Wildcad: An Interview With Custom Builder Mario Colalillo

Words: Karlee Sangster Photography: Luke Ray.

It’s a good story, but you’ve probably heard it before. Mario and his wife Catrina Colalillo had been building quality customs for years. They came across a 1959 Cadillac Coupe De Ville in the corner of an old friend's workshop. "It sat on three wheels, had no front sheet metal, no motor, no interior, and the roof had been cut off and was leaning against a fence. It was perfect,” says Mario. Fast forward six or so years and the dilapidated Caddy was now one of Australia’s best customs, dropped low to the ground and wearing a highly prized Gene Winfield paint job.

Mario became interested in cars the way most do, through American magazines. At 17, he bought a 1939 Plymouth and transformed it into his first hot rod, learning as he went. That same car is now blown and injected on alcohol, and the all steel body clocks up a 9 second quarter. Since building the Plymouth, Mario has worked on countless drag teams and put in thousands of hours in body shops. He now manages an automotive manufacturing business in Sydney.

Mario had built great cars before, but the ’59 Caddy was different. “What appeals to me most about rods and customs is that they are all very individual and unique, which means they can be rolling automotive art,” says Mario. He’s not wrong. One look at the finished Wild Cad reveals the hours and hours of work put into creating a true masterpiece. Everything is as it should be, from the 7.4-litre 454 big block Chevy engine powering a Turbo 400 transmission and 9-inch rear end, to the ‘55 Desoto grille, and fully exposed chassis rails, the car really is a work of art. And that’s just the beginning. The interior features Thunderbird seats and a center-mounted ‘59 Chevy instrument cluster, set off by the full metal constructed interior including a 1959 Caddy tail fin center console, skinned metal headliner and Thunderbird seats. The car debuted at the 2010 Sydney MotorEx, to a rapt crowd, winning Pinnacle of Kustoms. Invitations to tour the American show circuit followed in their droves. “Wild Cad has had people’s attention from day one. The acceptance, amazement and respect for WildCad has been unbelievable,” says Mario.

Spending years building your pride and joy and reaping the rewards is surely a high point in any builder’s career, but how does it feel when you decide to pack up your beloved and ship it halfway across the globe? “PPG Australia sponsored WildCad with their Vibrance Range of paint and we were honoured when they asked for Wild Cad to be on their trade stand at Sema in Las Vegas,” recalls Mario. “It is quite a task to ship a car like WildCad halfway across the world but with my good friend Justin Hills and his ‘Art Deco’ Buick we took on the challenge.”

It paid off, with the car winning countless international awards and turning heads across the globe. One of the most satisfying aspects of showing the car is people’s first reactions. Mario remembers the swelling crowd at MotorEx 2010, where the car was first shown. "They were blown away!” Mario exclaims. "MotorEx is the biggest and best show in the country. To win the Pinnacle Award for Custom Cruiser meant the world to me, and the recognition from this show was extremely satisfying." He remembers onlookers "just drooling, as if it flew in from outer space," he says.

The international reception was no different. At the Long Beach Motorama in California crowds were similarly wowed. "It was an awesome event and the Yanks could not get enough of the Wild Cad,” recalls Mario. “The American custom car builders were constantly talking to me about the creation and were very impressed."

Mario says one of the real rewards in completing the build has been the friendships formed along the way. Not surprisingly, Mario was asked to join the Beatniks of Koolsville car club. "It's a strictly invite-only policy and after building many cars and doing many road trips I was given my colours, which I am very proud to wear,” Mario beams. This achievement lead to one of Mario’s most valued introductions. Mario explains: “I had the pleasure of meeting Gene Winfield through a good friend and fellow Beatnik Club member Little Mick Koskenko. For many years we planned the assault on the custom fade paint for Wild Cad. Gene Winfield is a true living legend, he is the real deal and can do anything he sets out to achieve. I stayed in contact with Gene and kept him up-to-date with the Wild Cad build. As it evolved, we made plans for him to come to Australia and create history with his first ever paint project down under," Mario explains. "It was extremely important to me for Gene to let his creativity flow throughout the painting process. We have a very close friendship these days. In fact, Gene Winfield is like a family member, we keep in contact all the time." Gene’s amazing paint job is the perfect compliment to Mario’s vision for the Caddy.

Wild Cad has also created the opportunity for Mario to meet more of his heroes. Travelling with the car from show to show has provided many amazing experiences; “Too many good stories to tell and so many wonderful people!” says Mario. “The highlights would have to be meeting Gene, Bill Hinze, George Barris, Richard Zocchi, John D’Agostino and Rick Dore.”

You may recall that for a while, Wild Cad was on the market, up for grabs for the right buyer. Mario held onto it, but why? Mario explains: “We chose to take Wild Cad off the market after the management team from the Clipsal 500 approached us about bringing it home and it being the hero car for the 2013 event. Of all the shows we had attended this was truly the biggest honour and a wonderful homecoming that we just couldn’t say no to.” The decision not to sell the car in favour of seeing it honoured on home turf speaks volumes on Mario and his family’s commitment to the custom car scene. One could argue that the car had paid its dues, earning Mario the respect and admiration of builders worldwide, winning countless awards and introducing Mario to his lifelong heroes. But Mario kept the Caddy.

How has completing the car changed him? What effect have the accolades and trophies had on Mario? What actually happened to the man who built the Wild Cad? “Finishing Wild Cad has allowed me to complete my lifelong dream and I have definitely achieved more than I set out to,” says Mario. “I was inducted into the Sacramento Autorama Hall of Fame, so it is safe to say that Wild Cad has changed my life. Another moment of pride was when Vintage Ford and Fender Guitar acknowledged Wild Cad by having Gene Winfield paint a guitar to match the car and then sending it off to Mike Clines to have 24 carat white gold pinstriping with green accents to match. The finished guitar was then raffled with all proceeds going to the Make A Wish Foundation.”

It’s a nice collection of memories, made all the more valuable due the involvement of Mario’s family. His wife Catrina has been there every step of the way. "My lovely wife was always an inspiration, showed 100% support throughout the hard times and still does," Mario says. "I'm lucky because she is a car girl and has some awesome ideas and does all the pin-striping." What a pair. The couple’s son Andy Colalillo (who owns and built his own tidy ’34 Roadster, see page 22) was also on deck throughout the build process. “Without the support of my family, the dream would never have been achieved,” says Mario.

But now, it’s finished. There is no more to do. No more late nights in the shed, no more parts to source and no more chrome to polish. What does it feel like to have such a monumental ride come to an end? “For years it has been a serious commitment of passion, money, blood, sweat and tears but Wild Cad’s achievements have been overwhelming and we are enjoying the ride,” says Mario. “We have had a project that has taken a back seat to Wild Cad and it’s really nice to just tinker away on our ‘55 Buick again at our leisure. There is no pressure to build our next car to be better than Wild Cad as we have achieved the ultimate. For us it’s all about cruising our rides and living the lifestyle.”