I’ve driven past the spot dozens, if not hundreds of times: just another industrial park along Route 22 in western New Jersey. But on Saturday November 23, 2019, this locale, set back a few hundred feet from the highway, proved to be quite something else, as the New Jersey Region of the Antique Automobile Club of America (AACA) was invited to tour the Steven Babinsky Restoration Business.
The weather cooperated: it was a sunny and dry, if somewhat crisp day. Many club members took advantage of an optional breakfast at the Readington Diner starting at 8am, which gave us a chance to fuel ourselves with food and coffee while chatting with our buddies about, what else, our cars. By 9:30, the last of the participants met us there, and we totaled over 50 attendees, ready to begin our tour.
NJ REGION AACA MEMBERS’ CARS AT THE READINGTON DINER
From the diner, it was a 5-minute drive to our destination. Steve Babinsky was on hand to greet us, and made us feel quite welcome by informing us that we were free to wander around the premises. A few of his craftsman were working, and they didn’t mind fieldling our questions. Steve also made himself available for Q & A all morning.
The shop itself is huge; there were perhaps two dozen vehicles inside, all in various states of disassembly. I get a kick out of inspecting shop equipment, and I wasn’t disappointed. Everything from lathes, milling machines, and tubing benders, to presses, a paint booth, and a ‘fire pit’ (to pre-heat aluminum prior to welding according to Steve) was inside.
TOOLS & EQUIPMENT IN THE WORKSHOP
With the sole exception of a ’59 Caddy convertible, all the vehicles in this building were pre-war, which is Steve’s specialty. After we had enough running around in the shop, we were invited to enter another warehouse across the parking lot, which serves as a storage building. Here, cars were so tightly packed that it was difficult to walk around (and certainly a challenge to get good photos).
VEHICLES IN THE MAIN SHOP UNDERGOING RESTORATION WORK
One car though stood out among all the valuable machinery. A silver Mercedes-Benz 540K roadster (I believe), looking like an older restoration, was in the middle of the crowd. The top was down; the whitewall tires had long ago turned yellow; it was dusty; and one got the impression that it had not been started in a long time. But its design was breathtaking. Everyone to a person admired it.
THE MERCEDES-BENZ 540K ROADSTER
After staring at so much interesting automotive history, we were invited to drive another 20 minutes to the town of Bloomsbury, where Steve stores yet more vehicles in a building which once was a Studebaker dealership. Scattered among the cars at this location was a lot of automobilia: metal signs, old advertising, hood ornaments, toys, and the like. The biggest surprise (and far and away the biggest vehicle) was a pre-war Ahrens Fox fire engine.
THE REPURPOSED STUDEBAKER DEALERSHIP
Before the tour, I had read a little bit about how Mr. Babinsky got his start. Like many other businesses, things started slowly for him. But once word spread about the quality of his work (he does boast of having restored multiple Pebble Beach winners), he said he has no reason to advertise. He doesn’t even have a website. Based on my very informal observation, he has enough work on hand at present to keep him busy for several years. It was a thrill and a privilege to be given inside access to his business for a few hours.
As I said in my post about the recent AACA Spring National, it’s really about the people and their stories behind their automotive treasures, more than is it about the cars themselves. This has been true at so many recent car shows, and it was evident again last weekend.
Below are three stories about three individuals whose paths crossed mine on Saturday: one whom I met for the first time that day; one whom I thought I was meeting for the first time when in fact we had met six years prior; and one whom I had gotten to know but had not seen in almost 20 years.
RIDING IN RON’S E-TYPE
Saturday morning; in a golf cart with Leif Mangulson, the Chief Judge, who wants to show me the spot to locate the club’s PA system. While we’re stopped, a gentleman approaches the cart. “Hi Leif, I’m Ron, and we spoke numerous times. I have the Jag”. Hmm, I ponder, a Jag. This gets my attention, and I find it impossible to not speak. “Excuse me, Ron, my name is Richard. What kind of Jaguar do you have?” “Oh, a ’66 E-Type”. “Fixed Head Coupe or Open Two Seater?” I ask, trying to impress him with my use of the preferred Britishisms for the hardtop and roadster. “Mine’s the OTS”. “Oh, and as a ’66, it’s got the 4.2 liter engine, all-synchro gearbox, and better seats, yes?” “Yes, and my, sounds like you like these cars. Why don’t you make a point of stopping by to see it on the show field?”
Not only did I “stop by” to see the car – it was one of the cars for my Judging Team to evaluate! I was happy to see Ron again, and I assured him, AND my Team Captain, that I could fairly and objectively perform my duties within the engine compartment. When we were done, Ron again invited me to seek him out before the car was loaded back onto his trailer.
It was late in the afternoon by the time I worked my way back to Ron’s gorgeous opalescent silver-blue roadster. Ron and his son were packing up their chairs and other paraphernalia when Ron turned to me and asked “Would you like to ride with me back to the trailer?” The look on my face provided the answer. But I did ask “do I need to remove my shoes?” Ron laughed and said not to worry about it.
Ron entered the driver’s side while I squeezed in the passenger seat. With a little choke, ignition key turned to “on” and a push of the starter button, the big 6 immediately came to life. At 5’ 10”, I was surprised that my head grazed the erect convertible top, but at the same time, the seat cushion felt either overstuffed or not broken in, which could explain the lack of headroom.
With the shift lever in 1st, Ron eased out the clutch and we were moving. The view out the front over the L-O-N-G hood was gorgeous. We were in a parking lot with dozens of other valuable cars, so he kept to a reasonable speed, perhaps 20mph tops. But the ride was sublime. My first ride even in an E-Type was worth it, and I certainly hope it’s not the last.
When I got out, I couldn’t thank Ron enough for his kindness and generosity. Turns out that he lives about 45 minutes south of me, and he invited me to keep in touch. I certainly shall.
OWEN AND THE ISETTA
As I alluded to in my previous post, judging a class of cars was a rewarding, if very time consuming, undertaking. One of the most rewarding aspects of it was the sharing from the vast pool of knowledge among the five of us. We were judging Class 24, two-seat sports cars, so each of us had some level of familiarity with these vehicles, and the stories started to pour out.
Somehow, I let it be known that I had owned a BMW Isetta for the better part of 30 years. A while later, when judging was over, Owen, our Team Captain, came up to me. He asked me “do you still have the Isetta?” “No, Owen, I sold it.” “What year was that?” “I sold it at the RM Auction in Hershey in 2013”. With that, Owen removed his wallet from his back pocket, reached in, and pulled out a black and white photo. It was a snapshot of an Isetta with two boys standing next to it. One boy, a teenager, was quite tall, and the younger fellow was pre-school age.
“Wait!” I exclaimed. “I’ve seen this photo before, but I’m not sure where.” Owen asked “do you read Auto Restorer magazine? The photo was in there”. “Nope, that’s not where I saw it”. “What color was your car?” “Red, solid red”. Owen said “I now know where you saw it”, and related this story to me.
He was able to recite in some detail the location of my car within the RM Hershey tent, and remembered that he had approached me in 2013 to tell me how his parents bought a new Isetta which they kept for many years. He had shown me that photo in Hershey, explaining that the tall fellow was his older brother, and the little guy was he at 5 years old. A few days later, Owen kindly mailed me a photocopy of that photo, along with the letter he had written to the magazine.
The coincidence of again meeting someone who had shown me a photo of the family’s Isetta 6 years ago was uncanny. That we would end up on the same Judging Team goes to show how small this automotive hobby can be. But Owen would not be the ONLY person on the Team with whom I had a connection.
YES, THATIAIN TUGWELL
Day-of-show judging at an AACA event always starts with the judges’ breakfast. There, you meet your team, get an overview from the Team Captain, and preview the list of vehicles to be judged. I was a bit late for breakfast, so while the others talked, I was still getting up several times to fetch my eggs and coffee.
When I got back to the table, I finally saw the list of cars, and noted that the printout also included the names of all my fellow judges. A quick eyeball scan revealed that I knew no one at my table, except….. How often do you come across a first name like “Iain?”
I looked up from my coffee. He was sitting directly across from me. The din in the room forced me to raise my voice almost to a yell. “Hey Iain! I KNOW YOU.”
His expression told me he didn’t quite know what to make of that comment. I continued. “I don’t expect you to remember, but the first time was 1998. A buddy of mine and I were on the New England 1000, in a British Racing Green Sunbeam Tiger”. Slowly, his puzzled frown changed to the slightest of smiles. Once I heard the accent, there was no mistake. “Oh yes, the Tiger, yes, I do remember it. How are you?”
Well, other than shocked to hell, I was fine. I grabbed my phone and texted Steve, the Tiger owner.
“You are NOT going to believe this. I’m at the judges table at the NJ AACA show in Parsippany. On my team is a guy named Iain Tugwell. Yes, THAT Iain Tugwell.”
As if I needed to prove it, I snapped a shot with the cell and sent that to Steve too. To the two of us rookie rally drivers, Iain Tugwell was a legend. He ran the Sunday night “Famous Navigators School”, teaching us the finer points of scoring zero in our rally stages. There was probably some ex-military in him, as he was so set in his ways we nicknamed him “The Carmudgeon”. He was probably on the NE1000 with us until about 2001 or so, making it 18 years since we last connected.
Judging with him was fun; he was the old Iain, short, brusque, to the point, but ultimately big-hearted and good-natured. Later on, I got to meet his wife Jane, and then bade them farewell, as they departed the hotel immediately after judging ended, to get home to Buffalo before midnight. I promised Iain that we would again see each other at an AACA event. I certainly hope to make that true.
What a show! Over 400 of the country’s finest classic and collector cars gathered in Parsippany NJ to participate in what was officially known as “The 2019 AACA Eastern Spring National”, but what was simply referred to by the NJ Region members who put it all together as “the National”.
Here’s the background: sometime last year, after a visit from an AACA Director encouraging us to take the leap, the NJ Region of the AACA (Antique Automobile Club of America) decided to host a National event (static car show, as opposed to a driving tour). This would be the first time since 1968 that a National meet would be held in the Garden State. It was “all hands on deck”, and dozens of Regional members (including yours truly) volunteered for duty.
The dates were picked: June 28 through June 30, 2019. The location/host hotel was found: the Hilton Hotel in Parsippany NJ, conveniently located a mile from Interstate 287 in the northern part of the state. As with any National, the several days prior to the actual car show would include a chance for car owners and club members to join optional tours to points of interest in the area. For me, Thursday and Friday were consumed with staying at the hotel to assist with behind-the-scenes work on merchandise and raffle ticket sales, as well as transporting the club’s PA system.
Saturday, the big day, arrived, and many Regional members were already scurrying around the hotel’s hallways at 6am. After I got the PA moved into position, I put my 1993 Mazda Miata on the show field in the HPOF category (Historical Preservation of Original Features), and rushed to judges’ breakfast.
Last year, as part of my contribution to making this show happen, I decided to offer my services as a judge for The National. Serving as an AACA Judge is a major time commitment. First, one is obligated to attend at least one judging school a year (I managed two, one in Gettysburg PA in August 2018, and again in Philadelphia in February 2019). Then, the day of the show, judges’ breakfast is mandatory. This is your opportunity to sit with your Judging Team, including Team Captain, review the list of vehicles to be judged, and make preliminary plans to tackle the task.
We were assigned Classes 25 A/B/D, which were two-seat sports cars of a variety of model years. We began our duties at 11am, and judged 10 cars, mostly European sports cars (MGs, Triumphs, Porsches, Jaguars, a Jensen-Healey) plus a Cadillac Allante. When one includes the review and tallying of the score cards, the actual judging took over 3 hours. (Besides the Team Captain, the team includes one judge each for exterior, interior, chassis, and engine compartment. I had engine compartments, and spent my time scrutinizing valve cover finishes, hose clamps, and wiring connections, among other things.)
Finally, released by my Team Captain, I grabbed my camera and dashed back to the show field to snap as many shots as possible. We were blessed with a sunny and dry day, if a bit warm (93 degrees and humid). Staying hydrated was paramount, as was protecting one’s skin from the relentless rays. The 400 or so cars were mostly in the points-judged classes, but we had ample turnout in both HPOF and DPC (Drivers Participation Class) too.
Looking at the placards, while most vehicles were from the metro NY/NJ area, I did note many vehicles from PA and CT, and cars from as far as NC and WI. In my haste, I forgot to photograph my Miata, which was vying for its “Original HPOF” award. I’m pleased and humbled to state that it did achieve that milestone.
The caliber and quality of the show cars amazed me. I’ve been attending Hershey since the late ‘70s; I’ve been to various Concours all along the East Coast, including Greenwich, Misselwood, and New Hope. Subjectively, I thought that the vehicles in attendance in Parsippany were collectively the most stunning group of AACA-eligible cars I’ve ever had the pleasure to gaze upon. Brief conversations with some fellow Regional members revealed that they felt the same way.
Saturday evening’s banquet was the icing on the cake. We finally had a chance to relax, have a drink or three, and chat with friends old and new. I’ll happily repeat myself: the older I get, the more I enjoy the PEOPLE and the STORIES more than the cars. And I’ve got stories, and they will follow as separate posts in the coming days.
It may come as a surprise to you to learn that there is a real honest-to-goodness buffalo farm east of the Mississippi River, and may be an even bigger surprise that one exists in the most densely populated state in the nation, but it’s true. Better still, the farm is about a 15 minute car ride from your humble blogger’s home, so it was a no-brainer to buzz over there in the Alfa and join up with some of my fellow club members.
The Buffalo Watch officially opened at 9 a.m.; I arrived just before 9:30 and there were already 8 or 9 cars in their assigned spots. The Alfa was parked in line with the rest, and before the morning was out, another 4 or 5 cars made the event, for a total of about 14 classic cars. As is the Region’s tradition, a tent was erected, under which were displayed magazines, brochures, and handouts, all to encourage club membership. We were popular enough that two new members joined the Jersey Region that day. Our classics provided plenty of competition for the pigs, goats, and rabbits in the pens across from us, and I dare say we smelled better too!
The day stayed dry, if a touch warm and humid, and as the afternoon crowd began to peter out, the cars started their departures. I was off the grounds by 2 pm and home before 2:30. The Buffalo Watch was something of a different event for the club, and to me, it proved once again that no matter what the venue, interesting old cars will always grab the public’s attention.
The members of the New Jersey Region of the Antique Automobile Club of America (AACA) again provided a number of antique and classic cars to participate in the Hillsborough NJ Memorial Day parade, held this year on Saturday May 25, 2019. This was my third consecutive year in the parade, as it’s local to me. (You can read about the 2017 and 2018 events at the underlined links.)
The splendid late May weather helped produce an excellent turnout for the club, with over 20 vehicles participating. The event chairperson, Bob Hudak, encouraged non-AACA members to also drive with us, as long as the vehicles were 25 years old or older. Several pre-war cars, including a 1929 LaSalle, a 1935 Packard, a 1939 Ford, and a 1940 Buick showed up. Orphan marques Hudson and DeSoto were there, as was good ol’ American muscle, amply represented by a 1966 Corvette 427 (still with its original owner). A new club member brought his pristine 1959 Ford 2-door sedan. And like last year, I was again the only driver with a non-domestic vehicle.
The parade started moving precisely at 10:30 a.m., and seemed to snake along more slowly than in previous years. Hillsborough is a diverse town, and I have always enjoyed taking in this true slice of modern America: people of all ages, races, and genders wearing and waving the red white & blue, cheering us on as we slowly inched past. I’ve also noticed, as you can see in the photos, that once a camera is pointed at them, most people love to smile and wave!
The New Jersey Region of the AACA (Antique Automobile Club of America) held its annual car show on Sunday, May 5, 2019. It has long been the Region’s tradition to hold the meet on the first Sunday in May, and it’s also policy that the show is a rain or shine event.
This was the 4th consecutive year that it rained on show day. In the recent past, the rain reduced but did not completely suppress the turnout. This year was different, as fewer than 20 brave souls brought their cars (your reporter was not one of them). At its peak, this show has been known to garner upwards of 250 classic and antique automobiles, so to state that the car count was off its highs is an understatement.
Even with such a diminished number, the quality of the machinery remained as stellar as always. Below are photos featuring most of the vehicles in attendance. As always, members of the NJ Region had boots on the ground, as registration, parking, judging, and awarding of trophies still went on.
It means that we must remember the true spirit of the holiday, as we honor those who served, especially those who made the ultimate sacrifice for our freedom.
It means that we have the freedom to pursue our own vision of happiness. For many of my friends, as well as for me, that means sharing our passion for the old car hobby.
It means that I can volunteer to spend a few hours to participate in a local parade, giving citizens a reason to come out and smile, cheer, and wave the flag.
It means that I have freedom of choice to purchase and drive the car that I want, not based on what someone determines is “the right choice” based on that vehicle’s country of origin.
It means that our children, our future generations, can learn from the past, and work toward a future that we hope is peaceful and safe for them.
It means that there is great joy in recognizing that Americans come in all colors, from all different backgrounds and nationalities, and they are as proud and happy as anyone to celebrate this momentous holiday with all their fellow Americans.