Words: Alan Mayes
Photos: John Jackson & Fioto Family Collection
In late May, another of our nationally known custom and hot rod friends, Gary “Chopit” Fioto, passed away unexpectedly, right after attending the West Coast Kustoms show in Santa Maria, California. He was only 61 years old.
I had the privilege of getting to know Chopit as I featured him in a chapter of my 2009 book, Old School Customs. Some excerpts from that chapter are featured here.
At the time of that book’s publication, Chopit lived in Florida but he moved with his family to California a couple years later and had become a fixture at the major shows on the West Coast. He was also a longtime member of the Beatniks Car Club.
Born with wheels
“I was into cars from the day I could crawl,” remarked Gary. “If it had wheels on it, that was it. If it had a motor on it, that was even better.”
He got it honestly. His dad was an ace mechanic and owned several gas stations, junkyards, used car lots and body shops around Levittown, Long Island, New York where he grew up.
Born in 1954, he was about four or five years old when he started building model cars. He liked hot rods the best and was a regular feature in the toy department at the local Woolworth’s. He also had one of the Renwal Visible V8 models.
Growing up on Long Island and spending the first fifty years of his life there, Gary is forever steeped in the East Coast style of cars.
“No matter where I move in my lifetime, I’m always going to be an East Coast boy,” he says. “No doubt about that. And that’s reflected in most of the stuff I build. My cars are East Coast lookin’ cars.”
Like most talented customizers, Gary started changing things at an early age. He also did some decorative experimentation.
“I got my first welding torches when I was twelve,” Gary notes. “Some guy gave me a handful of welding rods and they went real fast. So I went in the house and started taking clothes off the hangers and using those for welding. My mom would come home from work and find all her clothes lying on the floor in the closet.
“My sisters used to lose all their underwear ‘cause I’d be using it for lace painting. Oh yeah, man!”
Apparently, Gary’s always been a little… uh, high strung. In fact, he admits to being a bit of a problem child which caused the school system to send him to a trade school, because they figured that he wasn’t cut out for the academic track.
“They asked me what department I wanted to go in and naturally I picked auto body. I learned how to weld pretty decent the first day and a half I was there,” he recalls. “Actually, I was welding pretty decent before I went there! Right away, I became the guy in charge. That lasted about six months.”
That’s about when he earned the nickname, “Chopit.” Gary relates that on Saturday mornings, the local high school kids would bring their cars to him and have him do custom work on them. His neighbor would walk out to go pick up a newspaper and morning coffee and look over and see Gary cutting on cars and pushing windows out with his feet to chop tops. He started calling him “Chopit” and the name stuck. That was around 1967, when he was thirteen.
Not life and death
One thing that has probably kept Chopit’s focus properly grounded is the realization that he’s building hobby cars for people. No one has to have a hot rod or a custom. They are fun vehicles and Gary has fun building them and he enjoys bringing smiles to owners’ faces.
“My enjoyment comes when a client comes and sees his car and is all excited. I try to make all my clients that I’m doing these cars for have a good time doing this – not a bad experience, a good experience. The only time it gets bad is when they don’t pay.”
Fioto is quite the craftsman, which helps to explain why someone from across the country would have him customize a car for them, when there are other talented builders much closer to home. Californian Brian Lovely brought the gold ’53 Chevy coupe shown to Chopit when he was still in Florida. Originally, Gary was only supposed to chop the top, but Brian was so happy with that piece that he asked Gary if there was anything else he thought it needed.
“I said, ‘Yeah, get rid of those ugly taillights and let me customize the back end.’”
So Gary extended the quarter panels and put in Packard taillights, added a ’52 Cadillac back bumper, made a pan over the bumper, sunk the rear license plate and made some of the prettiest fender skirts to ever adorn a car.
“He left it up to me for the color, like most of my clients ‘cause anytime they tell me a color I don’t listen to ‘em anyway.”
If there’s just one car that Gary Chopit is best known for, it’s the “Beatnik” bubbletop car and it was inspired by the car shows he used to go to as a kid. There was a local new car dealership that used to have shows in their service department area, where the mechanics worked.
“You know how when you go to a car show and there’s always that one car that makes you go, ‘oh my God?’ I just wanted to build a showstopper that reminded everybody of the old days.”
Well, it worked. That car, based on a 1955 Ford (gotta look deep to see it) cleaned up on the show circuit, winning prizes all across the country, including at Blackie Gejeian’s Fresno Autorama, the Grand National Roadster Show, the Detroit Autorama, the Fresno Autorama, the Sacramento Autorama, Carl Casper’s Louisville show, Paso Robles and at Darryl Starbird’s Tulsa show. There were shows it didn’t win: the ones it didn’t enter.
We note that there are no concept drawings lying about anywhere in the shop. Gary doesn’t do them. He just builds.
“I just build it and whatever it looks like, it is. I never go backwards. I’ve never put something on a car and then cut it off. I just don’t go backwards. It takes a lot of time and I can’t justify it. I want to build a lot of stuff before I die, man.
“If you look at my track record, it’s like every two or three years I build a car. I don’t go for the cookie cutters. I try not to look at too many magazines. I don’t want to be influenced by anything. It’s all natural.
“I’m only here for a short time so I’m not here to please everybody,” Chopit states. “I’m here to please me. I want to be happy before I die.”
The cool thing is that Chopit made a lot of other people happy along the way. The quality of his builds – the bodywork, the style, the craftsmanship, the paint – stands the test of time, even on cars that are driven quite frequently. There is no visible deterioration on cars that he built a decade or more ago. That’s the mark of a master builder. And though known most recently for customs, there were lots of hot rods in his body of work, too, as the pictures here attest.
We’ll miss Chopit. He had an East Coast swagger and a heart of gold. He loved his family dearly and always talked about them. When I interviewed him for his book chapter, he wanted to talk about them more than himself. Our sincere condolences go out to the Fioto family: wife Cindy, daughter Tiffany, and sons Fabian and Nick.