The car-restoration man

Autos: Each job Tony Monzo accepts can cost up to $60,000 and take up to six months, but his waiting list is long.

February 08, 2003|By Stephen Kiehl | Stephen Kiehl,SUN STAFF

MASSEY - The chipped white barn where Tony Monzo spent his childhood milking cows is now a home for the husks of vintage cars whose owners have the money to make them new again and the desire to do it right.

That's why they call Tony.

In the past 20 years he has restored a hundred cars from the barn-turned-garage on his family's old farm on the Eastern Shore, earning a reputation for his attention to detail. Each job can take up to six months and cost up to $60,000. No one blinks when they hear that, he says.

"These cars take people back to their childhoods," Monzo says, standing by a fiery red 1970 Nova Supersport in his garage this week. "It's the car they couldn't afford but really wanted when they were a teen-ager. It's their past."

The business of restoring vintage cars - often defined as those at least 25 years old - is booming, according to those who do it. People who grew up riding in, or dreaming of, throaty Mustangs and silky Thunderbirds want them back.

Monzo has a three-year waiting list even though he has never advertised and cannot be found in the Yellow Pages. The Antique Automobile Club of America - wrapping up its national convention in Philadelphia today - has 60,000 members and is building a museum in Hershey, Pa.

"The cars that come here are Mom and Dad's old cars. They have great sentimental value," says Billy Thompson, owner of White Post Restorations in Winchester, Va., one of the largest such businesses in the country. He requires a $20,000 deposit just to get on his waiting list and stops work on a car if its owner does not pay the periodic bills within three days of receipt.

Monzo, who is 41 and a born-again Christian, is not so severe. This is a man who listens to religious radio dramas in his garage and whose vanity license plate reads "John 10.9," which tells of salvation. (John 3.16 and John 14.6 were taken.)

On a recent afternoon, Monzo leads a tour of his garage and the other sheds where he keeps the dozen cars he is working on. It's a clutch of faded buildings in the middle of a 350-acre farm in Kent County. A silo once filled with hay bulges with car parts.

"I never dreamed in a million years that I'd be back here and have the whole place to myself," Monzo says.

Like many car restorers, he has no formal training and never completed an apprenticeship. But growing up, he was the car guy among his friends. When he transformed his 1968 Pontiac Le Mans into a high-performance GTO, his friends asked him to do the same for them.

"All you gotta do is look at his work," says Brian Miller, an old friend who recently had Monzo repaint and replace the interior of his yellow 1969 Chevy Chevelle. "I never even thought about going anywhere else."

While Monzo has had customers send him cars from as far away as California, most are from the small towns and the farms in between that pepper the Eastern Shore. They come to him again and again - as fast as they can save up the money.

Ed Vogt lives a few miles down the road from Monzo in Millington and has had him restore a red 1956 Ford pickup, a white and green 1957 Ford Ranchero and a turquoise 1966 Ford Thunderbird. (In his barn, Vogt has posted this sign, now dirty and faded with age: "I'd rather push a Ford than drive a Chevrolet.")

"Tony can do any kind of job you want," says Vogt, a mulch distributor. "He'll fix a wreck to get it back on the road or, if you want a restoration, he'll do a first-class job."

One of Monzo's most recent restorations, a black 1966 Pontiac GTO, was featured in Pontiac High Performance magazine last summer. He spent six months tearing the car apart and putting it back together.

He took off the body, then sandblasted the frame underneath and coated it in red polyurethane. The body was stripped and sandblasted, and rust damage repaired throughout. He applied two coats of DuPont ChromaBase black paint to the body, then three clear coats. Finally, the car was color sanded and buffed.

That was an easy one.

Other jobs have been total restorations. Monzo spent more than $30,000 just for parts and materials for a 1971 Mercedes convertible he restored. In his garage now sits the hollow body of a 1969 Plymouth Roadrunner. All that is left of the interior is a brake pedal.

"We got her stripped down to the bone," Monzo says. He replaced the rear quarter-panels because they were so rusted and took out the guts of the car. It will get a new dash pad, new carpeting, new chrome bumpers, new door handles and new Roadrunner emblems.

Monzo won't do all this on his own. He has two full-time employees, Brett Camp and Lee Reynolds. And his stepfather, Randall Stafford, helps out sometimes. But it's Monzo's reputation and good humor that bring in the customers.

"One man came in with a '67 GTO, and I told him he was gonna put way more into this than it's worth," Monzo says. "He said, `I don't care. I seen your work. I want you to do it.' He pulled out a big roll of cash - $10,000 - and said, `Will this get you started?'"

As for himself, Monzo owns only three cars: a 1986 Chevy S-10 pickup; a 1979 Suburban (which caught fire in a rear wheel well on a cross-country trip while hauling that 1971 Mercedes convertible; a trucker alerted Monzo to the trouble on CB radio); and a 1977 Pontiac Can Am that is coated in rust. Monzo swears he'll get to it as soon as he has the time.

This is not the life Monzo envisioned for himself. He always thought he'd make furniture for a living. He won awards for his woodwork in high school. "But a piece of furniture sits in a corner somewhere and you don't get a whole lot of recognition," he says.

"Cars - cars are everywhere."

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