Wednesday, April 3, 2013

The Slow Car Movement

The other day I left the shop, admittedly a rare occasion, to pick up a newer BMW coupe from a customers garage about 45 minutes away. As I drove down the road in my older Mercedes diesel sedan I reflected on the humble car that I owned. My daily driver is a mule, it is safe, it gets great fuel mileage, and it weathers the abuse of both time and nature better than most vehicles. My car just passed the 200,000 mile mark and still has all of its original paint on every panel, it is tight and right inside and out. This car was built with good ingredients.

A heavy diesel vehicle is pretty much driven with the accelerator pedal pressed down to the floor. The car needs to be endlessly pushed forward by the driver. When cruising speed is finally reached and the driver lets up on the throttle, the car is sailing. In order to slow down, simply letting off the throttle slows the car rapidly, due to its weight and the aerodynamic forces fighting against the shell of a vehicle that is moving too fast to begin with. The experience of driving this car is one of pushing, and sometimes strangling it into submission. The engine hums loudly, the wind whips past and it feels like point A and point B are as far apart as they really are.

When I arrive to fetch the BMW, it growls to life. I park the Benz in its place and head back to the shop. As I drive my right leg begins to fatigue in a way that is unfamiliar to me. I realize that I am continually, and uncomfortably, holding the throttle back. The car and my gas pedal leg are at odds with one another. The car wants to go a million miles an hour while my leg, thankfully connected to my brain, wants to keep us somewhere around the speed limit. The car is too damn fast. To be honest it starts too fast, turns too fast, goes too fast, and is too fast. And yet the cabin is perfectly silent, filled only with Terry Gross on the radio having a laugh with somebody who knows better.  

But, my leg is tired. Succumbing briefly to the wave of modern convenience and demand has left me wanting. I want to push a car forward, using everything that it has, rather than hold it back from being perfect, predictable and fast.

I've always appreciated the slower path. I want my senses to have time to absorb what is happening. I prefer experiences where my attention and focus is required. These things are more tangible which makes them more memorable.

Drive a slow old car 90 MPH down the interstate and you've accomplished something. You cannot send a text, prepare for an important meeting, or add another chapter to your dissertation. No, you are piloting a relic and are forced to pay attention to the gauges, engine notes, and chassis growls. Your senses are needed and loaded, which is a wonderful feeling.

The evolution of the motor vehicle is impressive, but technological evolution has scrapped some things that are meaningful. The first cars were bulky, slow and guzzled gas as they and rumbled along dirt paths at 15 miles per hour. Today cars are wind cheating cyber lounges that get 40 miles per gallon while racing down the highway. Slow things are trimmed, changed, and usually discarded. They are replaced by faster things, but at what cost? Some important things are left behind.

Weeks later, when I returned for my old Benz it greeted me with a rough plume of unburned diesel fuel. Once again I was having an adventure behind the wheel. My eyes and ears were tuned and sharp, there was no time to think about anything other than my slow car.

Sunday, December 9, 2012

The Toy Shop

Shortly after Thanksgiving we selected a Balsam Fir from the local tree farm down the street. After it was erected and adorned with our antique glass balls and little wooden elves our daughters began to get excited. We then unwraped the old nativity scene and musical silver bells, at which point the girls could not help themselves. While Stella runs around drumming with the glass candy canes, Gina sits quietly arranging an animal take over in Jesus' crib. Suddenly, "uh oh" one of the shepherds and the Rudolph silver bell are down. Our shepherd fell hard, he is getting old after all, the poor guy fractured into 6 pieces.

And this is how I find myself in the shop, on a rainy Sunday afternoon in December, gluing busted silver bells and tending to our unlucky nativity figurines. Every year around the holidays I am reminded of how much our shop has in common with an old toy shop. Everyone carries an affection for toys regardless of their age and when toys are played with, they break. Those broken toys and the Fiat roadster in the bay next to me, which hasn't run since Carter was in office, are here for the same reasons. This season at the shop toys are everywhere, some for little folks and some for big ones. Happy Holidays.

Monday, November 12, 2012

The Hurricane & The Fiat

I grew up in Connecticut and lived for 5 years in Brooklyn, NY.  Recently, as I watched Hurricane Sandy wreak havoc with the Eastern Seaboard my thoughts were of my family and friends in her wake. As the winds died down and the rain stopped I talked to my parents, who had the foresight to install a permanent generator after Hurricane Irene last year, and they were fine. My siblings and their families were getting by without power. My thoughts then turned to one of the regions that was hardest hit, Long Island, NY. This past summer we finished hand building a 1977 Fiat 128 sedan that we lovingly called little Jack. That little Fiat still feels like an old friend, and it's new home was on the coast of Long Island,  right in the cross hairs of the storm. With no word from the owner, due to the wide spread power outage, I feared the worst. Images of the 128 under water or in a collapsed garage haunted my thoughts.

Thankfully, last weekend I received an email with the words I was hoping to hear. We are all okay… and the Fiat is tucked safely away in the garage. Thank god! That little car would be very hard to build a second time. I fear we may have exhausted the remaining stock of spare parts out there to do it once!

Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee

Jerry Seinfeld is well known for being very funny, he is less known for his interest in and depth of knowledge about vintage European cars.

Seinfeld's new web show “Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee” has quickly become one of my all time favorite shows. I appreciate it because Seinfeld so articulately summarizes the experience of driving a particular vintage car at the beginning of each episode. His take on riding around in the old cars that I love and take care of is really unique. First off he’s Jerry Seinfeld. He’s not a bragger, and he’s probably not a boater either. With his characteristic ease, he describes each vehicle in a straightforward manner while also conveying the feeling of the vehicle in a poetic and entertaining way.

I also like that the show is not about the wild world of Mercedes Benz or Porsche. I receive a few of the best automobile publications at my shop. In my opinion, too many of them feature dudes bragging about how much they spent on a caster camber plate for their racer or how little they spent on a paint job in their buddies garage.

The shows premise is refreshingly simple. Jerry picks up one of his comedian buddies in a beautiful old car and they go out for coffee. They talk on the way there, they talk in the restaurant and they talk some more on the ride home. Meanwhile Jerry tells his friend (Alec Baldwin, Super Dave, Ricky Gervais) a bit about the car they’re driving. And he can talk about the size of the engine, he can talk about the vehicles hardware, but he also talks about what makes it unique and memorable.

Check it out on you tube or crackle. It will definitely help you out of your depression.

Just a Lazy Shiftless Bastard - Alec Baldwin - Comedians In Cars Getting Coffee

Sunday, April 22, 2012

Alfa 1900

More than a year ago Ray Reimer and I were driving his Alfa Milano through Amish country in northern Indiana, near his home. Ray wanted to show me his friend Mary’s collection of Ferrari’s in South Bend. We parked outside a small stereo shop in downtown South Bend. There were bars covering the small windows and trash piling up along the sidewalk. Apparently this little shop closed its doors to the public long ago. We knocked on the door and I was introduced to Mary. She was a gruff, spirited little woman who wore an eye patch and swore like a sailor. She and her husband Joe owned and operated the shop until Joe passed away about 10 years ago. The shop was full of miniature Dinky toys, model airplanes, and little metal signs. As we walked toward the back of the shop I noticed that there were cars underneath the memorabilia. I spotted an MG with boxes of vintage toys stacked on its hood, an old Alfa Spider covered in tiny memorabilia, a Mercedes SL peering out from under piles of books. We made our way into a large, clean room in the back of the building. Underneath covers were three Ferrari's, a convertible E type Jaguar, and a really old MG. The cars were all low mileage and had been meticulously cared for.
We pulled the covers off, sat in the cars and chatted about where this collection had come from. It turned out that Mary and her husband had once owned BAT car number 5. They purchased the car in the early 70’s, restored it and showed it. I saw an old picture of Mary standing next to their BAT car at Pebble Beach. When they sold the BAT car they used the money they made, which was considerable, to purchase the collection that we were now admiring.
While she was talking about their BAT car Mary pointed to a collection of boxes under an old bed sheet in the corner of the room. It was a post war Alfa 1900 engine that they had wanted to put in their BAT car. The BAT cars were based on the 1900 platform but this engine was slightly larger, they thought that with this engine the BAT car would be a bit faster and potentially more valuable. The engine came from a hand built Alfa Romeo 1900 Spider owned by a friend of theirs. He sold the Alfa engine to Mary and replaced it with a Corvette engine. The Spider was destroyed when the owner attempted to overtake a train. Mary asked me, “You know what happens when you race a train? Train always wins.”
The BAT car was later sold with its original engine, and the 1900 engine was boxed up and forgotten about.

I immediately envisioned this engine restored, put back together and displayed in our shop. Mary promised to sell it to me the next time I was able to visit her. Almost a year later I was back in Mary’s strange little junk shop packing the engine into my truck. I spent many weekends polishing, cleaning, painting and reassembling until the engine looked like new. It now sits on a custom stand in our waiting room, a piece of mechanical history with a very interesting story to tell.  

Tuesday, February 14, 2012


What a shame. What a tragedy. How can this happen? Recently, during one of my weekend Craigslist quests to save the crumbling orphans out there behind barns and in fields, I stumbled upon a very early W113 Mercedes SL. The Mercedes Pagoda SL's began production in 1964, and this one was a very early 1965 with a manual gear box, European market gauges, and some interesting trim and headlamps not present on US models. After doing a little research I discovered that this was the 458th SL to roll out of the factory. Someone purchased this car overseas and had it shipped to the US a long time ago, back when it was much easier to do so. The gentleman selling the car had purchased it from it's original owner about 10 years ago with the intention to restore it. The car sat in his garage until a couple of years ago when he decided to take the plunge and have the car restored professionally.

Rather than finding a shop that had any type of experience working on a car like this, it was sent to a chop shop in the crumbling industrial district of Benton Harbor, Michigan. The patchwork of buildings were filled with ex-convicts spraying cars in open rooms without respirators on. They apparently specialized in putting 22 inch rims on Chevy Monte Carlos, their pallet of choice included jolly rancher green and metallic purple. When they got their hands on this unlucky SL they ripped the seats out, tore the trim off, and quickly realized they had no business working on a car like this. It was rolled out into an open field behind their shop and left there for over a year. The elements quickly reduced it to a crumbling shell. Most people know that these are very special cars, and to kick one to the curb like this is such a shame.

With difficulty and a heavy heart, I loaded SL #458 onto my trailer and brought it to a place where it can spend it's last days amongst friends. Just out of curiosity, I put a warm battery in it and turned the key. Would you believe it almost started? Perhaps this is not the end of the line for SL #458... only time will tell.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Decimo Anniversario!

In a couple months we will be celebrating our 10th anniversary. How cool is that? Who would have thought that a restoration shop could survive and prosper in Fennville, and during a recession to boot. It certainly blows my mind!

Ten years ago I started this business in a cold, dimly lit shed that barely fit two cars. I started working on old cars because I had to do something, I was young, idealistic, passionate, and I had just lost my job as a designer. I needed to work on something that inspired me, something that I loved. And I absolutely loved working on those old cars, something about it just excited me gave me energy. With a handful of tools from my college days, and some rusty ones I found on the floor of the shed, European Auto Restoration was born.

A decade later I am amazed that my original idea was actually a kernel that slowly grew into a business which now supports my passion and my family. How wonderful! Currently, we are perfecting our craft. With each project, we improve upon the past. We are doing what we set out to do and finding people who value and support us and our vision.

This winter we are rebuilding a 1750 Alfa Romeo engine, working on a couple of Mercedes-Benz SL's, completely restoring a lovely BMW 2002 and a 1961 finback Mercedes. I couldn't be more proud of the work we are doing and of this unlikely business concept that I have been nurturing for the past ten years.

For me, one of the great lessons I have learned is that a business idea that looks good on paper has no more guarantee of success than an idea that is based on intuition. As an idea, European Auto would have made absolutely no sense on paper, yet here we are. Passion alone is one of the most important ingredients to the survival and success of this business. I have deep reserves of passion and love for the work that I do here and there is nothing else I'd rather be doing. Here's to the next 10 years.