DOMVILLE- Fifty years has gone by fast...both literarily and figuratively.
For Gary Spero, owner of SS Performance Products, life has been about making cars go quickly. Spero's passion for automotive performance has been a life-long obsession; one that found its roots on the very same family farm where he currently operates his speed shop.
"It started probably when I was 12 or 13 years-old," Spero explains. "I hung around with my cousin who lived up the road and was into building all kinds of cars. It grew from there."
A few years later Spero found himself as the owner of his very own vehicle.
"You have to remember that times were a lot different back in those days. My first car was a 49 Ford that my dad gave me, with the stipulation that if it broke, I fixed it," he says.
With the 49s body on last legs, fixing it for the young gearhead equated into finding a 1954 Ford with better body and swapping the engine from his car into the newer model. That event would trigger a series of mechanical operations that would set the pattern for the rest of his career.
"The car wasn't as peppy as it used to be," Spero recalls, "so we changed the transmission. That still didn't smarten it up, so we came to the conclusion that the only thing left was the rear end, so we changed the differential...and the car became a car again."
And just like that, a lifetime of making cars go faster was launched.
"From there, all through high school, Fred Leonard and I hung around together. He was a car nut and so was I. Then I got into stock-car racing with Prescott Collision and I built some race car engines for them."
His involvement with that race car, lead to the ownership of his own stock car. The racing bug bit hard and soon Spero found himself immersed in both oval dirt-track and drag racing cars.
"At one time we basically made a living racing. We worked on customer's cars all week and raced all weekend. We ran four or five nights a week with the stock car and then on the weekends with the drag car. We kept busy," Spero finishes with a hearty laugh as he recalls the early days.
"Everything had politics involved in it. Stock car racing in those days, we used to have a tire iron under front seat to make sure you got in and out of the track. For some reason, people just hated winners. Lots of times we would have the truck running and the trailer ramps down, (the driver) would come off the track and right on to the trailer and the guy in the truck would be headed out the gate. Somebody else would go collect your (winning) money for you. It wasn't as much in Canada as it was in the US. They didn't like Canadians coming over and taking their money home. I could write a book on what happened in those days. Yeah, those were a lot different times."
While an economic downturn in the 1980s put racing on hold, SS Performance continued to grow.
"I started in 1969. My first shop was in other end of Prescott, up near where Ralph Murphy's shop is now (King Edward Auto Parts). From there we moved down to the old Richard's Restaurant. We were in there for a while, and then we moved into the old Canadian Tire Store (downtown). From there, somewhere around 1975, we moved into the building on Henry Street (currently the foodbank building) where we stayed for the duration of our time in town.
We, the other "S" in SS Performance, have included two individuals.
Gary's original partner and co-founder Alec Skakem lost interest in the shop a few years in, resulting in Spero buying out his partner's portion of the company. A few years later, Gary met the woman who would become his partner, in both work and life, until she passed away in 2016.
"It was just me until Sandra came along and she became the other S in the SS," Spero says, his voice unable to disguise the catch in his throat. "She wasn't afraid to get her hands dirty and we had a lot of good times together."
Today, working from a fresh shop located right back on the family farm where it all started and with race track visits few and far between, Spero continues to employ his passion for performance. The performance industry he has built a life around has changed along the way
"In the 1990s, when the recession hit, it was like someone just turned off the flow of money. We lost about 75% of our business," he explains. "We never did get it back. It recovered a bit, but not to the extent where we were before. At one time, we would sell three or four sets of headers a week, a couple aluminum intakes, maybe three of four Holly carburetors and get the job of putting them on. Business was brisk. But after the money got tight, it's the same as anything, the sport relies on excess money and when there isn't any excess money, the sport suffers."
Never one to shy away from embracing progress, Spero today also finds himself in a rapidly changing market.
"The performance industry, as a whole, is probably in good shape today. The technology that's available today, nobody even thought about back in those days. Today is harder because all of the new stuff is computer controlled...there is no just try this or try that like the old days when everybody was a do-it-yourselfer...when you built your car in your back yard. I'm doing two engines right now. One is old-school, carbureted with big cubes (cubic inch displacement)...the way things used to be. The other one is electronic fuel injection, an aftermarket version with a computer that runs all that. Today is (client's requesting) a lot of restorations, so your back to doing your old-school stuff, intakes, headwork and camshafts. We are probably 50-50, new versus old."
And how long does SS Performance plan on growing forward?
"As long as I can. I can still buy the parts and my memory is not bad. Until I lose my ability, and can't think straight anymore, I guess I'm stuck here. " Spero responds without pause, before ending the thought with a lesson learned from the man who gave him that first car.
"You have got to do something. I watched my father when he quit farming. He just quit, period. One day we were on the tractor going to the field and he said to me: You know, I should have kept a cow. He went downhill fast after that. You need something to do."
Gary Spero and has been doing life fast for over half a century.