Like a lot of kids in the ’80s, Matt Kline loved the movie “Back to the Future.”
“I was enthralled by it,” says Kline, now a 33-year-old Sugar Creek police captain. “The thought of being able to time travel … it seemed like it could happen.”
In 1987, when Matt turned 5, his dad, Mike Kline, organized a birthday party at a local ShowBiz Pizza Place. As a special surprise, Dad invited his friend Joe Pace, a Kansas City car fanatic who had built a replica of the movie’s time machine by outfitting his 1984 DeLorean with airplane parts, flashing LED lights and household gadgets such as garage door openers and TV remotes. It even had a flux capacitor and a Mr. Fusion machine stuffed with banana peels.
Matt thought it was the real thing.
“I remember being scared,” he says, “like, ‘Oh man, I hope this thing doesn’t go back in time.’ ”
In the 30 years since Pace built his time machine, “Back to the Future” has become a classic blockbuster, and the custom car builder has made a living displaying his DeLorean all over the country, from California to Florida, from Texas to Minnesota. Along the way, he has met a few of the movie’s stars, including Thomas F. Wilson (Biff Tannen) and Lea Thompson (Lorraine Baines McFly). Pace also has met the movie’s screenwriter, Bob Gale.
Pace, a self-described “poor kid from the Northeast,” says he thanked Gale for inventing the idea of a time-traveling car.
“It changed my whole future,” he says.
Back in time
Pace grew up in a family of car lovers.
At 9, he started working for his uncle Tony Pace, who ran a speed shop on Independence Avenue. Joe took out the trash, delivered parts, ran the counter and stocked the shelves. He wasn’t good at school but had a talent for working on cars. When he was 12, Tony gave Joe a 1924 Model T roadster pickup. The boy sneaked out at night to drive the truck around Lykins Square.
At 14, Pace traded his Model T for a Model A. Two years later, he inherited his parents’ 1956 Chevy and fixed it up.
He was addicted to cars before he could legally drive.
“It’s a good thing,” he says, “because I could’ve gotten into drugs.”
Eventually Pace opened a body shop down the street from his uncle’s business. In 1984, he pulled together $16,000 to buy his dream car, a 1982 DeLorean DMC-12, which he had wanted ever since he saw one in “Beverly Hills Cop.” With its gull-wing doors and stainless steel body, the car looked like something from the future.
“Back to the Future”
In 1985, Pace found out that the Hyatt Regency hotel was looking for a DeLorean to display during a special screening of a new movie starring Michael J. Fox and Christopher Lloyd. He offered up his DeLorean and promised to make it look just like the one in the movie in three weeks.
“Back to the Future” wasn’t in theaters yet, so Pace studied a movie poster and a VHS tape of the trailer, noting every tube, light and gadget on the time machine.
“This was 1985,” he says. “There was no Google.”
Pace scavenged for parts at scrap yards, an electronics supply store and his own house. He secured all the add-ons with nylon ties and two-sided tape so he wouldn’t have to drill holes in his DeLorean.
The homemade time machine was a hit at the screening, and so was the movie, which made $300 million worldwide and became the highest-grossing movie of 1985. Pace saw it 12 times in the theater: 10 times with his son and two times by himself after his son got sick of it. After each screening, he would adjust something on his time machine to make it look more like Doc Brown’s.
As the movie’s popularity exploded, so did demand for Pace’s time machine, which he rented out for birthday parties, anniversaries, proms and corporate events. He quickly recouped the $2,500 he spent building the replica, and even the $16,000 he spent buying the DeLorean.
Jobs stayed steady through 1989 and 1990, the years that “Back to the Future” sequels were released. Pace says that one of his best-paying gigs was a five-day stint at the Mall of America in Bloomington, Minn., that paid $11,000.
He used some of the income to buy more cars. In 1989, he purchased a 1959 Cadillac and transformed it into a replica of the Ecto-1 from “Ghostbusters,” complete with a state-of-the-art speaker system, a Slimer statue on the hood and phosphorous-laced paint that made the station wagon glow in the dark.
When Pace drove his replicas, he felt like a celebrity — people smiled, pointed, begged him to stop so they could take a picture. Never before had his cars attracted so much excitement.
“I hate to be a copycat,” he says, “but I have what people want, and that makes me feel good.”
In 1994, Pace saw “Dumb and Dumber” and decided that his next replica would be the Mutt Cutts van that Harry Dunne (played by Jeff Daniels) drives in the movie.
The van, also known as the Shaggin’ Wagon, looks like the vehicular version of a golden retriever, with shag carpet for fur, a bobbing tail and a floppy red tongue.
Joe says he knew he had the ability to make his own Shaggin’ Wagon, “but I was going through a divorce, so I didn’t have the time or the money.”
When Pace and his second wife split, she got the “Ghostbusters” car, and he got the DeLorean. Two years later, he closed down his body shop. He made money from appearances with the time machine and fixing cars for friends from home in Dog Patch, a neighborhood on Kansas City’s East Side.
After giving up his business, Pace had more time to explore other hobbies. He built a cedar sunroom addition to his $12,000 house with 18-foot ceilings, a jacuzzi and a spiral staircase leading to a balcony where he could watch the fireworks at nearby Kauffman Stadium.
“I’ve always wanted a house with open beam ceilings,” he says, “and this was the closest I was going to get living in Dog Patch.”
He filled the sunroom with a jungle of plants and a collection of more than 200 taxidermied animals that he bought from sales and auctions over the years. The collection includes an 8-foot ostrich, African lions, a zebra and the head and neck of a giraffe. But the room’s most colorful occupant is a life-size statue of Ronald McDonald that sits cross-legged on a sectional sofa.
Pace likes surrounding himself with things that make him happy.
“This is my fun,” he says. “If you’ve gone through your life and not had fun, and not done what you really wanted to do, you’ve wasted your life.”
So you’re telling me there’s a chance
In 2011, Pace went through a bout of bad luck.
After a cancer diagnosis, doctors removed his right kidney. He went through another breakup and left his time machine in the garage more often.
Things changed 2 1/2 years ago, when he met Melissa Alexander on ourtime.com, a dating website for singles over the age of 50. Alexander, who lives in Sedalia, pushed Pace to go to more car shows and to volunteer to bring his time machine to events for the Dream Factory, Crawl for Cancer and Ronald McDonald House Charities of Kansas City. She also organized a Facebook group for Missourians who have made movie car replicas.
One of the group’s members is Wayne Alderson of Buckner, who built replicas of Burt Reynolds’ Trans Am and Jerry Reed’s big rig from “Smokey and the Bandit.” Alderson was 16 when Pace started displaying his time machine at car shows in 1985.
“Everywhere I went, Joe was there with his DeLorean,” says Alderson. Now he’s proud to display his cars alongside the time machine that impressed him so much as a teen.
“Anytime we’re all together, we steal the show,” Alderson says.
When Pace decided to make a replica of the Shaggin’ Wagon, he told Alexander. She didn’t flinch.
“I thought it was a fantastic idea,” she says.
Together they found a 2003 Ford conversion van and scoured the metro for the perfect shag carpet, which they found at Sam’s Club. Pace recruited a few friends to help glue the carpet to the van.
He covered the dashboard and seats with faux fur and found a mini bike at Cargo Largo to mount on the back of the van as a reference to the scooter Jim Carrey drives in the movie.
Inside, he installed a birdcage with a stuffed and decapitated parakeet as a nod to Petey, Harry and Lloyd’s pet. Pace explains that he just happened to have a taxidermied parakeet lying around, and that its head had fallen off. The story would be hard to believe if told by anyone else.
The finished Mutt Cutts van, which cost about $4,000 to build, attracts more attention than any car Pace has made. It literally stops traffic: Cops flash their lights and pull Pace over so they can get a closer look. Pedestrians pause on the sidewalk to snap photos, then post them to Facebook and Twitter. On a recent Wednesday evening, as Pace was driving his van through Independence Square, a herd of preteen boys on skateboards descended on the van, phones at the ready.
“Watch the cars!” Pace yelled at the kids as they surrounded his car on all sides and peppered him with questions.
“The thing I love about this van,” he said as the boys skated away, “is that everywhere we go, we put smiles on people’s faces.
“I love that probably more than anything else.”
Living in the present
The Mutt Cutts has been a much-needed distraction for Pace, who is undergoing radiation for a cancer recurrence.
He has refused surgery and doesn’t want chemotherapy because he saw how hard it was on his parents. His parents also suffered from dementia.
“I see it coming,” Pace says.
He struggles with forgetfulness, so Alexander keeps him organized by syncing the calendars on their phones. She also gives him printed schedules so he can cross things off as he does them.
Pace likes telling stories from his past, but he mostly lives in the present.
“I’ll just live until I die,” he likes to say. “I’ve had a great life. I wouldn’t change a thing.”
On hard days, his favorite thing to do is drive the Mutt Cutts van around town with the windows down, his long gray hair and the van’s carpeted ears waving in the wind. He honks the barking horn at people as they stand at bus stops or wait at red lights. Every unbelieving stare, cheer and phone snap makes him smile.
“The great thing about Joe is that he has such a big heart,” says Matt Kline, who recently hired Pace for an appearance at his son Callum’s fifth birthday party in Sugar Creek.
Callum, who loves “Back to the Future” as much as his dad does, was just as awed by the time machine.
“To him, it was real,” Matt says.
The 5-year-old was nervous to ride in Pace’s time machine, so Matt went with him. The DeLorean didn’t reach 88 miles per hour, but for a second there, Matt felt like he really had gone back in time.