These local auto shops have a soft spot for older cars
story by Kate Chadwick
There’s an essay floating around the internet — often mistakenly attributed to the late 60 Minutes correspondent Andy Rooney, but actually written by Frank Kaiser — called In Praise of Older Women. In it, a 65-year-old Kaiser enumerates just what he’d come to realize over the course of his life about women who, for lack of a more gracious way to put it, have a few miles on them; how years and the wisdom and experience that go with them can make women of a certain age as appealing —and in some ways even more so — than their younger counterparts.
We’re betting that the folks who appreciate, work on, and collect classic cars can get behind that sentiment. Classic cars are typically considered to be anything over 20 years old; antique autos are 45 and older, and the term vintage covers anything built between 1919 and 1930. We talked with several West Chester auto repair shop owners and managers who all seemed to agree that while no one is arguing that new cars aren’t great, they don’t make ‘em like they used to, and it’s hard to beat a classic.
And if you think that this is just an “old head” industry, think again. A December 2018 post in the classiccars.com journal offered an interesting statistic: for the first time, gen X-ers and millennials had surpassed baby boomers as consumers in classic and antique car collecting. Now part of this can simply be attributed to a demographic that’s growing in number. But it also indicates that a love of cars that have stood the test of time — in terms of both quality and design — won’t be dying out any time soon. And as we found out, it’s a fascination that criss-crosses generations.
Tony over at D’Antonio Automotive is a prime example. His father (also Tony) has been an auto mechanic for 45 years. “He was around when a lot of the vehicles we service were brand new,” Tony told us. “He knows so much about classic cars that he actually gives grand jury professional testimony for restoration dispute cases. The way his brain works is astounding; I’ve been around him my whole life, and I’m still amazed when he can diagnose a troublesome car just by listening to it.”
We asked Tony just how many classic cars they’ve worked on, and even he was shocked by the answer. “Since opening up shop in 2011, my invoice software shows over 1,000 vehicles in the classic age range,” he told us. “I couldn’t believe it myself when I first saw it!” The majority of them are in the tri-State area, but they do have clients that will ship cars across the country for their services.
Among the more remarkable cars they’ve worked on at D’Antonio is the 1985 Renault R5 Maxi Turbo car that won the 1985 Word Rally Grand Prix in Monaco. “That car is actually in the video game Forza — it was pretty cool to have here. It had an unusual mechanical fuel injection issue that no one could seem to figure out. Needless to say, my father was able to correctly diagnose and repair the issue.” Other projects Tony recalls include a full body restoration on a 1969 Plymouth Roadrunner, a three-year project. “That car was so perfect, you could have performed surgery on the undercarriage of it.” A real challenge arrived in the form of a 1985 Lamborghini Jalpa full restoration project that arrived in boxes with no information available at all. “That was one of our most difficult restoration projects to date, simply because most of the parts had to be sourced from Italy or custom fabricated,” Tony says.
Tony Sr. isn’t the only local classic and vintage car guy in the neighborhood with decades of experience. Glenn Lewis over at Lewis Automotive also has an impressive 45 years under his belt… or should that be under the hood? The short answer to the question, “How many classic and vintage cars have you worked on over the years?” is, for Glenn, “Too many to count.”
“I have serviced and repaired so many antique and classic vehicles, from a 1919 Ford Model T, right up through the vehicles of the 1980s,” he told us. Among the biggest challenges Glenn has faced over the decades of working on older cars was one we that was echoed by nearly everyone we spoke with for this story: “Finding and getting the right parts!”
Glenn told us there’s not much they don’t do at Lewis. “We have done everything from a basic engine tuneup to transmission work, all the way up to the rebuilding of engines.” What don’t they do? “Well, we don’t do any painting.”
While all of the mechanics we spoke with agree that there’s no specific certifications for working on older cars, experience is key. Glenn has had master technician Jason Rhodes on staff for more than 20 years, and Jason and Glenn handle most of the older car repairs. “Many of the older mechanics who’ve worked with me over the years are retiring,” Glenn told us.
In many ways, it’s a dying art. “If you’re an intelligent technician that understands the fundamentals of an internal combustion engine, then working on 100-year-old cars shouldn’t be an issue,” says Tony. “The largest hurdle I face when sourcing technicians is the fact that most of the newer generation only understands computer systems and very little about old mechanical technology. There is nowhere to plug in a scan tool on an antique car to give you a trouble code — you have to know a thing or two to correctly diagnose a problem.”
Glenn Lewis doesn’t let the fact that he works on classic and antique cars all day stop him from also collecting them. “I’ve got a 1950 Chevy 3100 pick-up truck (it’s my favorite), my 1984 Chevy El Camino choo choo special edition, my wife’s 1984 Chevy El Camino. Those are his and hers, from the year we first met. [Reporter’s note: points to Glenn for adorableness on this.] I also have a 1986 Chevy 3500 tow truck, and my son Shane and I take care of my mom’s 1957 Chevy Belair two-door hardtop, and a 1967 Chevy Corvair Monza Convertible.”
In the 42 years they’ve been in business, Dougherty Automotive has worked on hundreds of vintage European cars and almost always have at least a few in the shop, according to general manager Ryan Diehl. “The cars we service aren’t just locally owned, but come from all over the northeast. It’s not a large percentage of our total business, but they are quite important to us, nonetheless.
Here, too, the challenge of parts comes up. “Many of the vintage cars we service have not had parts available from the original manufacturer for 30 years or more,” he said. “Recently, Porsche and Volvo have instituted ‘classic’ parts programs that are aimed at producing and providing hard-to-find parts for their most-loved vintage models, and that’s begun to move things in a good direction.”
Diehl agrees with the others that great technicians are the key for working on any cars, not just older ones, “But, as they say, there is no substitute for experience — we’re fortunate to have technicians who’ve had first-hand experience with many vintage cars and also had knowledge and expertise handed down to them from techs before them.”
Ryan jokes, “While some of our techs are themselves ‘vintage,’ we do not have specific vintage car techs. We have certain technicians with special skill sets and certain techs who gravitate towards certain projects, and it’s important to know the technicians well and recognize where they excel specifically so they’re fulfilled and we get the best results.”
While car repair and restoration is a truly hands-on business, we found over and over again that there’s a real personal and emotional connection between the workers, the cars, and the projects. “Recently, we were fortunate to have gotten involved with a mechanical restoration of a 1965 Porsche 911,” Ryan said. “The car was a prized possession of a family member but had fallen into disrepair and had sat unused for over 15 years. We’ve watched that car slowly come back to life, and the client was just recently able to drive it for the very first time. The fact that this car is such an early example (first year of production was 1963) of one of the longest-running sports car models ever produced made this a very cool project. The connection that the client has with this one-owner car, and that we’re part of keeping it in the family, goes beyond cool and makes it very meaningful to us.”
Jonathan Aloisio learned his love of cars and the mechanical craft at the feet of his late father, Dave, who raced cars with Jonathan, built race engines, and who started DARE back in 1976. Jonathan joined in 1984, and his sons are now on board as well. The car game is strong with this family; his sister Laura runs the admin side of things, and it is truly a family business.
Jonathan estimates that they’ve worked on “oh, hundreds” of classic and antique cars at DARE “But considering when we started, a lot of them weren’t classics at the time!” he says. According to Jonathan, DARE focuses more on what he referred to as baby boomer cars, those from the 1960s and 1970s. “We don’t dabble in the vintage vintage cars quite as much, but we have worked on a few over the years. We focus on the baby boomer cars, because we have a passion for them specifically, and they’re just easy for us to work on because those are the cars we know best.”
Jonathan says that while getting parts can be an issue sometimes, the older engines are usually more simple. “They’re not more difficult to work on from a mechanical standpoint. Your challenges with older cards are things like rust, things like time.”
He says the trend now is “retro-mods” or the practice of fitting older cars with more modern, faster, more efficient and updated engines. “That’s a lot of what we do now, what this industry is moving into. We take the body of an old car and modernize the drive train and merge them together. You get the best of both worlds: the classic bodies and designs of the older cars outfitted with modern engines and new technology. You’re taking something that’s already iconic and making it better. We’re doing one right now, in fact, a ’61 Corvette.” A project like this one would run approximately six months, start to finish, according to Jonathan.
These types of projects are likely only about 5% of their business, “But it’s a passion — and it adds a coolness factor to our shop,” he says. Jonathan comments that he has two techs who are “old heads.” “They know what a drum brake is; kids in school now don’t know what that is. We grew up around that stuff,” he says. His enthusiasm when talking about his job is palpable; you can tell he simply loves it.
As you’ll see in the sidebar throughout this feature, we asked each owner for their dream car. Jonathan’s is a 1969 Camaro. When pressed to define just what it is that makes the Camaro so appealing to him, he struggled to put it into words. “It’s just that neat, neat car you always wanted to reach for when you were young, just the body lines, everything about it. It’s stood the test of time.”
Indeed, it’s sometimes hard to pin down and explain the specific things that make our hearts beat just a bit faster. And whether that’s a car — or a woman — often the appeal is just indefinable.