My Secret Visit to a Shuttered Alfa Romeo Dealership

The “Alfa Bulletin Board” website at www.alfabb.com is a treasure trove of all things Alfa Romeo. I have frequented and contributed to the board in the past, and I’ve also gone months without checking in; such is life.

In January of 2017, having not visited the site in months, I was perusing the website’s classifieds. There was a post regarding an auction that had been held in November of 2016. Obviously, it was over, but I read in fascination about a former Alfa dealer in southern Jersey who liquidated his large collection of cars and parts. With deep regret that I had missed the auction, this was also my opportunity to reveal a secret I had kept for over a year.

http://www.alfabb.com/bb/forums/alfa-romeo-cars-sale-wanted/541033-alfa-romeo-auction-new-jersey.html

It was the summer of 2015 when my good friend EC informed me that he had been given “permission” to visit a stash of Alfas. At that time, EC was on the hunt for an Alfa Romeo of his own, and he believed that he might find the car of his dreams at this location. He invited me along to help with the evaluation, on the strict condition that I tell NO ONE.

EC picked me up at my home, and did the driving to Vineland, a one-way trip of almost two hours. The lengthy ride gave him the chance to fill me in on the backstory.

Decades ago, through a job connection, EC had befriended someone who worked for Alfa’s corporate headquarters. He remained in contact with this person all these years, which led him to obtain the phone number for Peter D’Amico. Peter was the dealer principal of the Alfa Romeo dealership in Vineland NJ. In the early 1990s, Alfa pulled out of the U.S. market. There may have been no more new Alfas to sell, but Peter continued the business as an independent parts and service center.

EC had learned that Peter might be willing to sell one (or more) of his Alfas. We knew nothing of years, models, or most importantly, condition. It had also been indicated to EC that Peter was rather secretive about his possessions, and allowed few people into the building. At this point, the best news was that Peter was expecting us, and that we could at least have a conversation.

We arrived at the expected time, and Peter came out to greet us. Looking younger and more spry than I was expecting, I was also struck by something EC has warned me about: Peter was beginning to have health issues, specifically mental health, as in, possible early dementia. The situation was made even sadder because Peter was aware of his own condition. Yet he was chatty and gracious, and granted us immediate entry into the building.

 

Our host for the day, Peter D'Amico
Our host for the day, Peter D’Amico

It may sound like a cliché, but walking into this former dealership was like going through the time tunnel. THIS is what many car dealerships looked like in the 1960s and ‘70s: service bays in the front, taking up almost all the forward real estate, with a dark wood-paneled room off to the corner serving as a one- or two-car showroom. There was one desk, piled so high with catalogs, manuals, and other paper that it appeared ready to collapse. Behind this afterthought of a new car display area was a combination kitchen and special tool/service literature storage area.

The view of the main portion of the service area
The view of the main portion of the service area

Entering the main part of the service department required navigating a short flight of stairs. The bays, arranged side-by- side, were jammed full. Cars were parked in front of each other. Off to one side, on the floor, were dozens of Alfa engines and transmissions.

 

Engines and trannys by the dozens took up floor space
Engines and transmissions by the dozens took up floor space

From here, we headed down a full flight of stairs into the basement, which was the parts department. Shelves were crammed full of boxes and bags in the familiar orange and black Alfa colors. But nothing was organized. It was anybody’s guess onto which Alfas these new parts would fit. Even if you could figure that out, there was a good chance the parts were, as the euphemism goes, “shelf worn”.

 

A sample of the wares in the basement parts department
A sample of the wares in the basement parts department

Back upstairs, we entered the rear part of the building. The ceiling had a hole in it large enough for an eagle, much less birds of smaller wingspans. More cars and parts were strewn everywhere, including a row of Spider convertible hardtops. A brand-new Alfa Romeo dealer neon sign was still secured in its wooden crate.

EC negotiates for a hardtop for the Spider he doesn't own yet
EC negotiates for a hardtop for the Spider he doesn’t own yet

 

Brand new dealer sign still in its crate
Brand new dealer sign still in its crate

As we followed Peter on this tour, he walked and talked almost non-stop. If he stopped, it would be to write something down, so that, as he explained to us, he could remember by referring to his notes. (One of the first things he wrote down was our names and phone numbers.) He never let go of the clutch of paperwork in his hands. As EC and I attempted to engage him, we found dialogue difficult. Questions would simply be unanswered, or the answer did not make sense.

We left the main building and followed Peter to a second building about a half block away. This storage area, he said, was where he kept the better cars. In here was a silver Alfa Spider Quadrifoglio, mid-1980s, which EC found attractive. It was dusty, and had not moved in a while, but appeared otherwise whole. We pored over the car, all the while peppering Peter with questions about it. When EC tried to get Peter to indicate some kind of asking price, the question was never answered. We both were getting more and more frustrated.

 

The Alfa Spider, keeping company with a Lancia Scorpion and Fiat 124 Spider
The Alfa Spider, keeping company with a Lancia Scorpion and Fiat 124 Spider

Finally, it was time to go. We had seen everything there was to see. We gave profuse thanks to our host, and wished him all the best. EC and I stopped for lunch in town. We couldn’t stop talking about what we had just seen. Unsure of what to make of it all, our biggest wonder (worry?) was what would eventually happen to the building, its contents, and to Peter.

As the weeks and months went by, EC tried several times to follow up with Peter on the phone. He did speak to him, but again, there was no headway regarding a price for the silver Spider. Eventually, EC realized that this was not going to happen, and ended up buying a nice Alfa Spider elsewhere.

We don’t know what motivated Peter to auction off all the goods. Perhaps it was a family decision. Maybe, during a moment of clarity, he concluded that it was in everyone’s best interest to let it go. I hope some of the nicer cars found good homes. I’m glad I got to see all of it while it was there.

 

EC wonders if this is his future Spider
EC wonders if this is his future Spider

 

These must be worth something to someone
These must be worth something to someone

 

Another view of the service area
Another view of the service area

 

 

The scene out back was most heartbreaking, as cars were exposed to the elements
The scene out back was most heartbreaking, as cars were exposed to the elements

 

All photographs copyright © 2017 Richard A. Reina. Photos may not be copied or reproduced without express written permission.

 

1986: Employment at the first Acura dealer in New Jersey

In March of 1986, after five and a half years working as a Service Advisor at Smythe Volvo in Summit NJ, it was time to make a move. This was not an easy decision. My fellow employees at Smythe had become more than co-workers; we spent significant time together outside the shop too. The dealer management on the whole was very supportive, business was good, and I could have easily stayed right where I was.

That was the problem. I was restless. There was no possibility for any upward movement, at least in the short term. I felt ready to go into management, and when I saw the ad for Service Manager at what promised to be New Jersey’s first Acura dealer, I jumped at the opportunity.

 

Early in the construction phase, this sign informed those driving by of what was to come
Early in the construction phase, this sign informed those driving by of what was to come

Acura was a name known only to industry insiders in early 1986. Parent company Honda had announced a plan to move upmarket by introducing a new line of automobiles, the first Japanese carmaker to do so.  Today, we take Acura (and Lexus and Infiniti) for granted. But this was a bold move on Honda’s part, and not a guaranteed success.

The job interview went well, and I was offered the position at a slightly higher salary than my current one, with the typical veiled promises of “more money for you if we do well”. With great reluctance and more than a slight foreboding, I gave my notice to Smythe. When I told them what I was going to do, they congratulated me. When I told them for whom I would be working, they cautioned me.

The less said about my new employer Bob Ciasulli, the better. Suffice to say that if Google had existed in 1986 and I had checked (try it), I might not have taken the job. But, I did, and as difficult as it was, it was worth it.

There were positive aspects to my time there. It was exciting to get in on the ground floor of a new car brand, an opportunity that rarely comes along. The first Acura models, the 3- and 5-door Integra hatch, and the 4-door Legend sedan, were remarkably good cars. For the first time in my automotive career, I had a demonstrator car, an Integra LS with a 5-speed, which was an absolute blast to drive. I learned a lot about management and about dealer operations.

I began the job in mid-March, about three weeks before the cars officially went on sale. The building was still under construction, with makeshift sales and service areas. Meanwhile, cars started to arrive, and it was part of my responsibility to make sure that they stayed safe and secure, stored as they were in a construction zone.  It would be many months before the building was finished.

 

The original building had filling pumps, which needed to be removed
The original building had filling pumps, which needed to be removed

 

Some of the initial inventory, parked in the (unpaved) rear lot
Some of the initial inventory, parked in the (unpaved) rear lot

 

The first load of Integras, only available in silver, red, and blue.
The first load of Integras, only available in silver, red, and blue.

Once sales began in early April, it was presumed that I would work Saturdays in the temporary showroom, as not enough sales staff had been hired. So I did, finding myself faced with many who were curious about the cars. (Typical questions: “How do you pronounce A-C-U-R-A?” “What does it mean?” “Why do the engines say ‘HONDA’ on top of them?”)

 

Opening Day. The "showroom" was in a cinder-block storage area.
Opening Day. The temporary showroom was in a cinder-block storage area.

The Integra was well-received, at a starting price around $10,000. The Legend was more of a challenge. Prospects did not like the limited color choices (typical Honda) nor the mandatory two-tone. There was also incredulousness that leather was not even an option, at least on those first cars. Finally, a $20,000 Japanese car gave many customers pause. (For comparison, $20,000 would get you a Volvo 760 sedan.)

 

Sales negotiations were to take place at what looked like picnic tables
Sales negotiations were to take place at what looked like picnic tables. Note the ashtrays!

 

One of the first Acura Legends in the country
One of the first Acura Legends in the country

I learned the hard way that taking a new job with higher salary was not always the smartest choice. The support I had at Smythe looked like a Caribbean holiday compared to the management style at the Acura store. Within months of starting work at this Jersey City location, I was poring through the classifieds again.

By the summer of '86, the showroom was done. The entire lot was fenced.
By the summer of ’86, the showroom was done. The entire lot was fenced.

In August, I found it in the classified section of Automotive News. Answering the ad for a “technical Customer Service adviser” at Volvo of America, I had a clear advantage: seven years Volvo retail service experience, while not currently employed by a Volvo dealer. (At that time, Volvo corporate policy forbade the hiring of persons working at Volvo dealers unless the interviewee first obtained written permission from dealer management for an interview to take place.)

The first demo, an Integra LS
The first demo, an Integra LS

In September of 1986, Volvo of America offered me the job. To this day, that phone call stands out as a professional highlight. I still did the honorable thing by giving my manager at the Acura store two weeks’ notice. The only regretful part of leaving was saying goodbye to that demo (and perhaps some regret at not sticking around for the NSX).

Several years after I left, the Acura store at that location failed, for reasons unknown. Today, it’s Bob Ciasulli Honda. As rare as it is to see a first-generation Integra or Legend, when I do spot one, I think back to my not-brief-enough six months there.

 
All photographs copyright © 2017 Richard A. Reina. Photos may not be copied or reproduced without express written permission.

 

 

Working in the Retail Automotive Business, Part 1: Autosport

In August of 1978, bored silly after 11 months in my office job, I answered an ad in a local newspaper. A car dealership was looking for apprentice mechanics – “willing to train”, it said.

My one and only interview was with the dealer’s service manager. Jerry Miller told me that he was an engineer, but preferred working around automobiles. He seemed impressed that I had a Bachelor’s degree, and inferred that he and I would be the only college-educated people there. Assuring me that my pay would be “x” dollars per hour, he hired me. I gave two weeks’ notice to the Department of Labor, and, shocking my family and friends, announced that I was entering the car business to work as a mechanic (the term “technician” was not yet in vogue).

The dealership was Autosport, in Somerville, NJ. The store sold and serviced Volvos, Hondas, Alfa Romeos, and Holiday Rambler motor homes.

I used the fob on the left for years. Today, at the same location and same phone number, is Bridgewater Volvo.
I used the fob on the left for years. Today, at the same location and same phone number (different area code), is Bridgewater Volvo. “Autosport” continues as a stand-alone Honda store across the street.

My first day on the job, Jerry said that there were ten mechanics, in two teams of five. One team primarily worked on Volvos, the other on Hondas, with the Alfa and motor home work shared between the two. He looked at me and said “I will put you on the….Volvo team”. Funny how one seemingly simple decision, made by another, can cast your fate.

I walked over to the Volvo side of the shop, and waited for the Volvo shop foreman to arrive. About 30 minutes later, a clapped-out Mercedes-Benz sedan with faded blue paint bounded into the parking lot. Behind the wheel was a dark-haired man, about 10 years older than I was, somehow holding both a cigarette and a cup of coffee while driving. He meandered into the building, and being the amicable Irish chap he was, stuck out his hand and said “Hi, I’m Andy Finnegan. Welcome”.

 

Misunderstanding #1: I’d be supplied tools and a toolbox by the dealership.

As I recall, I asked few questions during the interview, and made many assumptions, some of which turned out to be false. For example, this naïve 24-year-old thought that dealerships supplied tools.

Andy: “Where’s your tool box?” Me: “You guys give me one, right?” Andy: “Nope”.

After work, I drove to the local Ace hardware store and bought their house-brand tool box. Just an upper chest, I likely paid around $75 for it. My dad, none too happy about this career change as it was, gave me a small supply of tools to augment the only ones I did own, which was a set of Craftsman ½” drive metric sockets. (Thinking I was set with the metric stuff, I soon found out that most Volvos used SAE-size hardware.) Andy kindly let me use a rolling cart to serve as a place to put my tool chest.

I was ribbed about the "Master Mechanic" label. This box resides today in my garage, 38 years after buying it.
The “Master Mechanic” label forced me to endure much ribbing. The missing red paint was caused by bench-bleeding a master cylinder and shooting a spray of brake fluid against it.

 

Misunderstanding #2: I’d be working only on cars.

About two weeks into the job, I was handed a Repair Order (RO): “Customer states that shower leaks”.

Huh?

Oh, right, this must be one of those Holiday Ramblers. At least it would be easy to find in the lot. Entering the motor home, I was greeted with piles of dirty dishes and dirty laundry. The shower looked like it had not been cleaned in several months. I got Andy, who said “I’ll take care of this”. He complained to the Service Manager that “car mechanics” were not going to service someone’s unkempt mobile residence. I was never again given an RO for a Holiday Rambler.

Other unexpected jobs included spraying undercoating onto the underside of new Hondas (without a mask), and painting the service shop floor.

 

Misunderstanding #3: I’d be making my hourly pay rate times 40 hours per week. 

Two months into the job, I considered quitting. The work was much more difficult than I had imagined. Under the flat-rate system, I was supposed to find the car, diagnose the problem, procure the parts, complete the repair, and perform a road test, all within a published book time. That rarely happened for me. My preferred approach was to grab the Volvo service literature and page through it, looking for possible solutions. This was not how to make money.

My hourly rate, had I been able to earn 40 hours’ worth of it, would have been roughly equivalent to my previous job’s pay. In reality, I was earning about 25-30 hours a week. Without Andy there, I would have earned even less. Then, six months into my employment, Andy quit.

He told me he had gotten a job as a “Field Technical Specialist”, or FTS, at Volvo Cars of North America. I was devastated, and had no choice but to latch on to the new Volvo team leader, who, while also helpful, was no Andy. However, Andy’s career change gave me the idea that down the road, such a move could be possible for me.

At least the dealership gave me formal training. Six times in 1979, I attended Volvo service training at the Rockleigh headquarters. Many of my service training instructors later became colleagues.

The Volvo Service Training Passport. Earning a sticker was a badge of honor.
The Volvo Service Training Passport. Earning a sticker was a badge of honor.

As time went on, my skills did improve. I got a loan from the Snap-On tool guy, bought a roller cabinet, and soon had just about all the tools I needed. I even started to enjoy the work, although I was no Class A mechanic. Some of my mishaps were quite humorous.

My favorite story concerns the Alfa Romeo Alfetta I brought in for recall work. Alfa had announced a recall on its catalytic converters, which at that time were filled with coated pellets. The recall was necessary because the converters had not been completely filled at the factory. The repair was simple enough: unbolt the converter, remove the plug at one end, get the box of pellets from the parts counter, fill up the converter, and put everything back together.

My job complete, I let the car idle in my stall while I wrote up the repair on the back of the RO. Suddenly, the guys across the aisle started to yell. “Hey, Reina, your car is shooting at us!” What? I walked around and saw small white objects leaving the car’s tailpipe. Back at the workbench, I found the plug which I had forgotten to reinstall – the car was shooting its catalytic pellets like a BB gun. I needed to do the job all over again, and, bear the wrath of the Parts Manager (“this box of pellets costs us $1,000!”). Talk about not making flat-rate….

A year into the job, the Sales Department was abuzz because Jerry Lustig, the dealer principal, was going to add a nameplate to the showroom: Autosport had signed up to become a DeLorean dealer. In anticipation, the Sales Manager printed business cards with his name. Alas, it never happened, and whether that was due to Jerry L. or John Z., I wasn’t there long enough to find out.

Two years after starting at Autosport, it was time to find the next opportunity. Andy had told me about a Volvo dealer where, he had heard, service was run more smoothly. Walking in cold off the street, I applied for a job as a B tech at Smythe Volvo in Summit NJ, and was hired. When I left Autosport, my take home pay was not much more than when I started. As a tech at Smythe, I would be paid hourly; their technicians did not work flat rate. That was fine by me.

A portrait of the mechanic as a young man. Note the hipster pocket protector.
A portrait of the mechanic as a young man. Note the hipster pocket protector.

My first two years wrenching on cars were like a college education all over again. I learned as much on this job as I had learned in four years at the university. Best of all, the skills I acquired have stayed with me and have been put to good use working on my personal and hobby cars.

Thank God for my time with Andy Finnegan. He was late every day, smoked like a chimney, and regularly mouthed off to the boss. But he patiently helped me every day he was there, and taught me everything he knew about Volvos and car repair in general.

Years later at Volvo corporate, Andy and I became colleagues, and although we did not work directly together, we kept in touch. About ten years ago, he became quite ill and passed away. Before he left us, I visited him and told him how much I appreciated what he did for me. To this day, when working on any of my cars, he’ll cross my mind. I feel that I owe my career to him.

 

All photographs copyright © 2016 Richard A. Reina. Photos may not be copied or reproduced without express written permission.