Owners of classic autos spend hours displaying them at local car cruises

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Jay Stasko said he could take his 1979 Chevrolet Caprice to a different car cruise in southwestern Pennsylvania nearly every day.

The Brentwood resident estimated that he had gone to as many as 300 events in recent years, where he and other owners of classic and antique vehicles displayed their cars and answered questions about them.

His dark brown, two-door model has a camel-colored landau -- vinyl -- roof and interior. The 34-year-old vehicle has brought home 28 awards during the past five years.

"It took a lot of work to bring it back to its original appearance," he said.

Where the car cruises are ...

A glance at PennDOT statistics offers insight into why southwestern Pennsylvania is home to so many car cruises.

Allegheny County has by far the largest number of vintage motor vehicles registered in Pennsylvania.

According to the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation's Bureau of Motor Vehicles' latest report, 214,212 cars, trucks and motorcycles carried antique or classic license plates in 2012. Allegheny County, which has a population of about 1.2 million, accounted for 18,034 of those, about 8 percent of the state total. That number comprised 17,296 cars and trucks and 738 motorcycles.

Philadelphia County, with a population 26 percent larger, had 5,735 vintage motor vehicles registered last year.

Armstrong County accounted for 1,734 classic or antique license plates; Beaver, 4,148; Butler, 4,404; Lawrence, 2,063; Washington, 4,923; and Westmoreland, 8,152.

Two counties around Philadelphia had the next highest numbers of vintage vehicles: 14,472 in Montgomery and 13,588 in Bucks.

Other counties in the Top 10 in registration include York, 10,341; Chester, 10,243; Lancaster, 9,429; Berks, 8,435; Westmoreland, 8,152; Delaware, 6,745; and Northampton, 5,859.

At least three dozen car cruises are scheduled for the coming weeks around Pittsburgh. For information on upcoming auto-related events, see www.carcruises.com. Select "Pennsylvania" from the list of states and then select "August" for a day-by-day calendar listing.

-- By Len Barcousky

Mr. Stasko was one of about 500 automobile owners who ignored heavy afternoon showers to take part in the Waterfront Car Cruise along the Monongahela River in Homestead last month. The event was one element of the region's annual celebration of older motor vehicles: the Pittsburgh Vintage Grand Prix.

Allegheny and surrounding counties are home to several dozen clubs for owners of classic and antique cars. The state defines an antique automobile as an original motor vehicle -- not a reproduction -- that was manufactured more than 25 years ago and that remains in a condition that conforms with its maker's specifications. A classic car needs to be only 15 years old to qualify for a purple and white Pennsylvania license plate.

Family activity

Chuck and Jeanne Berrington of Forest Hills are the owners of a 1931 Model A Ford. Their two-door vehicle, appropriately named the "Tudor" vehicle, sports bright-red rims and whitewall tires.

"We put in seat belts, but otherwise this car is just as Henry [Ford] built it in May of 1931," Mr. Berrington said.

As soon as the rain stopped, he and many of the other automobile owners busied themselves using soft chamois cloths to wipe up water drops from the gleaming hoods and fenders of their cars.

The Berringtons are members of the 3 Rivers Region Inc. Model A Restorers Club, which represents the owners of about 150 of the classic motor vehicles. The Model A, built between 1927 and 1932, was the successor to Ford Motor Co.'s wildly popular Model T. And, while owners give their vehicles plenty of tender loving care, the members' Model A cars and trucks are not museum pieces.

"We're a driving club," said Mr. Berrington, 81.

Recent excursions have taken members to Chicago, Winchester, Va., and French Lick, Ind. National conventions of "A" Restorers clubs will draw as many as 1,000 vehicles to locations around the country.

"This is a real trunk," Mr. Berrington said of the brass-bound box attached to the back of his "Tudor." Inside were assorted spare parts -- a fan blade, carburetor, generator, points and a condenser -- for what club members refer to as "roadside seminars." Such "seminars" are frequent when emergency repairs have to be made on the more than 80-year-old vehicles. A half-dozen major companies still make replacement parts for Model A's, Mr. Berrington estimated.

A half dozen Model A's were grouped together at the Waterfront car cruise. Their owners sat nearby in lawn chairs and chatted with each other and with passers-by interested in their vehicles.

"I thoroughly enjoy this hobby," Mrs. Berrington said. "We are a social club and get together twice a month all summer long," she said.

For Model A members, the journey is as important as the destination.

"These cars can never pass a Dairy Queen," Mr. Berrington joked. "They turn in automatically."

Mrs. Berrington said she was glad that her husband's interest in antique cars had been drawn to the relatively roomy Model A rather than a two-passenger British-made MG sports car.

"This way we can take our grandchildren along," she explained.

At the opposite end of the automobile spectrum from two-seaters like the MG Midget and Triumph Spitfire are cars like Ray Sabo's 1977 Oldsmobile Delta 88 Royale. His "buckskin"-colored car has a hood that looks to be about the width and length of a double bed. Its trunk appears large enough to carry the 1981 Honda Civic, which was parked nearby, as a spare.

Mr. Sabo, 70, who lives in Duquesne, is president of the Allegheny Rockets Oldsmobile Club. His other vintage vehicles include a 1955 Olds 88 that he has driven in several movies made in the Pittsburgh area.

While other boys in his neighborhood were playing football or basketball, Mr. Sabo said, he had his head under the hood of a car.

"I was not into sports," he said. "I'd rather go look for parts in a junkyard."

That is a sentiment that Robert Petrauskas, 59, of Allegheny Township understands. Growing up outside Rochester, N.Y., he built model cars as a boy and then graduated to working on the real thing on a neighbor's farm. He turned his interest into a career as a mechanic.

In addition to the 1981 Honda Civic he brought to the Waterfront car cruise, he owns a 1956 Packard, a 1951 Chevrolet pickup truck and a 1931 DeSoto. He drives the latter vehicle each year to a car show at Kiski Area High School in Vandergrift.

"I've been around cars -- buying, fixing and selling -- for most of my life," he said.

Historic interest

David Blinky, a dentist with a practice in Swissvale, became interested in antique vehicles through his interest in history. A World War II re-enactor, he bought a 1942 Willys Jeep that he found online from an oral surgeon. After having the vehicle restored, he uses it to haul around a nonworking 37-mm anti-tank gun. The markings on the jeep identify it as belonging to a real World War II Army unit: Company L, the 110th Infantry Regiment in Pennsylvania's 28th Division.

While many of the vehicles on display at car cruises have do-not-touch signs on them, Mr. Blinky encourages young visitors to climb into and around his jeep.

"And when a World War II vet comes along. I'll give him a ride," he said.

"When I was a kid I made models of tanks and planes and guns, but now I get to play with the real stuff," he said. "My wife thinks I'm nuts, but she puts up with it."

The vintage autos to which so many people devote so much time often have connections to the younger days of their owners.

When Mr. Berrington was in high school, he had a friend who owned a Model A. Then 50 years later, his son Michael found him a similar automobile that a Rotary Club friend had for sale. Mr. Sabo's Uncle Joe owned a 1955 Oldsmobile that was identical to the car that his nephew displays at car cruises. And it was in a 1957 Oldsmobile that Mr. Sabo drove his date to his high school prom.

The late Della Sonita paid an additional $96 for a "Playboy Pink" 1967 Mustang she bought that year at Forest Hills Ford. Ms. Sonita, who lived in North Braddock, had a good job in the payroll department at the Westinghouse plant in East Pittsburgh, according to her nephew, Albert Senic, 59. The vinyl-top car had a 200-cubic-inch engine, power steering and automatic transmission. When Mr. Senic began driving the well-cared-for vehicle, he had it repainted blue.

Ms. Sonita had kept all the paperwork for her car. After a cousin advised Mr. Senic that his aunt's car was one of the very rare "Playboy Pink" models, he had the car repainted to its original appearance.

The striking color and the story behind the vehicle make the 46-year-old Mustang a crowd pleaser at car cruises, Mr. Senic said.

"I'm glad my aunt paid the extra $96."

neigh_west - neigh_north - neigh_east - neigh_south - neigh_washington - neigh_westmoreland

Len Barcousky: lbarcousky@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1159. First Published August 15, 2013 4:00 AM


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