I’m at.
What is your unique philosophy towards customizing cars? And what is this rooted in?
My philosophy is: those who beat to their own drum will shape the world. And that’s how I feel about my cars, y’know … I do not allow anybody to step on my dream.
You like to use just basic tools and scrap metal for your builds. How much of this was originally inspired by simple necessity, and how much of that is by design?
As a young man, if y’know, you can’t afford a ‘69 Camaro, and you have the will and the want, then that means that you’ll use anything that you have to make something that you have in your brain. I had the will and want to make something, and having no money caused my creativity. That’s basically it.
Is recycling a big driver of what you do? Is there a “green” element in wanting to reuse vehicles and parts that have been discarded by other people?
I’m getting greener as I get older. I think about saving things and stuff like that … But as the [junk] cars that I find, the money’s cheaper. When I find them junked, they’re telling me the truth; I know exactly what they need. And I’m not buying anything that’s all painted and all shiny … I generally like the truth. And that’s why I like old cars, because I know exactly what they need.
Using basic tools and recycled parts also keeps costs down. Is that important to you, to make custom cars more affordable to everyday folks?
There’s a lot of stress in life. And money is a big one. And when it comes to a project, I’d like to keep the money out of it. When you’re concentrating on money, it’s hard to make something that you’re wanting to do. Today, it’s something that you shouldn’t think about when you want to make something because it’s a barrier. Y’know, if you haven’t got that money, then you probably won’t move forward … And I enjoy it more when I can make something from nothing and not have to worry about money.
I’m sure it varies wildly, but can you offer me an idea of how much a Hiltz build might cost a client?
Generally, what you spend on material you will spend in labor. So if I [give] you a $10,000 bill for the material of the car, you’re generally looking at ten grand for the wages, y’know … And that’s how it goes. Nothing is set in stone. You do the best you can do and hope we hit the button. We hope that we make the dream come true.
Has being relatively isolated in a small town in rural Canada influenced your approach to customizing? Did you simply have to get resourceful and learn to work with whatever you could find out there?
I guess me having not a whole lot of money as a young person. I mean, I left school at 16, y’know; had my first child. I became a young man, I had to pay bills … I learned very quickly that there’s no money to buy things. So that’s, I guess, where it started, is to make things. And that’s what I enjoy doing now. To buy something is artificial; to build something, what an adventure!
I know you love to share your knowledge of customizing and to teach others. What is your message to other enthusiasts who’re interested in modding cars?
I look towards other people to get inspired. And let’s face it, if you want to stand out and be a customizer, you have to break borders … you have to do what nobody else is doing. I would never want to build something that somebody else has built. But I sure damn well will build something off of and further than someone else has. I will take the limit further. You know, like in life, we all build off each other … you don’t know until you’re shown.
As I build the cars, I get to show other people that are in the hobby that you do not need money to fulfill your passion. Do not let it be a roadblock. Let it be an opportunity to build something, y’know. People don’t know what it feels like to make something. I was taught that very young.
Is that same message that you try to pass on to your son and apprentice, Colton? What do you try to impart to him through your work together at Hiltz Auto?
I start with who I expect and who I would think that he should be. Or give him a hint maybe, y’know, which direction he wants to go. I’m always telling him that his decisions will let him know whether his life is going to be good, or bad … I’ve tried to tell my son right from wrong constantly because it’s you have to repeat that stuff to live by it. And also, I want to show him how to build a car at the same time. So there’s a lot of pressure. There’s a lot of pressure between me and him, just as father and son.
Let’s talk about cars. First off, what sorts of cars do you prefer to use as your kind of source vehicles, and why? It seems like you have a love of vintage vehicles, right?
I do have a love of vintage vehicles … As a young man, it was really cool to drive down the road [in a vintage car] and someone smiles and waves at you … So as I got that feeling, I just took it to the next limit. I wanted to build a car, y’know. And as I wanted to build a car, I wanted to build the old ones, because those are the ones that give me the feeling inside that I liked.
What types of vehicles do you love to build?
I like an elegant vehicle. I really like a nice shape … as everybody else does. But what I do when I go to build them, I like them torn apart with nothing in them; with all their clothes off, so I can tell exactly what they are. So when I start, I know exactly what I’m going to do to fix it.
I like to buy a junker because that way I know what I’m fixing. I’m further off ahead. I don’t know if people realize that or not, but I’m way ahead of somebody that’s bought a car and wants to have it fixed. Y’know, you have to rip the interior out of it, you have to take the paint off it, you have to take all the engine out of it. Well, if I buy something that’s all ripped apart, I can put any engine in that I want, I put any floor in it I want … the possibilities are unlimited when I buy junk.
You’ve talked about how the cars themselves often tell you what to do with a build; that they almost dictate how a project takes shape. Can you expand on that idea?
When you have a car that you want to put the engine in the back. Okay, you automatically know right now that if the engines in the back, you have to have enough room that you can sit in the front, right? So as you make that room, that cabin in the front that you’re going to sit in, you can make it any size you want. But you have to realize you have to make it big enough that you can sit in there and turn the steering wheel and do the brakes and all that stuff.
When you have that done and you go to the back and you see the engine, you know how long the body is going to be because you got to cover that engine … So you automatically know how long it’s going to be. Your timeline, when you’re on a budget, then it comes to how fast and what’s the easier way? Do I put a trunk in it? Do I leave no trunk in it? When you start making doors open and trunks open and stuff like that, that is time – you have to make it fit.
If you need to have something done fast, I suggest you weld the door shut and cover the motor … It’s a lot easier to do that, and as you do it, you can make any piece of art you want. But you know that the cabin has to be this big, and the rear end has to be that long. And whatever you do, it’s up to you.
Tell me about the “human element” of your TV show, as it were – particularly the dynamic between you and your fiancée, Jolene, and your son, Colton.
Jolene has inspired me to put us where we’re at. She inspired me, and I told her I was wanting to build her a car. She wanted the car that Ralph Lauren had. It’s a $40-million Bugatti. I built the car. I built the shell, the car, and then a TV hit. And that’s sort of why I think the TV hit.
Jolene’s my partner because she does just as much as I do … I mean, she’s smarter than I am and, y’know, I can build a car. So that’s why we’ve teamed up. And, besides that, I think she’s beautiful.
My son, he’s there because he’s my son and I have a responsibility to try to teach him right from wrong through life. Alex and Aaron are just friends that were willing to help us get the job done.
How does Bad Chad Customs, the TV show, compare and contrast with the day to day reality of your Hiltz Auto business?
Not much difference. Just, y’know, Colton and the boys generally not around too much. But I work every day in the shop and Jolene’s [there] every day with me. And we do the exact same thing – we build dream cars.
How has the show changed your business and your life? I mean, you’ve gone from a remote rural shop to an internationally-known name. What are the pros and cons of that?
The pros are I’ve got a chance to inspire the world, one car at a time. And that’s what I plan to do.
What about the future? I understand that you start shooting Season 3 of Bad Chad Customs early next year, right?
Well, we’re signed. COVID has been not here. We’re still building; we can’t stop it. [Bad Chad Customs is] still on the Internet; you can still watch it and stuff.
But we can look forward to a Season 3 at some point?
Yeah, for sure. Like, y’know, I can’t inspire the world without Discovery [Channel]. If they don’t put me on TV, I can’t do what I feel like doing, I guess. And hats off to them.
Season 2 of Bad Chad Customs premiered on Discovery Channel in mid-August and can be viewed on multiple streaming platforms. Shooting for Season 3 is scheduled to start early next year.