What began as a fun project between a grandfather and his grandson, has turned George’s Deck and Recovery Towing Service into a landmark in Prince Edward Island for fans of Walt Disney’s movie Cars.
By Pat Rediger
“My grandson Cody inspired me to create the replicas of Lightning McQueen and Tow Mater,” said George Branton, owner of George’s Deck and Recovery. “He came into the shop one day during the winter and asked me about the Cars movie. I had never heard of it at the time, and he said, ‘I’ll get you the movie.’”
Branton sat down with his grandson, watched the movie, and when his grandson asked if building a replica of Lightning McQueen was possible, he knew it was, and immediately began to gather what they would need to build it.
He was able to get a worn stock car chassis, body panels, wheels, and tires from racers Timothy Docherty and Jonathan Hicken. With all the elements gathered, the official construction began in February of 2012.
“It took us 250 hours to build Lighting McQueen,” said Branton. “It was built in a one-car garage with a few photos from the Internet for guidance.”
From fabrication, finishing work, and painting, Branton financed the entire build himself. With the intention of having kids both big and small see Lightning McQueen come to life, he installed two sound systems in the car with downloaded sound bites from the movie and race engine noises.
Once Lighting McQueen was complete, they knew their work was not done until they re-created Tow Mater too.
“I had been asked to haul away a derelict 1950s International Harvester truck for a customer. I knew it would be perfect for Tow Mater, so we began to create the replica immediately.”
It was mounted on a GM one-ton dual chassis, and the next 150 hours were spent building the tow truck. Branton, together with Cody, and Cody’s stepfather, Brent, built the steel wrecker body and boom to resemble the character. Like Lighting McQueen, Tow Mater also has a sound system installed, and working lights.
Other materials used for both replicas were steel sheets, fibreglass, expandable foam, metal electrical conduit, and lots of body filler. There is also a 45-gallon drum that was used as Tow Mater’s air cleaning housing, and plywood.
“Building the replicas of McQueen and Mater far exceeded our expectations,” said Branton. “We kept them a secret until we were able to proudly present them in the first local parade that year. It was so satisfying seeing everyone’s eyes light up along parade routes. The adults were as excited as the kids!”
Branton said that when they built the replicas, he never wanted anyone to have to pay to see them. He has been approached many times by promoters of shows and festivals across the Maritimes to have them on display for their events, but since most required an entry fee, he turned them down. He said the only exceptions have been fundraising events for children’s charities and for the IWK Children’s Hospital in Halifax because Cody was a patient there at birth.
“To this day, it warms my heart to see families drop by the house or shop to see them,” said Branton. “I’ve seen vehicles from all over North America pull in to look and take pictures. Kids just love walking around them and touching them, amazed they are actually real.”
In 2016, at the age of 24, Cody passed away from a rare blood disease. Branton said he will always look back now at when they built Lighting McQueen and Tow Mater and cherish those memories of spending hours at a time with his grandson.
“He was very creative and replicated things like Tow Mater’s bumper and headlight buckets out of metal using only a few pictures as his guide. We all had a lot of fun picking each other’s brains for ideas during the builds. I’ll never forget those times to my dying days.”
Cody was an avid and talented competitive curler and would mentor young curlers that started out like him. He inspired the creation of the first annual little rocks curling bonspiel in their community. Today, Branton said the bonspiel event takes place every year in his memory.
He added that they have been able to raise tens of thousands of dollars for the IWK Children’s Hospital and other children’s charities in Cody’s memory. The team roster is always filled and most people who participate knew Cody in one way or another.
Branton said the replicas were created to bring a piece of fantasy to reality. He said not everyone has the ability to visit theme parks like Disney World, so they wanted to bring a piece of that to Prince Edward Island for everyone to enjoy. Over the years, they had numerous offers to rent or buy them, but that will never happen. “They are a daily reminder of wonderful memories spent with my grandson long before his passing, and, for that reason, they will always be maintained and stay here with us,” said Branton.