Shaun Sanders can describe in detail the 1972 Honda Civic he purchased for $300 when he returned from duty in the Gulf War.

The 50-year-old custom car builder and co-founder and co-president of C-Town Cruisers, a Columbus-based car club, knew just how to make it his own.

"It was such a small car, but it was so cool," he said. "It wasn't a show car, but I put my custom skills into it and put my flavor to it. It was me. It was mine. Down the road, I sold it and got a new car."

For Sanders, who goes by "Big Dawg," bringing a car back to life is his Shangri-la, the fictional place in British author James Hilton's "Lost Horizon" that has become synonymous with an earthly paradise.

The C-Town Cruisers' restoration efforts were on display July 21 at the city's last Music & Art in the Park event of the year at Stradley Place.

The club features cars, trucks and motorcycles, including Sanders' 1952 Ford F-100 Rat Rod pickup, and a variety of makes and models, including Chevrolet Chavelle muscle cars and Chevrolet Corvettes and Novas.

"As long as it has wheels and you can show it, we've got it," Sanders said.

He and Richard Seitzinger, also a Persian Gulf War veteran, founded the club in 2007. At its peak, there were 30 members, but those numbers have dropped to around a dozen because of deaths and time commitments, Sanders said.

The club puts on between 20 and 40 shows each year, most of which benefit charities, including the group's largest recipient, the Franklin County Animal Shelter.

"For most people who come to our shows, it's a nostalgic thing for them to see the old cars," Sanders said. "It's unreal how many stories people have when they're sitting by their car or vehicle. People come by and say, 'Oh, I had one of those, and I used to drive this.' "

Sanders describes himself as "a GM kinda guy" who also likes pickup trucks.

His interest in cars began at a young age when he'd often watch his grandmother's brothers build hot rods.

"I was always excited to work with my hands," he said. "Growing up poor, I had to rely on myself to fix things. I'd buy a $200 car and get it running, and that was exciting to me."

That necessity grew into a passion.

"People who didn't know how to fix a car would just park it and leave it," he said. "I'd try to figure out how to get it running. It was a great feeling to get a car running that had been sitting for 50 years."

C-Town Cruisers' largest show is held at the annual Memorial Day Fish Fry and Car Show in Lithopolis, where registration for this year's event reached 172 vehicles, the most in the show's 79-year history.

The club will return to Canal Winchester Sept. 2-4 for the city's annual Labor Day Festival, Sanders said.

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"As long as it has wheels and you can show it, we've got it ... For most people who come to our shows, it's a nostalgic thing for them to see the old cars."

-- SHAUN SANDERS

C-Town Cruisers co-founder