Monthly Archives: October 2020


Conversations with People We Value #11

A few years back I had been asked to judge at a local Concours d’Elegance. I envisioned strolling across lovely grounds viewing a field of beautiful cars. What fun! My judging assignment included an aircooled class comprised primarily of Volkswagens. More fun!

Judging criteria for this concours would employ “French Rules.” Compared to the judging at marquee club events (Porsche Club, Corvette Club) where the wrong oil breather cap can hurt your score, French Rules lean more on aesthetics.

With French Rules, visual impact more than technical authenticity holds sway. Additional attributes that merit judgments of worthiness include a car’s condition, authenticity, originality, quality of restoration, rarity, and historical importance. Basically French Rules creates a personal opinion beauty contest with the benefit of a few qualifiers to assist judges in thin slicing degrees of excellence to substantiate the choice of a winning car. I had no idea that I was about to face the challenge of thin slicing with a scalpel.

My partnering judge and I approached our subject cars and immediately recognized the challenge. With late 1950s being the newest model year, a splendid array of highly desirable VW Beetles awaited our scrutiny. It could only be compared to judging a beauty contest with the five finalists being striking identical quintuplets.

Each of the five VW Beetles enjoyed exquisite restorations featuring superb aesthetics clearly executed with an artist’s eye. All five Beetles showcased the craftsmanship of the same man. His name? Chris Vallone.

VW bug restoration is no joke. Ask Jerry Seinfeld


Being an accomplished independent film maker with a background in cartooning and fine art seems an unlikely route to becoming recognized world over for producing mechanically superior and aesthetically refined Volkswagen Beetle restorations.

“I was living my dream,” says Chris Vallone, founder of Classic VW Bugs, Inc. in Congers New York. For ten years after earning his degree, Chris wrote, directed, shot, produced and edited his own independent films. “Action films, horror films, that sort of thing,” says Chris. He achieved a degree of success with one of his films being picked up for distribution internationally. However, recognition does not necessarily equate to financial success.

Chris and father with award winning 1952 split window

In the background during the decade dedicated to advancing his career in film making, Chris enjoyed a hobby defined by maintaining his 1968 Volkswagen. “Honestly, I loved the image of the artist throwing his gear in his VW bug and pursuing his passion,” says Chris.

In life as in a good film, inflection points occur that force a dramatic change in the action. Chris’s life plot took a major turn when the monetary demands of distributing a film exceeded his financial reach. Translation, Chris found himself broke and in debt. “The whole starving artist thing,” says Chris.

“I realized that my Hollywood aspirations should be pushed to a back burner,” Says Chris. Actually Chris pushed the Hollywood idea right off the stove. “As I approached my late 20s, I realized that I needed to get serious about making a decent living to survive,” says Chris. Step one called for eliminating my debts.

Chris’s hobby came to the rescue. He would sell the 1968 VW he had restored. He used his filmmaking skills to showcase the Bug on eBay. This happened way before video became a staple on auctions. It was way before BaT existed.

His VW quickly sold to a buyer from Cincinnati, Ohio. Chris says, “This floored me because I grew up in a world where everything happened locally. What an eye opener for me.” This was around 2003.

AFTER – 1956 Ragtop

BEFORE -1956 Ragtop

Chris’s father, Chris Vallone senior, saw an opportunity saying “We got something here.” And indeed they did. Chris senior had decades as an experienced mechanic. Chris junior possessed an artist’s eye for visual interior and exterior executions. Their blended talents would combine to impart a unique and striking signature look to their future creations.

Working out of their home’s one-car garage, they would first rebuild a VW Bug to use and then sell it. However, within a year Chris decided to buy a Beetle with the sole intent of restoring and flipping it. Son and father went all in. With the VW Bug completed, Chris created a full blown sales video with music, titles and effects and posted it on eBay.

Incredulously Chris says, “We had people come to our house, knock on the door and ask us to end the auction saying “I want to buy it now.” Time for another inflection point.

In a move of profound significance, Chris redirected his marketing media skills to a new platform, YouTube. He now employed his talents to fully orchestrate traditional and social media platforms. That’s when it happened. People began calling. Interested customers no longer wanted to bid on a VW Bug Chris put up for auction. They wanted Chris to build one just for them. Chris says, “I never ever thought of doing that.”

Classic VW Bugs facility

Chris pivoted his business to embrace the custom Build-a-Bug philosophy. Classic VW Bugs, Inc. was born. Chris had discovered a niche within a niche populated with people in their fifties to seventies possessing the money to have their VW Bug professionally restored with a visual character attuned to their tastes.

Clearly, having outgrown the garage, son and father took a deep breath, swallowed their trepidations and leased a significantly larger commercial space. Game on.

Despite launching Classic VW Bugs at the dawn of the Financial Crisis, Chris has never looked back. Counter intuitively, as the stock market collapsed, his business grew. Chris explains this saying, “People buying our cars were primarily investors or collectors who wanted to add to their collection. They viewed our restored VW Bugs as an appreciating asset.”

While the sweet spot of the buyer demographic presently rests in the fifty to seventy age range, Chris has witnessed a surge of interest by those in their thirties and forties.

Chris sees this trend inspired by a motivation quite different from say the muscle car or resto-mod markets. He says, “To a significant degree it is nostalgia driven.” Chris senior says, “People’s youthful personal experiences wove the Beetle into the fabric of their soul. It remains there today.”

When asked about the pivotal moment when Chris realized that Classic VW Bugs, Inc. had arrived as a presence in the international Beetle restoration community, he did not hesitate. “When Jerry Seinfeld walked through the door,” says Chris.

About seven or eight years ago, Chris answered a call from a guy introducing himself as Jerry Seinfeld. He wanted to discuss a prospective Beetle restoration. Chris’s initial response was, “Yeh right, who is this?” However, as a big Seinfeld fan, Chris recognized the caller’s intonation. Seinfeld brought a 1956 Beetle requiring significant work to Chris’s shop and hung out for a while to discuss the project.

After taking delivery of the completed Beetle, Chris did not hear from Seinfeld again until this past summer when a clearly satisfied Seinfeld brought another Beetle to Chris’s shop. Chris took the opportunity to ask Seinfeld how he found Classic VW Bugs. Chris says, “Sure enough it was YouTube.”

Chris has posted over 600 videos on YouTube. Every one laser focused on Beetle restoration. He gets over a million hits a month. At times Chris senior will ask his son why he works so hard posting on YouTube. Chris says, “Google searching is the key. I truly believe that if I didn’t do the videos, we wouldn’t have the work.” Twenty percent of Classic VW Bugs business is international, the rest comes primarily from the south and west.” Very little is local.



As the interview approached its conclusion, I called attention to a weathered black VW Bug convertible off on the side that appeared more well used than abused. Chris responded with a look of un-reconciled indecision. Clearly this Bug had a story.

Chris explained, ”It is a 1954 one-owner, all original, numbers matching rare gem. No accidents. Everything lines up perfectly.” Roughly 900 new 1954 Beetles were sold in the U.S. market. Only a few were convertibles.

About five years ago Chris got a call from the son of the original owner. He told Chris that he wanted to sell it, but only wanted it to go to a good home. Chris bought it and has wrestled with its fate ever since. Chris says, “I want to restore it and bring it back to its glory.” But then Chris recognizes that it enjoys a glorious patina and is fundamentally sound enough that, with a little structural work, it can be cleaned up and driven as an original. Chris says that he has always wanted a survivor.

What do you think he should do? Should this be the one? Help Chris make up his mind.

Chris will read your comments.


By |2020-10-29T11:03:09+00:00October 29th, 2020|11 Comments

Cars We Love & Who We Are #11

Motor Trend has “Car of the Year.” Car and Driver has its annual new car “Top Ten” and so on. However, from our standpoint as classic automobile enthusiasts, the staff at Drivin’ News views such awards as akin to bragging about which fresh wine tastes best. At Drivin’ News we honor great car and owner teams with an award that can only be earned over time. Membership in the Drivin’ News Half Century Club recognizes fifty uninterrupted years of owning and operating the same vehicle.

Drivin’ News is proud to induct as a member of the Drivin’ News Half Century Club, New Jersey resident and 1965 Karmann Ghia owner, Mr. Vince Vespe.

Guatemala and back in a Karmann Ghia


To say that Vincent Vespe has wanderlust qualifies as serious understatement. This is a guy who drove a VW beetle from Paris to the Arctic Circle because; well, because he had never been to Lapland.

Vespe, now retired from a career in education that saw him recognized as New Jersey History Teacher of the Year in 1982, holds a firm belief that to excel as a Social Studies teacher requires experiencing the cultures about which one teaches.

Frequently the vehicle for Vespe’s explorations was the 1965 VW Karmann Ghia cabriolet he bought new in 1965 and in 2020 still has, drives and shows.

To Guatemala and back, from New Jersey, in a 1965 Karmann Ghia convertible? For Vespe, no big deal. Actually Vespe made the Guatemala trip twice with his ’65 Karmann Ghia. The first was in 1966 and the second in 1971. For the first trip, in June of 1966, Vespe began driving down the road three days after walking down the aisle.

Vespe’s new bride, Gail, knew Vespe loved to travel. On that sunny day in June the new Mrs. Vespe stood on the brink of learning just how much. On June 22nd 1966 the Vespes began a lifetime together of exploration and adventure punctuated with the rich rewards and disquieting challenges associated with Vespe’s wanderlust.

Looking back Vespe laughs at how he and Gail blissfully ignored conditions that others would find intolerable. Normally they drove with the top down as the Karmann Ghia had no air conditioning. Vespe can recall one especially torrid day traversing the desert in Mexico when the windshield wiper control knob melted. Vespe admits at that point thinking “It’s pretty hot.”

On Padre Island, Texas, the wind blew one of the Karmann Ghia’s doors off its hinges. While camping in Kansas, a flash storm washed their camp site away. Louisiana holds especially vivid memories as they set up camp on a fire ant nest.

Vespe shakes his head with admiration when he recalls that while his Karmann Ghia’s 1965 new car limited warranty only covered 3,000 miles, his first Guatemala trip logged roughly 11,000 miles over 2 months during which the VW performed flawlessly.

Fifty five years later Vespe remains in love with Gail, enthralled with travel and passionate about his 1965 Karmann Ghia.

1977 witnessed Vespe’s VW removed from daily service though it still enjoys being driven frequently. Today it has over 250,000 miles.

Vince takes a trophy, again

By the 1980s tin worm, a serious affliction of all Karmann Ghias, had achieved devastating success in consuming Vespe’s VW. With perforations busting through the headlight buckets Vespe resorted to the NASCAR quick fix. He skillfully molded duct tape around the headlight brows and found a rattle can color that closely matched the original Cherry Red finish. While not exactly a Hill and Vaughn restoration, it did present well enough to transport his daughter to her prom.

With the arrival of the new millennium, Vespe found himself at a crossroads. His Karmann Ghia possessed a special charm but if he did not act and act soon there would be little left of his beloved travelling companion but memories and some red duct tape.

2001 saw Vespe’s VW enter a New Jersey restoration shop for a two-year journey back to like-new condition.

Everything savable was retained and faithfully refurbished to the way it left the Pompton Plains, NJ dealership on June 10th 1965. Except for a Haartz cloth top, Vespe resisted upgrades and enhancements. His re-born cabriolet retained the original 1285 cc 4-cylinder air cooled boxer engine delivering 39 horsepower and 67 lb.ft. of torque. With drum brakes all around, a 4-speed manual gearbox and torsion bar suspension, Vespe’s Karmann Ghia places the driver in a 55-year old driving experience time machine.

Today Vespe, for the most part, limits his Karmann Ghia road adventures to regional car shows primarily in the northeast. With his Karmann Ghia a true crowd pleaser and trophy magnet, Vespe, ever the educator, takes very seriously the importance of instilling an appreciation for the history and human connections associated with his historic VW and with every classic vehicle.

Dealing with younger generations, Vespe believes that the value found in classic vehicles goes far beyond the machines themselves. They convey powerful life lessons as well.

For Vincent Vespe there is no doubt. In reflecting on his life and the 55 years with his Karmann Ghia, Vespe flashes a smile and says, “It’s been a great ride.”

By |2020-10-22T11:32:24+00:00October 22nd, 2020|Comments Off on Cars We Love & Who We Are #11

Conversations With People We Value #10

In 2017 I had written a piece for that celebrated the half century of experiences associated with owning the same 1961 Corvette. It had generated a large number of thoughtful responses. However, none packed the impact of one that would come three years later.

A classic Corvette and a soldier’s old letters connect to a kid brother’s memories



In late July of this year I got an email from friend and Hemmings editor Mark McCourt. He alerted me to a comment that had just been posted to my three-year old story about the 1961 Corvette I had owned since 1967. Normal practice does not have an editor alert a writer about a posted comment.

Reading the comment took my breath away. It’s author was the “kid brother” of a dear friend who had passed away some years ago. The post stated:

“Mr. Hall, my name is John O’Brien. My late brother Maury O’Brien, one of your good friends, used to tell us that you meticulously cared for this car. I’m a car guy and it makes me feel good knowing that a car like that is still being driven and not just a trailer queen! I’d love to see it in person sometime. Feel free to contact me anytime. My cell # is (— ——). Your kind words and funny stories @ Maury’s funeral were very helpful during a difficult time! God bless you and your family!

Maury O’Brien and I had attended high school together. He possessed a wry sense of humor, great athleticism and a gifted eye as a photographer. Our mutual interest in all things photographic would seal our long friendship.

My Corvette made all our road trips a better adventure. With the top down and Wonderbar tube radio doing its best, we made countless trips to the Jersey Shore. On a slow day, we would target anyplace offering a good excuse to run some film through our Nikons.

Maury passed away in 2007 leaving behind a legion of friends and relatives who mourned his passing and celebrated his life. They still do.

John was Maury’s youngest brother, eleven years his junior. When John answered my phone call his voice carried a strong memory of his brother. We talked. We laughed. By the end of the call it was agreed that I would drive my Corvette to his house, certainly doable in an afternoon. He said that we would be joined by Maury’s two other brothers Vince and Gene and John’s 30-year old son, John, who had enjoyed a special relationship with his now departed uncle. They would come from even greater distances. His other brothers had been my friends though not as close as Maury. We had lost touch over the decades.

With John O’Brien

Even for those who have shared their lives together as caring siblings, when one passes, those remaining acquire a ready hunger for details. Somehow new memories in some small way rekindle the freshness of that life as if it still continues to be lived.

Beyond just my car I realized that I needed to bring more. I knew where to look, dusty as it might be. I save old letters.

Personal letters are the messengers of history, possessing great value for loved ones and future generations. I treasure letters. Those I possess include letters authored by a distant relative who wrote on his experiences in “Kansas Bloody Kansas” in the 1850s and the lessons learned during his life prior to and during the Civil War. I have, also, kept Maury’s letters from Vietnam written in the late 1960s.

Each letter provided four or five pages of casual but well composed reports in his voice from the engine room of the southeast Asia war machine. Their content expressed details all at once funny, intensely personal and profound in their worldly perspective.

On a beautiful bright and crisp autumn day, the O’Brien brothers and I gathered at a local restaurant. I immediately recognized old friends viewed through a filter of passing years. We toasted Maury and each in attendance did their best to compress decades of lives well lived into bite size chunks for easy group consumption.

Oldest brother Vince’s effort to recollect sports cars he had owned afforded a perfect segue into introducing Maury’s letters from Vietnam in 1969. In one letter Maury had mentioned Vince’s recent purchase of a 1968 Corvette.

Maury’s letters possessed a signature rhythm and pace. Casual references to friends and events in our hometown and requests for the latest local news would be supplemented with accounts of personal events in his life occurring beneath the tumult of a huge war. He expressed delight at the availability of Nikon camera equipment for roughly half what it would cost back home.

His observations of the world around him in 1969 are worth quoting. He wrote, “I find it hard to believe these people (South Vietnamese) are in a great period of national strife. Life goes on the same for them except the males are donning a uniform and the women work at the army base. They do not appear to know the why and the how of this war. I feel only pity for them. The only hope for a finish to this stupid thing will be an increase in pressure in North Vietnam to bring this thing to an end. At that point and that point only will the peace talks become fruitful.”

Every letter would concludes with an honest expression of need for written contact from home.

The day after meeting with Maury’s brothers I received a note from John. He wrote, “Hey Burton, thanks again for bringing the car up and sharing the letters. If you find any more letters, please let me know. My wife and I got kind of emotional reading the letters again last night. Maury was a Very Special Man! The connection between you, Maury, and that car is forever!

Clearly, both classic cars and personal letters provide vehicles capable of transporting us to good places.

By |2020-10-08T10:28:51+00:00October 5th, 2020|8 Comments

Conversations With People We Value #9

A shout out to all of the past members of my pandemic interrupted “Collectible automobiles as a passion” class who donned masks and gathered at Paul’s Motors in Hawthorne, New Jersey last Thursday. An eclectic collection of superior classic automobiles together with a stack of pizzas made for a great night and reminded all, how much we miss getting together. And now on to this week’s story.


Elaine and I take great pleasure in avoiding major interstates when travelling through unfamiliar territory. The rewards of the “road not taken” memorialized by poet Robert Frost have been reinforced time and again in our travels. A few years ago seeking a back way to Charlotte, North Carolina put us on a wonderful well paved two-lane that meandered through rolling farmland and woods. While the road merits inclusion in “Roads We Remember,” the man we met at the end of the road makes this story a “Conversation With People We Value.”

American Pickers meets Hunger Games on a country road



A picturesque ribbon of highway, Route 742 weaved through the rural Piedmont region of North Carolina. My personal directional instincts fortified by happenstance, hope and blind luck (We don’t need no stinkin’ GPS) had once again struck pay dirt.

Route 742 would be transporting us on a picturesque and untroubled journey to my favorite destination, “somewhere else.” Encouraged by Elaine’s child-like delight in the joys of being hopelessly lost, we reveled in this open expanse of rural America dotted with healthy farms and infrequent villages that populated this handsome country road.

The striking pristine cleanliness and order of one small community we passed through piqued our interest. We were later told that a local son who had gone off to make his fortune had done just that. The story went that with gratitude for his upbringing he returned to invest in revitalizing his home town. Whether true or not, I had chosen to believe.

Slowing to the end of this idyllic blue highway and poised to leave behind this land of lovely hamlets, an amazing sight entered our view. Before our wondering eyes should appear (Yes, I know, I stole the line but it just fit so well) what could only be described as the land of Oz for pickers and automobilia enthusiasts. And, we were about to meet a real wizard.

Locked gates barred access to acres of open land filled with an incredible array of tangible relics saved from long ago. Affixed to the gate a large “For Sale” sign offered a number for anyone interested. Driving on with this treasure trove of who-knows-what disappearing behind us, we both looked at each other and said, “Let’s call.” By the time we got back to the gate it was open.

A breathtaking and eclectic array of stuff, great, rare, fun stuff laid strewn about, sequestered in trailers, displayed in open barns and housed in closed buildings. Signage dating back as far as 80 years displayed iconic brands with names that now recede into history. Standard Oil, ESSO, Texaco, Sinclair, Gulf signs and more populated walls and hung from original poles just as they did many decades ago. WWII fighter drop tanks, post war cars and trucks, a cluster of Volkswagens, Air Stream trailers, phone booths, motorcycles and farm combines all of various vintages and states of condition filled our field of vision.

Approaching us with an easy gate, a full bodied man, an avuncular sort greeted us with a friendly welcome delivered with that unhurried regional tone of the Southeast that reminds one that it’s not New Jersey. He introduced himself as Mike Hinson. With a neatly trimmed beard, and a neighborly smile, Mike with his wide brimmed hat and clean bib overalls presented an image of a proprietor rather than a laborer.

While everything was for sale, Mike walked us around projecting the unhurried air of a docent rather than a salesman. Indeed, his demeanor perfectly matched the extraordinary collection amassed in his near forty years of running a business from the store his grandfather built in the early 1900s. With family roots that traced back over a century, Mike’s business in this little town of Red Cross, North Carolina with its 742 residents brimmed not only with artifacts but history as well.

Though soft spoken and deliberate in speech and manner, one suspected that Mike had a keen country mind when conducting business. Walking through the acres of breathtaking remnants from times gone by, Mike explained how he conducted most of his business at major antique and collectibles shows down the eastern seaboard from Pennsylvania to Florida.

He possessed a fondness for Hershey in the fall that did not extend to Carlisle in any season. “I stopped going to Carlisle some years ago. It just seems that Hershey offers a far greater opportunity to sell items to buyers interested in the unusual or rare,” said Mike.

For this article I took the opportunity to attempt to  follow-up with Mike. With a twinge of trepidation, I called the number from the sign in a photograph. A lot can happen over a few years. Two rings and Mike answered. We talked. We laughed. Yes, Mike said, the business was pretty much the same. Something inside me felt so deep down good that something so distinctively unique, quirky and vulnerable to “progress” had remained as I had remembered it.

As a purveyor of the rare and unusual, the large and fascinating and the historic and authentic, it should be no surprise that Mike has drawn the attention of both Hollywood and Madison Avenue for movies, commercials and reality programming. “I guess the best known film that they propped from here would be the ‘Hunger Games’,” says Mike. He continues, “They rented a lot of rusty stuff. He does not  seem overly interested in the film productions that come to peruse his period correct or unusual items. “Frankly,” Mike says, “My wife Ellen and I don’t go to the movies.” But they do watch television especially when Mike appears, as he did on an episode of “American Pickers.”

Say’s Mike, “They must have spent a full eight hours here to get the 10 minutes of film they ultimately wanted.” Mike really enjoyed working with Mike Wolfe.  “Appearing on American Pickers gave me the best advertising in the world and it did not cost me a penny,” says Mike.

When asked what items were purchased for the show, Mike says, “I had a 1930’s Bowlus Road Chief camper that they really, really liked. I had bought it a few weeks earlier and they wanted it very badly.” Mike Wolfe messed around with me all day long about that camper,” says Mike. Finally with the shooting day fast coming to a close Mike Wolfe says, “I know you do not want to sell it, but just give me your price.” “Okay, said Mike, “ I’ll take 75.”  Mike Wolfe reached out to shake Mike’s hand as Mike Wolfe  said, “I’ll take it for $7,500.” Mike responded, “No Man, It’s $75,000.”

1930s Bowlus Road Chief

Apparently that exchange provided a highlight for that episode and merits a periodic flashback on the show.

When asked to name his all time favorite item across his acres and through the decades Mike without hesitation identifies his 1930s Bowlus Road Chief camper, the “no sale” item that had so disappointed Mike Wolfe. A gleaming riveted aluminum projectile with the aerodynamics of an airliner, it was the creation of aircraft designer William Hawley Bowlus in the 1930s. Bowlus greatest fame came not from his work with campers but with aircraft. He designed and built the Spirit of St. Louis that carried Charles Lindbergh to eternal fame.

When asked if he still had the Bowlus camper, Mike says no. He sold it to a buyer in the Midwest. When asked if he regretted not taking Mike Wolfe’s offer, Mike provided a polite “not at all” with the quiet confidence of a man who knows everything has a price and the patience to await the buyer who will pay it.

I asked Mike if the “for sale” sign that I had seen years back remained on the gate. “Yes, I probably get a call a week,” Mike says, “When I tell them my price, they don’t want to talk anymore. I’m in no hurry.”


If you found the story of Mr. Mike, as he is known locally, interesting, check the three links below.

  1. American Pickers
  2. Mike Hinson by Josh Swope
  3. Drone video by Aerial Outlook



By |2020-10-01T11:33:42+00:00October 1st, 2020|4 Comments