Tucked neatly behind one of the lush curves on Burnside Road in Sebastopol lies the unexpected: a big, badass custom shop called South of Heaven. Owned and operated by Craig Ahart, the 3,000-square-foot shop is housed in a massive two-story barn that he hand-built about 11 years ago, with a specific eye toward making it appear as vintage as the classic cars he specializes in modifying.
For 38-year-old Ahart, the devil is in the details, and custom means custom everything. No detail is too small to go unnoticed, and he's been known to spend hours on something as minor as a mirror bracket, just to get the right lines. And it shows. While Sonoma County has no shortage of classic cars, Ahart's designs are recognizably unique, a perfect blend of appreciation for traditional lines, the unmistakable influence of low-rider culture and his signature style.
The works of art rolling out of South of Heaven may not bear the candy-coated, flashy look of mainstream hot rods, but they're no less eye-catching. Ahart describes the shop's style as "low-budget hot rods" and aims to build "a car you own, not that owns you."
"There are a lot of older cars out there you don't ever see," he notes. To Ahart, if you can't enjoy driving your car because you're too busy preserving it, that takes the fun out of it.
Now 20 years into the game, this self-taught artisan has made a name for himself. His cars have won awards and graced the pages of hot-rod magazines.
Ahart's passion for the build developed early in life, and he largely credits his grandfather, electrical engineer Jack Ghilardi. "My mentor is this guy right here," Ahart gestures toward a framed picture, each finger of his right hand bearing a tattooed spark plug. He adds, "He was basically my dad. He was the nicest guy ever." Ghilardi bought Ahart power tools when he was 10 and taught him how to use them.
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SITTIN' PRETTY A signature South of Heaven ’54 Chevy sedan sits super low in front of the garage, with a primered ’47 Ford coupe in the background.
"Instead of toys and stuff, he'd show up with a stack of lumber," Ahart reminisces, "and he just knew what I wanted."
Though his grandfather's main hobby was fishing, he did have an affinity for cars, having built a Model T from scratch as a young man. Ahart recalls Ghilardi tasking him with painting a '68 Plymouth Barracuda, only to gift it to him. Much to Ghilardi's dismay, his grandson turned down the gift; Ahart knew early on that muscle cars were not the type of classic vehicle that fueled his fire.
LEARNING BY DOING
Raised by his mother in Marysville, Calif., Ahart never had much money growing up. "It was just me and her," he says, "but she was a badass mom." He recalls a pivotal moment in his teens when a Mervyn's ad featuring a little red pickup caught his eye. The truck seemed accessible to him, and he remembers thinking, "I could have something like that."
Ahart started learning by doing, developing unconventional building techniques along the way. "I was really intimidated by cars at first," he recalls. "I didn't know the slang of how you talk about things." Though his friends didn't work on cars, Ahart became an influence, and they too got involved. Tough times call for tough measures, and though he's not proud of it, Ahart and his friends "used to rip off junkyards, because we had no money to buy parts."