Monthly Archives: March 2022


Conversations With People We Value #33

While driving north along Virginia Route 29 I spotted a forest richly populated with orphaned trucks from the 1950s. I quickly pulled over to a clean white two-bay shop that resided on the high ground above the forest. A hand lettered sign identified the business as Melvin’s Used Cars. I drove up in the hope of finding Melvin and asking, “What’s your story?”

Well groomed and neatly attired in crisp work clothes, the man I came to know as Mel stood by an open bay. Friendly and engaging, Mel indeed had a story. He had a field of old cars that once numbered almost 500. Interestingly when I expressed my interest in writing his story, Mel repeatedly redirected the conversation to his friend R. J. Pinto who he clearly felt had better stories. As luck would have it, in mid-sentence Mel yelled, “It’s him. It’s Pinto,” as R. J. Pinto pulled in off the highway. In short order it would become evident that Mel’s story would be written another day as I was about to meet Pinto. And, now, so are you.

Drank with Arlo, Dated Alice, Tuned Evel’s motorcycle and much more. They call him Pinto.

Pinto and Mel

Pinto bundles the vigor of a colorful yarn spinner in an 85-year old, burly, gregarious, engaging and earthy package. Pinto still communicates the vitality of a young man who savors grabbing life by the horns. At the same time he reflects on life with a mellowed perspective and insights refined through eight decades of having ones heart and soul polished by the abrading rapids encountered while navigating the river of life.

A brief introduction by Mel tees up what will be a fast moving morning of storytelling. Belying Pinto’s approaching 86th birthday his memories possess a crispness that brings them to life. Being on the receiving end of Pinto’s rapid fire delivery feels like taking a drink from a fire hose.

Born in Middletown, New York, Pinto, a Korean War Veteran, began a lifelong love for all things motorcycle in the 1950s. It would be an affection that would lead down many paths and involve him in iconic events of the 20th century American culture.

In the 1960s his passion for motorcycles brought him to a little restaurant called “The Back Room” in Stockbridge, Massachusetts. Purchased by the owner in 1966, it could be found around the back “just a half-mile from the railroad track.” In American culture The Back Room is more fondly remembered as “Alice’s Restaurant.”

He and his motorcycle racing buddies knew the owner, Alice Brock, and Pinto says, “As a group we all comprised a family.” That family had celebrated Thanksgiving in 1965 at the de-consecrated Trinity Church in Great Barrington, Massachusetts that Alice had bought for her home in 1964.

Trinity Church 1966

Pinto’s motorcycle family grew out of his very successful racing career on dirt tracks east of the Mississippi. If he ever chose to have a trophy room, Pinto would have had no trouble filling it with the trophies from over 100 wins.

Pinto with a great affection for the Triumph motorcycles with which he competed says, “Scrambling on dirt was in the DNA of Triumph. Back in the 60s Triumph-powered machines dominated.” His is, indeed, a deep affection. He has kept the Triumph he raced for over 50 years. He says, “My Triumph TT (Tourist Trophy model) has been very good to me.”

The paths of Pinto’s dirt track racing and Alice’s Restaurant intersected in the mid-1960s at the Trinity Church.

Pinto says, “I had done a lot of racing in the Schenectady area. One track in particular, a beautiful track with a little chicane and a jump I found especially friendly.” The tracks friendly environment and Pinto’s showmanship bred a family of supporters that became the Trinity Racing Association. Pinto says, “Alice’s, then husband, Ray Brock and I designed the logo for the Trinity Racing Association that consisted of a yellow circle, red triangle and infinity sign representing the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Away from the track, the epicenter of team member activity centered on the communal environs of Alice Brock’s Trinity Church home.

Life Magazine   Top – Ray Brock    Middle – Pinto    Bottom – Doug Campbell    Standing Jimmy J.

Pinto says, “I made many friends, many of whom I still know till this day.” On one especially big racing day they all decided to come see Pinto race. Pinto says, “I happen to win that day. So I handed Alice the checkered flag and she hopped on the back of the bike for the victory lap.

Husband Ray taught a shop class and Alice was the school librarian at a local boarding school. Pinto says, “They were gifted creative people.” Being who they were, they attracted a number of students who shared their idealism and their creativity. Arlo Guthrie was one of them.”

Son of American folk legend Woody Guthrie, Arlo graduated from high school in Stockbridge in 1965. After a brief stint in  college, Arlo returned to the Berkshires in November of 1965. He stayed with his friends, Ray and Alice, at the church during the Thanksgiving holidays. A holiday celebration that will forever be memorialized in song.

Alice Brock & Arlo Guthrie

Sometime during the span between the 1965 Thanksgiving dinner at the church and Arlo Guthrie’s July 16th, 1967 Newport folk Festival live performance of his opus, Alice had called Pinto to come to dinner to meet a young friend of hers named Arlo Guthrie. Pinto says, “I had no idea who Arlo Guthrie was.” At the time I saw a young kid making a living as a troubadour traveling around the country hitchhiking and playing all the café’s and bars in New York and wherever else he could make a few bucks.

Once Guthrie’s monster hit captured the public’s attention the family members peaceable life would be forever changed. Among others Alice would resent her unwanted fame and divorce her husband, Ray. Pinto would find work in the movies.

Pinto played himself in Alice’s Restaurant, the movie, having parts in scenes of the motorcycle race and getting a tattoo. In the process he developed a good relationship with director Arthur Penn. Out of that relationship came other film work involving motorcycles with the likes of Sean Connery and Clint Eastwood.

By early 1969, Pinto and Alice had become a couple. Eight months later the Alice’s Restaurant experience would peak with the release of the movie. Pinto would appear in 1969 issues of Life Magazine and Playboy that profiled the Alice’s Restaurant family. August 18th Woodstock had exploded on the global consciousness. August 19th “Alice’s Restaurant” the movie appeared in studios across America. A week later Pinto and Alice left their relationship behind and entered a friendship that continues today.

Pinto racing his Triumph at age 79

In the early 1970s Pinto had moved on to owning a motorcycle tuning operation. Called North Bergen Cycle Shop in Mahwah, NJ it specialized in building and rebuilding motors and optimizing motorcycles for the owner’s intended use. With some humility Pinto says, “If somebody came in with their BSA, Triumph, Harley, Ducati, whatever, if they came in and said I want this set-up to do such and such, make it magic, they came to the right guy.” Fifty years later and now living in rural Virginia, Pinto continues to tune the motorcycles brought to him from far and wide. Pinto smiling with the honest confidence of experience says, “I am still the right guy.”

This brings us to Pinto’s dealings with Evel Knievel. Pinto recalls a man entering North Bergen Cycle in the 1970. Pinto says, “This guy comes walking into my shop. He was a perfect gentleman. He was very honest. He was very honorable. I really liked him.” Evel Kneivel’s manager, through his connections in the motorcycle world had come to Pinto to have Kneivel’s bikes tuned for jumps he would be doing in New Jersey and Pennsylvania. Pinto says, “For me this recognition ranked high on my list of professional “WOW” moments.” Pinto said yes. Shortly thereafter a monstrous Peterbilt decked out in striking red, white and blue Evel Kneivel art thundered into his parking lot.

Up until then Kneivel had used Harley Davidsons and then Triumphs for his jumps. No more. Out of the Peterbilt rolled  seven brand new Laverda 750cc American Eagle Model motorcycles. Pinto says, “They were a very well built high quality Italian motorcycle. I just did everything to assure that they were right on spec. My job demanded that I go over every nut and bolt. The Laverdas were a beautifully designed and built motorcycle. My job was to make sure each delivered peak performance.”

Evel Kneivel after crashing at Pocono Raceway

After being so impressed by Kneivel’s manager, Pinto admits to finding Kneivel to be a rather arrogant and unpleasant individual. Pinto says, “Maybe I just caught him when he was having a few bad days.”

Pinto, in recalling Kneivel’s jump attempt at Pocono Raceway ended in a terrible crash resulting in serious injury says, “ He missed the jump and wiped out. I could not help but think of his reputation as a heavy drinker.” It was documented that before every jump Kneivel would take a shot of Wild Turkey for good luck. Sometimes it would be two or three shots if he felt the need for extra luck. “Maybe this time the extra shots brought bad luck,”says Pinto.

In reflecting Pinto says, “What is the saying, If you love what you do it is never work. My life and my profession, in large part revolved around my passion for motorcycles. All those involved with my passion I loved and continue to do so.”

Pinto concludes motioning towards Mel saying, “Mel here shares my passion. I love him like a brother. I am blessed.”


By |2022-03-31T11:35:20+00:00March 31st, 2022|6 Comments

Cars We Love And Who We Are #25

My eye had first been caught by a two-tone 1962 pickup truck version of the T1 VW Bus. Resting in a bed of dead weeds, it resided in a distant field far below my rural mountain road vantage point. However, while the iconic VW held my primary interest, my inability to identify the pair of battered Porsche-like sports cars accompanying the VW on that overgrown field began to gnaw at me.

I had to go back for the story. Little did I know the extent of the story that awaited me.

Mr. Thomas’s forest of old Porsches, VW buses and more

Cameron Thomas and his 1962 VW pickup

My determination took me down to the base of the steep slope in search of answers and access to the, apparently, once loved but now forlorn trio. I snaked my way along a narrow descending dirt road that brought the field closer. Arriving at a rustic country home, I sought someone capable of answering the question ”what’s the story behind the orphans in the field?”

Met by a pleasant woman with a phone to her ear, I explained my interest in abandoned classic vehicles for a Drivin’ News story. She forthrightly explained that her husband owned the cars and he would have all the answers to any questions I might have.  She directed her attention to the phone and then back to me. He would be waiting in their large hay field down the road, she explained.

As I rumbled down the dusty gravel access road that traversed the hay field, a moldering but quite complete 1963 Buick Riviera and a distressed T2 VW van came into view. I sensed that there would be much more to the story than I had anticipated.

A walk in the woods

There waiting to greet me, stood master stone mason Cameron Thomas. A slender wiry man who, though in his late 70s, possessed a handshake like a leather skinned vice that left no doubt that he remained quite active in the day to day operation of his stone business. With a ready smile, a quick wit and an easy southern accent, Cameron said, “My wife tells me you have an interest in cars.” Then, with a friendly gesture he directed me toward a wide path into the nearby forest. Cameron said, “You might find this interesting.” Interesting indeed.

We turned our backs to the Riviera and VW van, both left for later discussion and moved into the woods on a single lane width trail. Early on, the view through the leafless trees of a forest in winter showed glimpses of shapes and colors that hinted at what awaited. Shortly thereafter, the path widened to reveal my first glimpse of multiple clearings where an eclectic array of vehicles possessing a heavy German accent lay strewn about the landscape.

Porsches of numerous flavors, VW Westfalias, Beetles, and Rabbits together with a sprinkling of British sports cars and a stray Jeep, all in various states of disrepair and degeneration populated the woodscape.

Staring at this assemblage, it appeared to be the land where air-cooled and German vehicles came to die.

Cameron explained that he began amassing his collection of over sixty automobiles about 50 years ago. Back then in his 20s he had formulated a retirement plan that called for accumulating desirable automobiles with the intention of building a workshop where, when he had the time, he would refurbish the cars and sell them.

Cameron admits to being partial to air-cooled German cars. He says, “ The air-cooled stuff was more of what I was looking for. My interest kind of transformed into a hobby.”

Many of the cars came to Cameron in good or at least running condition. So what happened? When asked the 64 thousand dollar question “why were they left outside,” Cameron says, “With the demands of my business, I never got around to building the workshop and we were too busy buying to do any selling. If a car experienced a problem, there always was a place for it in the woods.” With Cameron owning a large expanse of fields and woodlands there clearly existed an element of out of sight out of mind.

T-Boned Westfalia

Entering the opening in the woods a battered 1972 Type 2 VW Westfalia greets us. Cameron explains that he purchased it and together with his son Jon refurbished it for Jon’s high school transportation. Leaving school one winter day Jon fired up the Westfalia and without letting it warm up made a dash to leave the school parking lot in front of a school bus that was descending from a good way up a hill. Cameron says, “My son made his move and made it to the middle of the road when the cold engine stalled. After leaving a 70-foot skid mark the bus T-boned the VW on the driver’s side.” The energy of impact delivered a blow sufficient to deposit some of the chrome letters from the hood of the bus onto the VW’s front seat. As for his son, he walked away with a few bruises. Lucky kid.

Next to the Westfalia a 1984 928 Porsche, one of two Cameron has accumulated, had a history of outrunning the local Corvettes. Cameron says, “It had a good bit of work done on the engine.” Cameron drove it for a year or so around 2005. In thinking back he says, “I can’t really think of a good excuse for parking it in 2007.”

Behind the 928 can be found the T2 Westfalia that Cameron bought right after his son’s accident. He says it was a good driver, that it was pretty much complete, including the original interior, when he bought it in 1980. It has sat unmoved in the woods since Cameron bought it.

Moving to our right brought us to another Werstfalia. Camerson acquired it in 2000 and except for winters drove it fairly regularly. Then after sitting for the winter of early 2005, he sought to fire it up in the spring of 2005. The engine locked up. Banishment to the woods quickly followed. On the plus side it remains a Westfalia with a solid and an original interior. On the down side, some windows are broken or gone and it features first class spider webs.

Cameron and his row of 944s

At this point evidence of a clear pattern has taken shape. It appears any vehicle that suffers failure merits banishment to the Cameron Thomas forest trail.

The fate of Cameron’s five 944 Porsches gives strong substantiation to the one strike and your out in the woods theory.

Arrayed in a neat row of five 944s, the first and last in line rated as good drivers when purchased. Others came from junkyards or the garages of people who had given up on their restoration.

One of the 944s had jumped the camshaft and bent all of the valves. Cameron and friends removed the head and reassembled the engine. When they fired it up as Cameron says, “It started screeching like a banshee and that was that. We must have missed a bent part in our rebuild.”

1963 Buick Riviera

Upon returning to the hay field, I asked about the Buick Riviera. Purchased in the early 1970s, Cameron says, “It was in good unrestored condition and a fine driving vehicle. Up until he had bought it the Buick had never spent a night outside of the garage.

What happened? Apparently that Buick had a two-piece drive shaft with a center U-joint. The U-joint went bad. Cameron says, “At the time I had a great deal of difficulty finding a replacement. By the time I found one my interest in the Riviera had passed.” The Riviera has sat ever since.

As we approached the end of the abandoned car trail of tears a 1963 Willy’s Jeep came into view. Cameron had come found it in Florida years back and trailered it back to Virginia. It has spent considerable time in the woods. Cameron says, “It is solid with less than fifty thousand miles on it.”

Chalon re-body

And at last we come to the trio that initially captured my attention. The two sports cars left for dead in the field are two Chalon rebodied 1972 914 Porsches. The brainchild of a California parts distributor, the Chalon kit imparted a 914 with a more aggressive slant nose presence.

The engines in Cameron’s two Chalon 914s remain 4-cylinder but brakes and suspension components reflect significant upgrades. Both cars ran strong when purchased and Cameron drove both with pleasure until the large tree fell crushing both.

Interestingly the most functional and except for his 1941 International military truck the oldest in Cameron’s collection is his 1962 T1 VW pickup. Purchased in 1985 the pickup features a 1600 cc beetle engine, upgraded brakes and a later transmission. Unlike its brethren in Cameron’s collection, with current antique vehicle tags, this VW stands poised to hit the road.

In honest reflection Cameron realizes his retirement plan, like a garden untended, took on a life of its own. He admits that he didn’t appreciate how much the cars would deteriorate over time.

1963 Willys Jeep

Now what? At this point Cameron says, “My son has made it clear that he does not want to live on a junk yard. He would like to see everything gone except the orange VW Westfalia we purchased to replace the one T-boned by the school bus.” Cameron acknowledges that there will be some head butting between he and his son on the issue. Cameron also accepts reality, saying “I accept that they need to go. I’m not going to live long enough to work on them all now.” Of the sixty he accumulated he has sold twenty. He says all are available. Anyone with a serious interest can contact him by email ( When asked if he could only restore one of his cars which would he choose, interestingly he chooses the 1963 Willys Jeep. He says, “It is solid and simple which translates into an ideal candidate for refurbishing.”

Having seen a lot in his 78 years, Cameron in his easy southern way and with a reflective knowing smile says, “Time takes its toll. It comes along slow, but it is always coming.”

By |2022-03-23T01:57:58+00:00March 18th, 2022|10 Comments

Roads We Remember #10

With interstates fading in the rear view mirror and blue highways taking their place, complex pinks and oranges paint the sky as the sinking sun of the fading afternoon ushers my driving day to a close. As I descend from Virginia’s Skyline Drive, my journey comes to rest in the bucolic embrace of Nelson County, Virginia. Tomorrow promises to be sunny and unseasonably warm as I seek a taste of the car culture of the Shenandoah Valley.


Taking the Skyline Drive to explore the dusty attic of Virginia car culture

Exiting at the southern end of  Virginia’s Skyline Drive and proceeding down the east face of the Blue Ridge Mountains introduces a beautiful tangle of serpentine two-lanes, some paved, some gravel. Welcome to Nelson County.

Delivering a delightful shock to a bored suburban driver’s system, Nelson County possesses a wealth of wonderful roads and a dearth of stop lights. The whole of Nelson County contains exactly one (yes, 1) traffic light.

For those of us whose daily driving environment consists of thoroughfares that, for the most part, resemble a transposed graph paper grid, which is what they basically are, the whole of this region of Virginia pretty much presents itself as a Disney World for people who fantasize about driving on one grand “Tail of the dragon.” Great roads with character and curves, old barns, abandoned buildings, and, it is said, lots of nice stuff tucked away and cared for.

Recreation and agriculture in the form of logging and vineyards dominate the area. No belching factories here. Rich in history as well, historically significant Civil War sites populate the area as does the shadow of Thomas Jefferson with Monticello and the University of Virginia in close proximity.

Virginia’s Skyline Drive

For enjoying Skyline Drive, summer with its lush foliage and autumn with its spectacular colors seems the no-brainer choice for a visit. That said, should one chose to tour in winter, the roads unless closed because of snow, offer a sparse beauty unavailable in other seasons. With trees free of leaves and roads free of tourists, stunning vistas otherwise hidden in high season exist aplenty. Gateway to the Blue Ridge Mountains Virginia’s Skyline Drive offers a very tasty driving appetizer to enjoy prior to the Blue Ridge Parkway entre.

Wherever you drive on these narrow mostly shoulderless country roads, folks outside their homes that dot a terrain defined by fields and forest wave and, unlike my home state, New Jersey, they wave with all the fingers on one hand. Indeed, the locals exhibit a down-home country openness that causes one to pause and wish it caught on elsewhere.

If one chooses to start the day with no itinerary, an eager curiosity and a full tank of gas or electrons, discoveries await for those in no rush to find them. On this day the blue highways did not disappoint.

While enjoying an easy cruise through a forested stretch, an opening within the trees revealed an abandoned service station. Exploring behind the “high security” torn and flapping tarp where a bay door once existed revealed a passage way to two more bays. Despite the stacked mounds of tires it did not take long to identify a heavily dust covered 60s Camaro. Old plates showed it to have been in residence for quite a while.

At a quiet intersection a rusted and dilapidated 1957 Chevy Bel Air sat askew and forlorn. Not a part remained that could be used. But there it rested, too worthless to save to precious to junk. Dust to dust.

To the side of a dirt farm road, a long forgotten early 1950s Plymouth Savoy clearly fared the worst in a face off with a falling tree. A sunny field on Rt. 151 appeared to be where, years back, 1952 two-door Fords went to die.

Earlier in the morning a glance to the right revealed an expansive meadow where an agrarian windmill towered over the rusted remains of a trio of hulks from the 1930’s and 40s. For the uninitiated, one or two of the carcasses could spark the tinder of restoration dreams. For those possessing restoration history and the skinned knuckles to prove it, wisdom would counsel to keep on driving.

However, simply looking would not satisfy the hunger for a backstory. Further investigation demanded turning onto the gravel driveway that lead to a sturdy fieldstone structure surrounded by an eclectic array of once useful items sadly past their “use by” date.

Plymouth Savoy

Gravel crackling beneath the tires drew into view from behind the open back hatch of a 2002 Ford Explorer the man who called this home. Sporting a badly weathered narrow brim cowboy hat, with a lined face worthy of a Dorothea Lange portrait and the animated presence of comedian Professor Irwin Corey, 62-year old David Matheny could not have been more welcoming. Approaching, he offered an easy grin accompanied by a firm and honest handshake.

Resident of this verdant valley his whole life, David spoke with an energetic ease about himself, friends, family and cars. When asked if those rusted hulks belonged to him he responded, “They are for sale.”

Learning that the interested expressed focused on their value as for a story, he asked, “If you are interested in cars want to see some more?” Absolutely shot back the reply.

1939 International Panel truck

Directing me inside the stone structure, he opened a door to a garage containing a very clean burgundy 1940 Ford coupe and a 1939 International panel truck in primer that had been a hearse for a local church years back. Having found common ground and

a ready listener, David held forth on stories including a family classic involving a 1931 model roadster that his father had raced over sixty years ago. It remained in the family and presently resided at his nephew’s speed shop undergoing a restoration. Time sped on and David had people to meet. The sound of gravel crunching under departing tires marked the end of a wonderful history lesson.

For some it can be disquieting to have the rapid passage of time abruptly brought to one’s attention e.g. discovering that a car you personally drove when new now merits being judged at Hershey by the AACA. Much the same can be said for forty and fifty-year old future collectibles spotted in fields and under canopies. They too can be found moldering in the verdant hills of Virginia. Interestingly, they now include a distinctively foreign flavor.

While making a steep climb in Nelson County a causal glance down to the valley below revealed a field with a decidedly European flair.  Exposed to the elements, a Type 1 VW pick-up and two faux Porsche 914s slowly oxidized. Apparently left for dead, the VW pickup generated an especially strong lingering desire to find some way down that steeped ravine.

Meandering vigilantly, can enrich a blue highway experience that others, not predisposed to savor, might blow by like a subway between stops. That said, all worthy discoveries are not the exclusive province of interesting vehicles alone. People and places greatly enrich the blue highway experience.

Cruising along through the town of Schuyler brought a Model T pickup into view and with it the home of author Earl Hamner. Strike a bell? He wrote Spencer’s Mountain which television turned into “The Waltons.” Next door to Hamner’s home and across the street from the Walton’s museum could be found a handsome Bed & Breakfast displaying a period correct 1931 Model.

Conversations with local folks always explores the names of knowledgeable car enthusiasts with whom to speak. One name, Dick Carroll, came up with regularity. Reaching out resulted in a meeting with Dick and his friend Don Vey, both retired. Dick and Don possess a real fascination for special interest automobiles. A number of years back Don pursued his passion by diving head first into full restorations.

1949 Baby Lincoln Coupe Restomod

He first focused on a  1938 Buick and subsequently moved on to 1949 Baby Lincolns which came in three models, 2 Door Coupe, 4-Door Sedan and Convertible. He has one of each. He intends to recreate each as a pristine restomod. The Coupe has been completed. Built from 1949 to 1951, Baby Lincolns shared their basic body style with the Mercury of that period. What made it a Lincoln came from the firewall forward. Dick’s plan for putting his stamp on the baby Lincolns calls for a high performance power train. All three will have Corvette LS motors.

Beyond his own cars Dick has a grander vision. He appreciates not only his vehicles but those of a wealth of classic car enthusiasts in the surrounding area. To celebrate those like-minded individuals he hosts a car show on his property that looks like a mini-Amelia Island. This will be his seventh show. Covid cancelled last year.

Car Show at Dick Carroll’s

Don Vey enjoys a vintage car history starting in the early fifties. Over the years he has owned and restore a wide array of classic cars starting with a 1957 Corvette he bought in 1959. While his years of restoring and collecting have been a source of joy, they have taken a toll as well. Working with toxic paints has left him at the age of 82 dependent on a portable oxygen supply. While this may have diminished his ability to work on cars he loves, it has had no effect on the joy he derives from driving them. He came to the meeting driving a Zeus Bronze Metallic C8 Corvette. Pushing 495 horsepower with the Z51 performance package it does 0 – 60 mph in under 3.0 seconds. “God I love great cars,” Don says.

Sitting in at the Side Bar

After the last day of exploration, I looked for a local watering hole to toast the good fortune of my experiences. Passing through Lovingston, Virginia, I found a pub called the Side Bar that on this evening invited local musicians for an Open Mic Night. Another great surprise. The musicianship on display excelled. These guys could play, mostly country. Then they moved on to the blues. I always bring my harps to relax on blue highway adventures. No harp players had come to back these guys up. The energy felt so right, I asked to sit in. They welcomed me.

Apparently, at least at the Side Bar, there are no strangers in Lovingston, only friends you had not yet met.



By |2022-03-03T13:38:29+00:00March 3rd, 2022|2 Comments