Photograph by Carlos Alejandro
Owner Gary Corkell is the driving force behind One Off Rod & Custom.
Stan “Ski” Ostrowski cuts to the chase. “You can tell a car guy, you know what I mean?” says the likeable shop foreman over the high-pitched squeals of an air wrench. “You either have it or you don’t.”
There’s no doubt that the folks at One Off Rod & Custom are car guys. The proof is in the award-winning hot rods and renovated classics that roll out of their Middletown shop. The talented, hard-working team of old-schoolers and up-and-comers is led by shop owner Gary Corkell—a stocky 42-year-old who is as passionate about old cars as anyone you’ll meet.
Corkell says a love of renovating classics and building hot rods unites people from all walks of life. “Some people are just scraping them together, others can afford the high end,” he says. “It brings a lot of people together in all facets. Everybody has a sentimental story about a car.”
One Off handles everything from a $300,000 build of a 1969 Camaro Super Sport to insurance jobs on damaged hot rods. Some of the latter cars have been trailered from as far away as Washington, D.C. “They don’t really have a place to go because normal body shops don’t touch these types of cars,” says Corkell, explaining that parts, as well as the skills and knowledge needed to repair the cars, can be hard to come by.
One Off has received its share of attention as many of its projects have been highlighted in Street Rodder and Hot Rod magazines. The shop has also worked with celebrities such as CBS Sports personality James Brown, former Philadelphia Eagles defensive tackle Hollis Thomas and rapper DJ Jazzy Jeff. Projects can last from a few days to a year or more. There are at least 20 cars in the shop at a time, and One Off is booked well into October.
Corkell says cars built in the mid- to late-1960s are popular now, especially wagons and first-generation Camaros. “These guys are coming in with money and reliving their youth,” he says. There are certain parts of Corkell’s youth that he doesn’t want to relive. Growing up in Easton, Md., the young hell-raiser raced motorcycles—just not always where he was supposed to race them. He racked up a 117-sheet driving record, primarily from speeding and running from police.
“I ain’t never been no angel,” he admits. “It’s stuff you do when you’re young and dumb.” But Corkell says those days are behind him. “I don’t heal like I used to, and I have a lot more to lose. I had a couple motorcycle accidents that put me down and about took me out. After that, you slow down a little bit.”
The young Corkell took a job at a local body shop, and it was there that he gained a reputation as a talented painter of motorcycles. Ostrowski, who grew up in Talbot County, knew of Corkell’s work. “Everyone wanted a Gary Corkell paint job,” Ostrowski says. “If you had a Corkell paint job, you had something special. You would say, ‘Gary painted it.’ And they would say, ‘I could tell.’”
Corkell moved to Naples, Fla., where he opened a custom paint shop for motorcycles and aircraft. There he further honed his welding, fabrication, bodywork, mechanical and painting skills. He sold the business in 2008 and moved to Dover the following year. He worked as general manager for former One Off owner Larry Stewart and last year took over the business when Stewart retired. Corkell recognized a large demand for shops like One Off.
“Some of the bigger car shows have 14,000 cars,” he says. “Somebody’s got to paint those cars. Somebody’s got to put those cars together. I mean, they’re all car people, but they’re not all mechanics.” Corkell is a fan of all things old—farm equipment, airplanes, tools. He especially likes World War II-era things and cars from the 1930s. He grows visibly excited when he talks about using modern technology to make old cars even better while remaining faithful to their original design.
“I’m kind of crossing that over so that cars are reliable and drivable and useable and not so temperamental all the time,” he says. “But there’s a fine line you need to walk to keep the nostalgia there.” Corkell walks through the shop with faithful sidekick Roxy, a rescued English bulldog who goes wherever he goes. “She’s my ride or die dog,” Corkell says. He proudly watches his crew saw, sand and sweep as they bring car and truck carcasses back to life.
A 66-year-old man they affectionately call Pop-Pop is showering the shop floor with sparks from his grinder. Corkell says Pop-Pop could retire, but “he can’t put the cars down.” “He’s been doing it all his life,” says Ostrowski. “He’ll probably end up dying in here. I tell him all the time, ‘We’ll find you with a wrench in your hand.’”
Corkell says veteran car guys like Pop-Pop are few and far between. “The old guys have the skill and the knowledge of how the classic cars were built,” he says. “There’s a lot that goes into this type of work … other than just hard work. It’s knowing what things are made of, how they come apart and go back together.”
During his first year as owner, Corkell hand-selected his team, adding several younger, less-experienced workers with the intent of creating the next generation of master car builders. “The labor pool is getting so shallow,” he says. “I have to interview 20 to get one good one. That’s the part of this business that’s scary to me. In this world of instant gratification, it’s a dying breed.”
Despite their different levels of skill and experience, the one thing the One Off crew clearly shares is a passion for cars. “I love seeing these older cars being brought back to life and not going to the junkyard and being scrapped,” Ostrowski says. “That’s part of American history, you know?”