Alfonso Garcia Jr.’s plastic fantastic 1992 Saturn SL2 chop-top hot rod proves any car can be cool, and that you don’t need a big budget to build something amazing if you’ve got patience and determination.
Saturn was the Radwood era’s great new hope for General Motors, complete with “dent-proof” plastic panels and futuristic styling. So clearly, the best thing you do with one today is turn it into a chop-top hot rod, complete with custom paint, a mean low stance, curb feelers and fat white walls. Wait, what?
Garcia has turned a relatively normal Saturn sedan into a true work of art over the years. It all goes back to Garcia’s love for old school hot rods. And, clearly, his appreciation for the unusual.
“The hate, the love, the stuck faces, the smiles... it is pretty funny how much emotion this car extracts from bystanders,” Garcia explained in an email to Jalopnik.
Garcia’s father was a mechanic who’d reached the level of ASE Master Tech, and kept issues of Car Craft and Hot Rod around the house, which Garcia ate right up. Garcia later added his own subscriptions to Lowrider and Jalopnik staff favorite Mini Truckin’, which showcased more modern customs that no doubt shaped Garcia’s unique automotive aesthetic.
Cool cars were always a topic of discussion at home. Somehow the conversation turned to body work and welding, which Garcia’s dad told him he couldn’t do. That became a “challenge accepted” situation.
“I don’t like being told what I ‘can’t’ do,” Garcia said. “My dad decided to push his inabilities onto me, and all I did was reject them.”
Garcia’s first foray into the world of body work was cutting the roof and trunk off of a four-door 1977 Oldsmobile Cutlass to create what he deemed an “El Cutlass-mino.” It came complete with a six-inch body lift, 35-inch BFG all-terrain tires and a Wu-Tang symbol on the hood. He chuckles about it now, and in his defense it was 1998. Anyway without the knowledge gained from cutting up a Cutlass, his current build wouldn’t be anywhere near as extreme.
“Some people have enough disposable income to just catalog shop and hire services ‘til they get what they want,” he said. “I always have had to fight for my slice and I’m quite okay with that.”
A few project cars later, in October of 2000, Garcia bought his current, then-gold 1992 Saturn SL2 for $500 with the intention of fixing it up and reselling it. Garcia frequently bought and flipped broken Saturns to support his hobby of modifying and racing Saturns. This SL2 had a bad engine, which Garcia swapped out for a used replacement he got on eBay. Still, this little gold car soon turned into Garcia’s daily driver, as he was racing his wife’s SL2 and that nitrous-boosted beast wasn’t exactly reliable.
Saturns weren’t really built for speed out of the box, so Garcia soon started making his own performance parts for the car and selling them across the country to other Saturn fans. He installed a re-ground camshaft, and ported and polished the car’s cylinder heads and intake manifolds in his gold car. Because he was fixing it up anyway, he soon started racing his own SL2. Garcia added chameleon flames to the side and gutted out the creature comforts accordingly.
When the SL2’s transmission threw a differential pin (again), he realized that he just didn’t have the income to keep racing the SL2 and modifying it for speed. So, Garcia had a completely bonkers thought, explaining to Jalopnik via email:
One sad day after the transmission blew on this car for the second time, I looked at it in disgust and started running through options. Then I laughed to myself, ‘How hard would it be to chop a modern 4 door?’ Seriously, though? At this point this car was a $500 daily driver that just threw a differential pin and was nearly worthless to the rest of the world.
The plan was set: time to do a sixties-style hot rod, totally custom, and all hand-built—out of a Saturn. Before he sawed the roof off, though, he first cut down a few printed-out images of the Saturn SL2’s space frame, which he got from a friend at the local Saturn dealership. Garcia explained:
I made a few copies of the 6" wide scale image and headed home. I sat down with my scissors, an exacto knife, and some clear tape. First cut was the roof. Then I split that in half and cut down the A-, B-, [and] C-pillars using my triangular scale until it looked good to me. At that moment I had the first look at it and it LIT me up!
Life had other plans in the short-term, though. His daughter was born in August 2001, and within a couple years, Garcia decided the risks and costs of racing his car just weren’t worth it to him anymore. He stopped fixing up cars for resale and selling his own performance Saturn parts on the forums, too, and focused on his day job and being a dad for a while.
“My family life was gaining momentum and I enjoyed investing in my business more than [I did] breaking hearts of the import boys,” Garcia explained to Jalopnik.
He decided that the low and slow “kustom kulture” was a better fit for his life, and started tinkering with the Saturn, but it ultimately got parked for 12 years. However, this also meant that Garcia gained a new wrenching partner: his daughter.
“Right now my daughter is about to graduate high school and head to college to study mechanical engineering, and she is going to be able to have some custom car work on her resume.” Garcia said. Now that’s good parenting.
The chop top really got started when Garcia bought a six-point cage out of a Chevy K5 Blazer at the local junkyard for $30. That afternoon, he took all the measurements to cut the cage down to fit inside the Saturn. After welding in all six points of the cage to the Saturn’s frame, it sat way below the stock roof.
This cage gave him a good visual reference point for actually chopping the SL2’s roof down, which was useful, given that there was no actual information on how to chop the roof of a Saturn out there. Much of this project was figured out on the fly.
One of the toughest parts was figuring out how the metal of the roof would transition into the polymer door panels. The materials in Saturn doors tend to expand and contract in extreme temperatures, and Garcia’s car lives in Albuquerque, New Mexico—a place that sees both hot and cold temperatures throughout the year. To secure the roof, Garcia riveted on the sheet metal C-pillars he constructed to the polymer rear quarter panels.
He covered up the rivets with Kitty Hair fiberglass filler, but unfortunately, this means that the rear quarter panels aren’t removable anymore. A fun fact about the SL2 is that every body part can be easily removed from the car except for the roof. And only the roof, hood and trunk are metal. The rest are those plastic-fantastic polymer panels that Saturn touted as the solution to door dings at the height of the marque’s popularity.
Garcia’s transitions from metal to plastic held up well over time, and didn’t even end up being the toughest connection to smooth out on the car. That was actually the roof, where Garcia put a full sheet of 18-gauge sheet metal on top to get a better curvature for the look of the car and to avoid dealing with the roof transitions he couldn’t quite make work.
Because the roof had been dropped down, the stock mounting points for seat belts were no longer where they should be on the pillars. So, Garcia installed a set of aftermarket harnesses that attach to the ex-Blazer roll bar as well as some tabs that were welded to the roll cage as attachment points.
Ultimately, the SL2’s roof was dropped six inches, and stretched by 14 inches to keep the same angle for the front and rear windshields. The end result is stunning, and makes the car look deceptively long as there isn’t the vertical height of the car’s greenhouse balancing it out anymore.
Garcia swapped the rear window, which was a curved wrap-around piece in the stock SL2, for a flat piece. Garcia widened the C-pillars accordingly to compensate, which works really well with the rounded edges of this project.
The extra metal didn’t go to waste, either, as Garcia reused the Saturn’s roof metal in a pair of motorcycle projects.
Garcia shaved every emblem, handle and reflector off the SL2 as well, smoothing things out further. Even the rear taillights are smoothed-out body-color pieces, with an LED strip tucked under the lip on the rear trunk to act in their place.
To balance the lower roof, the car was dropped down by 4.5 inches on Subaru WRX coilovers. The Saturn S-series cars use fairly standard MacPherson struts, so apparently the WRX bits were relatively easily to install after re-drilling the coilovers’ top hat struts to match the pattern on the Saturn’s strut tower, and trimming the plate down to fit. Another way to fit these on an SL2 is to swap the top hats, but then you lose the camber adjustments on top. The lower bracket also had to be modified slightly to get it to fit the connection to the Saturn spindle.
“That’s Saturn life though,” Garcia said. “We always had to modify mass produced parts to fit ours.”
Surprisingly, the wheels are just stock 14-inch Saturn steelies wearing big, shiny moon-style hubcaps. Garcia added Portawall faux white wall inserts on the tires to complete the retro look.
There’s also a host of cool visual cues Garcia added on the car, too: the shifter sits 20 inches higher than stock, the steering wheel is from a 1946 Chrysler RV, and there are curb feelers like you’d see on old-school custom cars just outside the wheel wells.
Garcia largely returned the drivetrain to its more reliable stock form, with only a few breather parts and a limited-slip differential remaining on from its earlier, faster days. Speed isn’t the point of the build anymore, although Garcia admits that it’s not out of the question.
“If I can smoke the tires at will and shoot flames out of my side pipes at will, I will have found my version of automotive nirvana!” he told Jalopnik.
So far, Garcia estimates that his SL2 has only cost about $1,500 in parts, including the price of the car, its paint and body supplies.
Next up for the car is to reinstall a “glossy, plush, futuristic, mid-century modern interior” that looks as fantastic as the outside of the car. Garcia expects that this may be the hardest part of the build yet as interiors aren’t really something he’s tackled in detail before. Fortunately, he has some design help.
“Last month I gave my daughter homework to research the golden years of futuristic interiors of the 60s and we are going over what we would like to see in our project,” Garcia told Jalopnik. “We are both so excited to hit our U-Pull-It yard [to] scavenge switches and trims.”
So far, they’ve bought a dashboard from a 1953 DeSoto, and they plan to keep the 1946 Chrysler RV steering wheel that’s already in the car.
“After that, it’s going to be a lot of fiberglass, paint and imagination,” Garcia said.
Along with the interior, Garcia said he’d love “a stereo loud enough to feel, but light enough to not destroy my bodywork.” (Priorities!)
Additionally he’d love to add air suspension, as the WRX coilovers are a pretty rough ride and he dreams of taking the car cross-country at some point, maybe even to bigger shows like Radwood in California, or SEMA in Las Vegas. I’m not sure if this means that the “Bags Are For Groceries” sticker would have to go, but I think it could still work!
He’d also like to shave and tuck the engine bay—as in, smooth it out, paint it nicely and hide many of the less visually appealing lines that run through there. And did we mention that Garcia purchased a set of fire-spitting fifties-style 80-inch Lake side pipes, just waiting to be installed? Yeah, that should be interesting.
Lastly, he’s been mocking up how the car would look like painted in “Radiator Springs Red” with white scallops, clearly inspired by the scene where Ramone paints Lightning McQueen in the Cars movie. Garcia already bought the paint—he just needs the time to do it.
For now, he’s glad to get his Saturn’s story out there. Garcia told Jalopnik that he grew up in poverty, and this head-turning show car is a great example of what you can accomplish with ingenuity and your own hard work. You don’t need to hire an expensive shop to divert attention away from Ford GTs at car shows.
“Not very many people handle 100 percent of their work anymore and I want to share my story, in hopes of inspiring kids to educate themselves and take calculated risks all in the name of knowledge, self-pride, and art.” he said.
We’re featuring the coolest project cars from across the internet on Build of the Week! What insane build have you been wrenching on lately? Seen any good build threads we should know about? Drop me a line at stef dot schrader at jalopnik dot com with “Build of the Week” somewhere in the subject line if you’d like to be featured here.