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Saanich Peninsula man drives scary clown car to personal redemption

George Burnside’s vintage vehicle brings out the joy of Halloween
George Burnside shows off his own personalized hell on wheels, a 1965 Ford Fairlane 500 Sport Coupe. For the soft-spoken chef, the vehicle has become a tool to overcome his alcoholism. (Wolf Depner/News Staff)

The mid-October sun hangs directly over Michell’s Farm Market as hundreds of people, some of them dressed up, pick over the pumpkin patch to find that perfect Halloween gourd. But this morning, something else draws their attention — George Burnside’s 1965 Ford Fairlane 500 Sport Coupe.

Straight out of a low-budget film that might inspire a Quentin Tarantino homage, the vehicle wears its sensibilities on its skin thanks to the decorations that stick off it. They include skulls dangling off the grill just above the front bumper, Frankenstein’s monster and bride of Frankenstein figurines in wedding attire waiting for their big moment on the hood and a small clown doll with pasty skin and flaming red hair that not only clings to the side mirror but also previews the nightmarish clown suit Burnside will wear later in the morning while posing for photos with Black Press Media and passersby.

But the person behind the rubber mask with a mouthful of blood-soaked incisors is a soft-spoken chef with a love for Halloween, who has used his new-found passion for vintage vehicles to give his life a new turn.

“I bought it for a third-year sobriety present for myself,” he said. “It has changed my life, I want to say a thousand degrees, the right way,” he added later. “I have met so many amazing new friends who have become family.”

This family, he said, has helped him realize that others are also struggling with addictions. “And we help each other out.”

Along the way, the Torque Masters member is learning about car restoration with the help of a high school friend with whom he has reconnected and by bringing joy to audiences by riding in public parades, be they the Sidney Sparkles Christmas Parade or smaller parades lifting spirits during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The calendar determines which decorations appear on his vehicle, which had just 18,000 miles on its speedometer after sitting around for years in a barn when Burnside purchased it.

RELATED: British Columbians to spend $224M on Halloween this year

As with every Halloween, he follows a theme. Last year, he paid homage to the Saw movie franchise. This year, it is the evil clown motif popularized by movies like It. Burnside estimates that some 20 pieces adorn his vehicle with countless boxes of various decorations waiting at his home.

Burnside loves Halloween because of its spookiness and decorations, but above else, the smiles that his ride generates when he drives down the street. “You get thumbs-up,” he said. “I get people following me down the road, videotaping me — it’s just the pure joy of people’s excitement.”

Burnside’s vehicle, which can be seen parked around Sidney’s streets, naturally draws a lot of attention from children and prior to COVID, he has taken a few children on rides.

“I was in the Sidney Christmas Parade and we are at Subway (lining up) with a few of us who were in the parade and there was a line of children,” he said. “I said, ‘do you enjoy the parade?’

And one of them, said, ‘yes, I did.’ So what was your favourite part? ‘All those old cars.’ And I said, ‘you mean the one behind me?’ His face lit up. So I said, ‘do you want to go around the block?’ Of course, I asked the dad and he said, ‘of course.’”

Burnside’s vehicle points to the deep connection between the horror movie genre and motor vehicles with the vehicles often serving as visual short-hands for characters or as characters themselves like the Chevy Nova in Tarantino’s Death Proof or the Plymouth Fury in Christine, the eponymous film of Stephen King’s novel. In fact, Burnside recently allowed a local filmmaker to use his vehicle in a role.

So has Burnside’s vehicle also developed a personality?

“It has gotten known as Curious,” he said, chuckling. “Everybody is always asking, ‘curious, where did you get the car, curious where you did you find, curious, for how long have you had?’” Everybody, he added, has also expressed shock that it is still running.

But that is not to say that the vehicle does not have its own character.

“When I first purchased it, I was coming home from the Royals game and my dashboard didn’t light,” he said. “And I hit a pothole and the dash lit up. There was a loose wire somewhere and ever since my dashboard has worked. That was three years ago. (So) it has come alive.”

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