By Jeff Sanford
Campbell River, British Columbia -- July 4, 2016 -- Over the Canada Day long weekend many enjoyed a blissful three days off. Others, such as Wes Mclean, one-time owner of Wes Works Custom Shop in Campbell River, BC, worried about how they'll survive the days ahead.
Mclean is a talented painter and customizer. The former head of a custom shop, he became handy with tools early in life and went on to become a key player in the Canadian mini truck movement. Mclean's designs were frequently featured in magazines and he was mentored by some of the California and Texas elites in the west coast customized truck scene. Life was good, until 2012 when his life changed forever after a collision with a dump truck.
It was in 2012 when Mclean and two friends were heading to the ferry to get to Vancouver. “It was kind of cloudy out. The roads were wet. We were in an area where the road merges with a train track. We had to slow down,” says Mclean. They were in a Tracker. Mclean was fishing in his pocket for change for the ferry. All of a sudden a dump truck pulled out. The driver of the Tracker geared down, began braking. “The truck made a big wall in front of us. The Tracker has a grab rail on the dash. I grabbed that, thinking to say 'Oh shit,' I was half turned to look at the driver when we T-boned the dump truck,” says Mclean. His hands punched through the windshield. The seat belt broke and his head hit the top of the frame as he went through the windshield. “That's the strongest part of the car. I don't remember the rest. I know as a collision expert from watching videos what happened. I went through like a rag doll. The driver said he saw my feet go through the window,” he says.
Luckily the hospital was just a block away. But the damage was done. Mclean had glass in his face and eyes. The front part of his hair was peeled back. He had bleeding in the brain, right on the medulla. “The neurosurgeon says I'm lucky to be alive,” says Mclean. Along with a dislocated back there was a broken, dislocated jaw. He lost three teeth. He gets bloody noses on one side. He has nerve damage and now speaks with a pronounced stutter that he never had before. “I don't feel well. From the waist down I don’t feel proper. It feels like pins and needles. I have to use a cane to get around or a walker,” says Mclean. When it comes to his vision he sees “four of everything.” The bleed in his brain is on the part that processes vision. Needless to say, Wes Works Custom Shop is no longer in operation. The world of truck customization in Canada has lost one of its elite practitioners.
Mclean had been carving out a spot in the world of custom truck design for years before the accident. Becoming a body man and painter was a natural career for a kid raised around machines. His father ran a logging company. “I was fortunate to grow up that way. I was stuck in an excavator at 12 years of age. I didn't play video games. I played with equipment. We had a de Havilland Beaver to get into logging camps. I was taught to fly that. I was very fortunate, on top of the world,” says Mclean.
Eventually he got into collision repair. “I just picked it up. My parents said you can do whatever you want. I was doing the logging thing as a kid. But in the back yard me and my buddy were fixing our friends' cars and painting them. Everyone in school was coming to our place for a car. It went from there,” says Mclean.
His Dad offered the logging company to him when he was just twenty years old. He said, “I want to retire at 45. Do you want to take over my empire? It was a forty man crew by then. I didn't want to do that. It seemed too big for me at 20. I Iiked working on cars. I wanted to do that,” says Mclean.
He applied to go to college in Victoria. He was one of the few that made it through the course to the end. “When the rest of the class welded a new floor in a truck I was customizing it. Half didn't know how to fix a dent or change a taillight. I was doing this stuff that was so far advanced,” he says.
After school he went to work at a regional shop, Number One Auto Body. Like many in the industry he eventually got the bug to start his own place. “I was working for other people and was like, 'I can do this.' That was the intent. I wanted to run my own shop,” says Mclean.
He eventually found the shop that is still the place he lives in today. The first job he did was a 1950 Studebaker that he customized with suicide doors, trunk and fuel cap. “I called it the Switchblade Suicide. It all opens up. Did it in clear coat primer. Free handed some flames on it with yellow primer and red flames,” says Mclean.
Most of the business at the shop was fender bender work, but he continued to do hot rods. Eventually he would find himself at the centre of the mini truckin' movement on Canada's west coast.
The movement grew out of the van craze of the 1970s. Customizers will start with trucks like Ford Rangers and Datsuns and then lower the chassis, weld the box shut, apply a great paint job. They would channel the body so it could sit lower on the frame. Working with another customizer, Mclean became an expert on how to customize a low-rider truck. “We broke a lot of ground. We'd advertise in the magazines. We started with a small ad in black and white, and then got to a half page and then to a full page ad,” says Mclean. The two even began making their own parts such as control arms. “Some of the custom stuff being produced was breaking. We wanted to build stuff that didn't break. And so we did that. To lay a frame down you've got to make that stuff. We'd do it in house. We had our own lathe and presses."
The two got so good at it they began publishing technical articles in the magazines dedicated to the movement as a way of teaching others the skills.
On trips to big truck shows down south, Mclean realized they were doing better quality work than many of those in California.
“What we saw ... they didn't do things the way the way you have to do it. They didn't have the training or the standards that we have in Canada. I-CAR is pretty strict. I have I-CAR training. You have to keep up on all this stuff. Some of the stuff you saw down there you ... it was scary. You'd get 10 feet from the truck and smell gas. They'd have bubble gum welds. We'd go, 'What the heck is wrong with this truck.' The suspension job was done with a torch. They'd have a great paint job, but underneath it was a total hack job. Not all of them, of course. Some were nicely done. But their standards are lower. Some of them didn't have rear brakes. It was way different,” says Mclean.
He went on to meet and learn from some of the best in the industry including Craig Fraser from California and Charles Armstrong from Arizona. Eventually his work ended up on the cover of Mini Truckin' magazine. “I was the first Canadian to get the cover,” says Mclean. He was considered one of the outstanding talents in the movement.
Today, he's given it all up. He still lives in his shop. But the accident has left him unable to work. He stopped travelling to the truck shows in the US. “I don't travel well. It's hard enough to go to the doctors. Now that I'm the way I am I don't have the vision or the touch. I have the knowledge. But I can't do what I used to do. I'm not that way anymore.”
He has had to renovate his shop to continue living in it. That has been a challenge. “I've gone through four different contractors to get this changed to a residence. Everyone knows I'm getting money and so they figure because he's vision impaired and has brain damage that he doesn't remember this or that. I have to record everything so I can refer back and remember things. That's what I have to do to survive,” says Mclean. He doesn't let his disabilities hold him back. “Look at Stephen Hawking. Smart, but very limited. Beethoven was deaf. Look at the music he did. I'm the same,” says Mclean. “I rode half pipe BMX all the way up to the accident. Mountain biking, dirt biking ... all up to the accident. The accident took everything away. My helmet is sitting right beside me but I can 't put it on. It hurts my head and neck. There's a lot of loss. Most people don't understand brain damage. But that's the way it is. I can laugh at it now. What I am going to do, cry? I ty to do the best I can and the most I can every day. You have good days and bad days. But that's what happens when you get hit by tons of steel,” says Mclean.
He currently has a lawsuit with ICBC. “I am kind of getting shafted by the insurance company. I won in court and am not being given what I've been awarded. My lawyer is fighting them but they're jerking me around. They just cut me off because I received a cheque from disability ... and they decided to cut me off completely,” he says. He's frankly worried about how he is going to get by. “My lawyer and caregiver are fighting for me. But we're just coming up against walls. I don't know what to do. My caregiver has been taken away from me. I am getting less care than when I went in hospital. And I was told I was supposed to get a whole bunch of things when I get out of hospital. I need help. I don't understand, my family doesn’t understand. What am I supposed to do? I don't know what to do. Everybody wants the old Wes back, my mother and ICBC,” he says. “But I need care. I try to do as much as I can. But I need help. It's frustrating. People take my frustration as anger, but I'm just looking for care. I'm not looking for money. I need the care. But ICBC doesn't want to top up my disability.”
Mclean says the provincial organization recently cut his payments and that has him worried about the future. “Why are they cutting me off? I need people to help feed me. I can't deal with normal day-to-day life like I used to. I am supposed to get all this care and I'm not,” he says.