Allow me to introduce Gilbert Hilton, a 74-year-old motorist from West Philly, who has adorned his cars with a multitude of household items sourced from Goodwill.
• A revival of style: “Among ten people, maybe one won’t appreciate it… To those who don’t, I simply say, ‘You lack class!’”
• The significance of a name: “Did you know my last name is Hilton? Just like Paris, I’m a bit eccentric.”
It all began with a little chrome. And a few mind-altering substances.
Gilbert Hilton and his cousin were sitting around, drinking and smoking weed, about five years ago when they looked out on the street to Hilton’s 2004 Cadillac SRX.
“We didn’t have nothing else to do, so we just started throwing stuff on the car,” said Hilton, of West Philly. “We started by just putting chrome from Pep Boys on there.”
Shortly thereafter, Hilton’s heart gave out — “It just got tired of me snorting that cocaine and drinking” — and he gave up partying after undergoing triple bypass surgery.
Bored beyond belief, Hilton, a father of “about eight,” took his frustrations out on his car. It started small, with chrome emblems of bulldogs and silhouettes of naked ladies. Then it got next level.
“I said, ‘To heck with that! I’m going to put some pots and pans on here,’” Hilton recalled.
Today, the “Badillac,” as Hilton affectionately calls it, is covered in about $1,000 worth of household items and knickknacks, most purchased for $2.99 or less at Goodwill stores.
Hilton doesn’t know how many decorations are on his car or even what some of the things are, but observable items include: candelabras, curtain rods, casserole pans, and colanders; a brass spittoon, gravy boats, deviled egg trays, and door handles; an engraved picture frame, a TV stand, and fireplace posts; spoons, reflectors, and towel racks.
“You name it, it’s on here. Next year I’m going to put a bathtub on top,” Hilton said.
It was unclear if he was joking.
Every week, Hilton takes old items off the Badillac and puts new ones on, using a power drill. Recently, as he screwed a curtain rod to the front, Hilton momentarily lost track of the drill when he placed it on the hood and couldn’t find it among all the other stuff.
Last year, Hilton bought a second car, a silver 2000 Dodge Stratus, because the heat doesn’t work in the Badillac and because he can’t clear the snow off it, given all the ornamentation.
But now, he’s decorating the Stratus, too.
“The kids call it the Back to the Future car,” he said of the Stratus. “That’s why I try to make it look like a spaceship.”
Last week, as he drove around Philadelphia, Hilton’s Badillac elicited reactions from pure confusion to unadulterated glee from observers. When he stopped at red lights, drivers and pedestrians rushed to snap photos. Near Independence Hall, a double-decker tour bus guide alerted those aboard to Hilton’s passing car as if it were part of the history of Philadelphia.
Bicycle cops stopped in their tracks, national park rangers smiled in approval, and strangers applauded with delight.
Hilton’s car — this mobile imaginarium born out of boredom — leaves more than fumes in its wake; it leaves behind a childlike sense of wonder.
“I always liked different cars. Now they all look the same,” Hilton said. “That’s why a lot of people go crazy over my car when they see it, because it’s different.”
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As a child, Hilton sat on the stoop of his West Philly house with his cousin, dreaming about what cars they’d drive someday.
When that day finally came, Hilton went to a car lot on North Broad, where he paid $1,400 for a ’65 Cadillac — his first nice car.
“I bought this pimpmobile; they had repossessed it. It had diamond-in-the-back, sunroof-top, diggin the scene with a gangsta-lean look,” Hilton, said, quoting singer William DeVaughn. “When I pulled up in that, everybody fainted.”
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But no vehicle has caught people’s eyes like the Badillac, which he has mixed feelings about. Sometimes, he’d like to go to Home Depot and not come out to a throng of people surrounding his car, all of them filled with questions.
Also, his wife is not a fan — of the cars or the attention.
“She hate it,” he said. “She hate everything about me, but she’s still with me.”
While some consider what Hilton does art, he doesn’t see it that way. He’s still shocked when he drives by Rittenhouse Square and artists ask to take pictures of his car.
“And they talking about I’m an artist. I don’t know nothing about no art,” Hilton said. “I’m no artist. I’m just throwing stuff on my car.”