July 9, 2013

News & Features

For some mechanics, vintage cars are a calling

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

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Mechanic Hutch Hall, left, and manager Chris Trusty restore a 1968 Ford Shelby Mustang at Fraser Dante Ltd. in Roswell, Ga. (Hyosub Shin / The Atlanta Journal-Constitution )


Not everyone aspires to own a shiny new car. For some, allure is found in a '67 Corvette, a '49 Merc, a rocking '32 deuce coupe. For them, a car is as much testimony as transportation. Their mechanics understand that.

It's a truism that they don't make them like they used to. Today's vehicles accelerate faster, stop better and have fewer breakdowns than earlier models. With air bags, backup cameras and cruise control, they're safer, too.

OK. Point made. But people still like old cars, says Steve Moskowitz, executive director of the Antique Automobile Club of America. "There are a lot more people who are quietly collecting cars," says Moskowitz, an Oldsmobile guy whose oldest car was built in 1903. "They're not in any clubs at all."

Some publications have estimated that more than 1 million people collect vintage vehicles, and "the number of collectors is not going down," he says.

Some colleges and technical schools recognize the popularity of old cars and offer courses for aspiring mechanics.

Let us not forget guys like Mike Bland and Travis Owen, owners and operators of Village Garage & Custom in East Atlanta. They're walking examples of on-the-job training.

Bland is a former salesman who has worked on cars all his life. One day, he decided that he was spending so much time at the garage that he might as well get paid for being there.

"He quit his job," says Owen, who learned the trade from older mechanics, "and started hanging out here."

Driving an old car "is tasteful," says Owen, who has more tattoos than a back seat full of sailors.

"It's unique," Bland says. "It identifies you as —"

"An individual," says mechanic Chalon Furtado, interrupting the boss.

They're folks like Brent Thomason. Last summer, Thomason, who researches real-estate titles, bought a '74 Ford pickup. When he's not driving his Toyota Tacoma, he's either behind the wheel of the truck or under its hood. He does the simple stuff but leaves more complicated work to the pros at Village Garage.

"I probably wouldn't have [bought the truck] if I didn't know those guys," says Thomason, who lives in Atlanta. "They're good for consultation when I screw things up."

Hutch Hall is a consultant, too; decades of turning wrenches does that.

On a recent morning, he bent a thin tube in a vise, eyeing it closely to make sure it arched correctly. A brake line, it would snake along the rear end of a '65 Mustang to ensure the bright-red convertible stopped properly.

Hall, 74, is a master mechanic and one of the reasons why people bring their old cars to Fraser Dante Ltd. The Roswell, Ga., dealership has been selling and repairing vintage cars for 27 years. It ships vehicles across the nation and world.

The proof is in its showroom, where cars glitter like hard candy. One recent day, the inventory included a red 1952 Chevy 3100 pickup, bound for a buyer in Norway; a silver 1931 Rolls-Royce Phantom II (with a General Motors power plant tucked underneath a hood the length and width of a bedroom door); and a black '55 Ford Sunliner convertible.
"We sell memories here," says Tevie Dante Fraser, who, along with her husband and partner, Tom Fraser, maintain a database of cars for sale and of people looking for particular vehicles.

There's something about an old car, agrees Mike Lewis, who should know: For several decades, he and his dad, Gary, have operated Gary's Body Shop. The garage, on the outskirts of Decatur, has two specialties: repairing cars for insurance companies and restoring vintage machines.

At the moment, it has a '66 Chevelle awaiting restoration. The owner, Lewis says, is raising the cash.

"When you start a project like that, you need some money in the bank," says Lewis, whose '67 Buick Riviera has won more trophies than he can fit in its trunk. "An old car, it's kind of a leisure thing."

It's also a fun thing, an ego thing, a goofy thing. So unroll your window, pal — it's that little crank on the side of the door; forget about electric buttons — and let your good times roll.

Don't worry. Mechanics are standing by.

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