RIDE OR DIE: CARI SLADEK + HER 1970 CHEVY NOVA
BY MARISSA G. MULLER. PHOTOGRAPHED BY JACQUELINE HARRIET

“This is my little sculpture that I get to drive around,” swoons Cari Sladek. We’re standing in the full-time artist and part-time model’s studio in the back of her “Inglewood Ranch,” where she resides with her boyfriend, fellow artist Vince Szarek—but she’s not talking about one of her own pieces. The object of beauty in question is a golden 1970 Chevy Nova, a car the size of a speedboat with an engine that roars just as loud.

A lifetime loyalist to Chevy, Sladek picked up the “blank canvas,” as she calls it, five years ago in Marina del Rey, a stone’s throw from her then-neighborhood of Venice Beach. Since then, she’s entirely rebuilt the vehicle and given it a splashy new paint job with help from Szarek, who, with his ’65 Impala and pickup truck, shares Sladek’s soft spot for vintage Chevys. It was actually the Nova that brought the pair together after a brief encounter at Art Basel. “He knew what make and year my car was when he saw it,” remembers Sladek. “We fell in love after that.”

Like any relationship, the Nova is a constant work in progress. Just before meeting up with us, Sladek labored day and night tuning it up, “putting in a new master cylinder and fuel filter, fixing an oil line leak, and tweaking the carburetor.” We get to reap the rewards as we cruise around her Westside neighborhood to talk all things automotive.

What was your introduction to cars?
My dad always worked at Chevy dealerships, so I’ve always had love for older cars. They’re like time-travel machines.

What made you curious about the mechanical side of things?
It was this car specifically, because the chance of me breaking down is very likely. There’ve been times when my car will just stall—the important thing is to stay calm and be prepared for anything. If my Nova isn’t running, I’m not a happy camper. But, one way or another, I’ll get it running. There’s nothing like putting in time and energy to fix it.

Sladek swings right onto La Brea Avenue.

How did you find your Chevy Nova?
I got really lucky. I was waiting for this car and it only took me two months to find it. I saw it on Craigslist and it was right in my price range. It came in a midnight blue and originally I got a crappy paint job, but recently my boyfriend painted it Mojave gold. It’s the GM factory color from 1972 and I really like it because it’s period-correct and it’s fun.

What kind of work have you done to it?
I’ve put in a new transmission—I had a three-speed and now I have a four-speed—and new fuel pump. I’ve converted the front breaks. I’m lucky that I have my friend Felix, who is such a good mechanic—he teaches me how to do it all. Felix has been racing his whole life, so naturally I got interested and I’ve been buying more high-performance racing stuff for under the hood. Vince’s ‘65 Impala is very clean and drives like a grandma car, but I’m souping mine up in a different way. I’m always working on how to get my car faster.

What’s your favorite place to go for a drive?
I love the PCH near Malibu.

We ascend a hill until we’re eye level with the tops of the palm trees. The sun is starting to set.

What’s usually playing on your car stereo?
Most of the time I don’t listen to music because I like to listen to the engine and be in tune with it. I want to hear if something is changing or if whatever adjustment I’ve just done is making a difference—right now I hear it bogging down. I’m going to get a new carburetor soon. When I used to listen to the radio, I was listening to older stuff like Merle Haggard, Waylon Jennings, and Lefty Frizzell.

As a woman, have you ever found yourself treated any differently in the car world?
Mechanics lie all the time to girls because they think [we’re] dumb. I took my car somewhere to get a simple oil change and the next day it wasn’t running right. So now I do all of my oil changes myself.

We stop at the intersection of Overhill Drive and Northridge Drive where Sladek’s car stalled a few days ago—an occasional fact of life for a true vintage-ride diehard.

Do you see cars as an extension of people’s personalities?
It definitely is for me, but it may not be so convenient for someone who has to rely on their car for a 9-to-5 commute. I chose to make my car a lifestyle. I love driving, so I’ll find an excuse to go somewhere.