Ford retiree Gil Pepitone found his calling: traveling the country in his “Shoebox” creation, a 1951 Ford Custom Tudor sleeper.
The Coral Springs, Fla., resident and self-described car guy has racked up 80,000-plus miles and countless smiles since 1995. Pepitone retired in 2008 after 31 years with Ford – 24 of them as Quality Office/PTSE powertrain field engineer.
Pepitone developed the vehicle concept in 1989. His goal was to create a “sleeper” – a vehicle that looks original but has a modern powertrain and features like air conditioning and cruise control. He was drawn to the sleeper concept at a young age, inspired by the sleeper Pontiac his older sister’s boyfriend drove as well as the DB5 Aston Martin in “Goldfinger.”
In August 1992, he purchased the Ford Tudor in Albuquerque, N.M. Pepitone then requested and was granted official Ford sponsorship to build the vehicle. The company provided the entire powertrain and numerous parts. Work on the vehicle started in November 1992 and wrapped up in November 1995.
Pepitone’s Shoebox was built not for performance but with safety in mind. Items like retractable seat belts, side impact beams, a collapsible steering column, a gas tank skid plate and daylight running lights work with the modified powertrain utilizing the venerable 5.0-liter high-output engine, which was increased to 331 cubic inches using Ford Motorsport components like the GT40 intake manifold. When he’s drag racing, an additional 100 horsepower nitrous-oxide system provides more fun.
“Artistic people, and I consider myself one, need an avenue for their creativity. While some people may pick up a paint brush or a chisel, I like to do it with metal and wire and plastic and what have you to make my own creations,” Pepitone said. “It’s a quiet feeling of accomplishment that cannot really be matched anywhere else.”
Since then, he’s turned heads at over 1,000 car shows and events across the country, even drag racing at nostalgia events. He’s drawn press attention from places like HorsePower TV, Autoweek and Hot Rod magazine, where he and the Shoebox earned a three-page spread in the July 2001 edition.
“It’s almost like Gil = Shoebox. It’s one in the same,” he said. “It’s become part of the fabric of my life.”
While the Shoebox was a sleeper hit, Pepitone started wearing the 1950s-inspired Ford mechanic outfit in 1996 in an effort to draw more attention to the vehicle at car shows. He drew inspiration from an iconic ‘50s ad featuring a war veteran saluting a Ford mechanic.
The motivation for his automotive exploits is joy, plain and simple. There’s the joy he gets from working on the car – creating components, putting them together and putting his mark on it. There’s the joy from driving the car – including his big 9,000-mile, two-month trip from Florida to California, Michigan, New York and home again. And there’s the joy he gets from sharing his sleeper with others – seeing their curiosity and the memories flash across their faces.
“I love to engage people. The world of automobiles is the perfect conduit because all barriers break down at car shows,” Pepitone said. “It’s my way of reaching out to the world.”
The Shoebox is not just a car to Gil Pepitone. That hunk of metal is a living thing.
Click here to see more photos from Gil's adventures over the years.
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