Monthly Archives: March 2023


Cars We Love & Who We Are #35

Amazingly, country roads exist even within sight of the Empire State Building which towers less than twenty miles from my home in Northern New Jersey. One Sunday, while meandering about with no particular place to go, I stumbled upon a surprisingly bucolic tangle of local wiggle roads. The driving delight they afforded momentarily sparked a gnawing distress at the joy to be lost with the coming age of automated cars. I quickly dismissed the thought opting for feigned ignorance and the associated bliss.

Navigating through a one-lane railroad underpass delivered me to a truly rural time capsule. Before me stood a farm with, what would prove to be, two centuries of history and the resting place for a century old chain-drive Mack truck.

That is how I came to meet Jim Van Houten of  Van Houten Farms in Pearl River, New York.

Hundred-Year old Bulldog, Beloved but doomed?

Van Houten’s 1925 Mack AC

Jim Van Houten’s 1925 Mack AC, while standing tall and proud displays deep scars and brutal decay from the ravages of decades spent untended though not unloved. Certainly no one loves that truck more than Jim. As Jim gazes at the truck he radiates a sense of wistful resignation. An acknowledgement of forces at work and the meaning of dust to dust.

Jim Van Houten with 1925 Mack AC

Jim’s trim physique and forthright demeanor belie his 78-years. While every inch a farmer, Jim arrived at his life’s work on the farm following a few years spent in corporate America. His background includes a B.S. in agriculture and an MBA, both from Cornell.

Jim says, “Today there are only three farms left in this county. Ours is one of them.” However, the pressures to keep his farm alive offer an ever present challenge. Jim says, “While individuals seem to love visiting the local farm, local governments appear incapable of appreciating the farm’s value to a community.” Town bureaucrats frequently seem intent on turning the farm into a prize for some large developer to exploit.

Much of that which Jim holds dear seems under attack, often by what feels like inexorable forces. Maybe that 100-year old truck Jim loves stands as a metaphor for the 200-year old farm that he holds so dear.

Jim possesses a profound appreciation and respect for the farm and the land that holds much family history dating back to 1812. He considers that Mack as a part of that family saga. Its kind certainly represents a vehicle that played an important role in America’s success during the early 20th century in both peace and war.


The Mack AC resides in the pantheon of important vehicles based on its decades of service as a rugged, reliable and tireless workhorse capable of successfully transporting loads and performing jobs where other trucks failed. It earned legendary respect on the WWI battlefields of Europe where it delivered medical aid, vital supplies and critical replacements despite deep mud, horribly rutted roads and shell-pocked battlefields that barred the efforts of other trucks.

According to the Mack Museum, during World War 1 Mack shipped over 2,000 trucks to Great Britain. The story goes that Mack got its “Bulldog” name from the British soldiers with whom the Mack trucks had earned enormous respect for their ability to do what other trucks could not. When the British troops faced a difficult truck challenge, the cry would be, “Aye, send in the Mack bulldogs.” Mack management loved the name and embraced it. The rest is marketing history. The Mack AC enjoys the respect and love of not just Jim but a global population who it loyally served for over a half-century.

Brought to the market in 1916, the Mack AC a two-wheel drive, two-axle truck had, for then, a husky 4-cylinder gasoline engine delivering 69-horsepower through a three-speed manual transmission. In an age of horses, a rugged vehicle that could dependably carry up to seven and one-half tons on solid rubber tires at speeds approaching 20 mph represented a quantum leap. The Mack AC’s legendary chassis earned its reputation for rugged endurance with a pressed chrome-nickel steel construction heat treated for durability. In the early 20th century the Mack AC reigned as the big dog. Out of production in the 1930s, Mack ACs could still be seen on the job in the 1950s, even the 1960s.

Jim’s truck began its service under the ownership of a fellow farmer and family friend of his grandfather. Back in the 1930s his grandfather would take the Mack loaded with corn into wholesale farmers markets in New York City much as Jim, today, still brings produce into the Union Square Farmers Market. Silent and still, the old Mack AC witnesses Jim in his 21st century truck whenever he departs for the city.

At some point in the 1940s the friend had bought property upstate. By the 1950s Jim’s dad began working the land the friend left behind. Jim says, “I remember going to that farm in the 1950s and seeing the Mack sitting in the old barn.”

Some years later in the 1960s Jim’s dad traded an old John Deere Model A tractor for the 1925 Mack AC and all the family history it contained. With quizzical reflection Jim says, “Then we let the Mack sit there unmoved for more years.” Finally in the early 70s Jim with college and his corporate experience behind him returned to run the Van Houten farm. With that, the resurrection of history and the old Mack AC appeared to commence.

At last Jim took charge and brought the Mack over to the Van Houten Farm Nursery and produce retail site. On staff Jim recalls a young employee adept at all things mechanical. Jim set him loose on the truck and recalls saying, “He got the darn thing running. I actually drove it around the neighborhood.” Being late in the season, the truck went behind the farm stand for the winter. Jim recalls saying, “With winter coming the mechanic drained everything.” Jim then winces saying, “At least we thought he did. It did not drain completely.” When spring came a big crack had developed at the bottom of the radiator. Jim says, “I do not believe the engine suffered any damage.”

Sadly, the truck then sat in back for more years. Finally as the 1970s came to a close Jim had the truck towed to the front of the farm stand to serve as a decoration. It has again performed its designated task without complaint for over 40 years. Jim says, “I feel terrible that I’ve just let it sit there and literally just rust away.” Over the years many people have offered to buy the truck. Jim says, “I feel bad that it has not gone to somebody who could restore it. Even today it is still restorable.”

During the interview Jim has reflected more than once saying, “The chronological clock is ticking.” Much of his considerable remaining energy has been focused on literally saving the Van Houten Farm. That said, his deep affection for his Mack AC tugs at his heart. When asked, “In the best of all possible worlds” what would you want to see happen to the truck? Jim says, “I would love to have it restored on site but this is the real world and I do not have the time.” Considering those limitations, the two real choices would seem to be either give it to someone who would restore it or let it slowly return to the earth on the family farm. When asked which fate would he chose for his beloved Mack AC, Jim pauses. Slowly with a resignation born of decency Jim whispers with an exhale, “Give it away.”

It is said, “If you love something let it go.” Love is a beautiful thing. Clearly, Jim hopes the future will see the same said of his then restored Mack AC.

By |2023-03-30T17:56:49+00:00March 30th, 2023|2 Comments

Cars We Love & Who We Are #34

Previously readers became acquainted with classic car restoration virtuoso Mike Gassman through stories he told about others. It would be a disservice to you dear reader if I neglected to share with you Mike’s own story.

Descending once again through Rockfish Gap to the floor of the Shenandoah Valley and Waynesboro, Virginia, I weave through some back roads that hug a railroad siding. In making a right turn away from the tracks a row of low clean white adjoining structures come into view. They feature a spotless showroom recalling the modest (compared to today’s massive highway automotive cathedral) masonry structures with huge window panes typical of mid-20th century family owned dealerships. Eye candy for any passerby, the showroom features a tightly organized array of pristine restored 50’s and 60s vintage British sports cars. Their meticulous curation offers a hint of the passion for perfection that drives the robust beating heart of Mike Gassman’s restoration business, Gassman Automotive.

The story begins on a mountain top in Afton Virginia.

Read the car, not the book and other words of wisdom that pave a path to Pebble Beach


She opened her front door wearing a wedding dress. It is 1977. High atop Afton Mountain in Western Virginia a woman Mike recalls as Martha stands smiling down from the open doorway. Her wedding day preparation had been interrupted by a knock at the door. A boy of maybe thirteen years had come to inquire about a forlorn 1969 Triumph TR6 moldering out in the field by Martha’s house. Featuring a rose bush violating a structural integrity that could not cast a decent shadow, the TR6 could best be described as a heap. With his father visible in a car waiting on the country road, the boy asked if she wanted to sell it. “Yes I do,” responded the bride-to-be with a kind forthright demeanor exhibited by adults suddenly aware of their role in a teaching moment. “How much do you want?” the boy asked. “How much do you have?” asked Martha. “Forty five dollars,” offered the boy with the air of a question. “That is perfect. That is exactly what I want for it,” responded Martha and in so doing gave the young boy a wedding day gift that would continue to give for the rest of his life. Martha had sold thirteen year-old Mike Gassman his first car. Watching from the road, Mike’s dad witnessed a plan he had set in motion taking shape.

Mike says, “My 13th birthday present from my dad was a copy of a contract. And it stated, I Mike Gassman for the next two years, will devote every night and every weekend to restoring a car that I pay for and on which I do all the work. In return, my dad will stand next to me for two years and teach me how to restore a car. He will never physically touch it with his fingers, but he will teach me.” In looking back Mike calls it the most invaluable, the most incredible gift any young man could ever receive. Mike eagerly signed it. All of which quickly led to Mike knocking on Martha’s front door. In short order a tow truck dragged the “heap” to Mike’s house and the “fun” began.

With Mike’s dad conducting a comprehensive “hands off” restoration education, Mike dove in and never looked back. Mike says, “My dad showed me how to do a block and tackle. I pulled the body off the car. I sandblasted it. You could throw a rock through this car. It was so rusted. I made all the panels. I brazed them all in. I did all the bodywork and I painted the car one piece at a time over the next two years.” Mike’s dad had exceptional restoration skills and taught his son old school lessons about laying down lacquer paint. He went so far as to teach Mike leading techniques. Mike says, “His many years working with toxic lead is probably one of the reasons he is not here today.”

Mike finished the car at the age of 15 years and 7 months. He says, “In Virginia you had to be 15 years and 8 months old to get a learner’s permit.” Mike would sit in his TR6 for a month waiting for that day.

Mike Gassman and his 45-year old restoration of Martha’s “heap.”

Mike says, “I did every single aspect of that car between the ages of 13 and 15.” Standing in his showroom, now, Mike concludes by turning my attention to a pristine light beige TR6. Mike continues, “And here it is 45-years later. Unrestored since I finished it.”

Mike says, “It was my only car in college. It probably has 25,000 miles on it.” It retains the same paint he applied 45-years ago. With deserved pride Mike says, “It has taken multiple first place trophies.”

Over his 40-plus years in auto restoration Mike has developed a philosophy that informs all the automotive work he performs. Mike says, “I am as passionate about this work now as I ever was if not more so. I love this stuff. It is not just iron.” He believes that the culture and character defining the subjects of his passion will never happen again. For him, the 60s and early 70s stands as the greatest time for cars ever. He freely admits one could spend $500,000 on restoring a TR6 and it still would not be as quick as a new Nissan Sentra. Mike says, “That’s not the point. With my cars when you walk out of a Walmart you don’t have to figure out which one is yours.” He believes that anybody can buy a Miata that can outperform these half century old sports cars. However, Mike says, “Sadly, the new cars have no soul.”

Mike welcomes customers that want perfection. He builds to the desires of individuals that always wanted a certain car and finally have achieved a point where they can afford the best one. Mike says, “I have nothing here that anybody needs, nothing. What I strive to offer is a whole lot of what people want.”

Mike, and his experienced and gifted Gassman Automotive crew, over many years, have honed the ability to perform a superior restoration for those looking for the best. As well, he takes pride in focusing those same abilities on servicing customer cars ranging from bug-eye Sprites to Maseratis.

One man who has had a significant impact on shaping Mike’s philosophy would be Paul Russell. Internationally respected as a master restorer Paul presides over one of the world’s most respected restoration shops. Mike greatly admires Paul for the superior work, professionalism and generosity he has experienced in dealing with the man and the staff of Paul’s globally revered Paul Russell and Company. Mike says, “While Gassman Automotive was performing a total restoration on the first 1952 Ferrari 212 Inter Geneva Coupe by Vignale, Paul was restoring the sister car at the same time. It afforded me a priceless opportunity to share information with a master.” Two things that Paul told Mike made a profound impression.

Paul emphasized that in properly dealing with an important automobile restoration “read the car, not the book.” What did he mean by this? Mike says, “To me it meant, if there’s a hole in a fender, is it jagged. Did somebody drill it. If it was stamped, why do you think it was there? What would make sense? Why would you put a hole there? Ask, are there any other cars that have a hole there before you weld it shut? That was incredibly valuable advice, especially when doing a prototype like the 212, one of only six examples. Finding a hole could lead you down a road of inquiry searching for answers to why is it there and what’s missing? That was very helpful.”

Secondly, and what Mike considers the most valuable advice came when Paul shared the following as recalled by Mike, “Pretend that whatever you are working on whether it is a wiper motor or a complex quarter panel, it should be treated like it is the only thing you are taking to Pebble Beach where it will be presented on a mirrored table to represent the sum of your abilities.” Mike says, “If you take that advice to heart you have no choice but to build a 100-point car but without that mindset it is impossible to build a 100-point car.” Which raises the question, how did Mike get into the concours winning restoration business?

With a wife and two young children, the year 1990 found Mike working to make ends meet selling cars for a Nissan Subaru dealer during the day and working on Triumphs at his house from 9:00 at night until 2:00 in the morning. Mike says, “The new car market had fallen apart. I was getting paid $50 for every car I could sell. With this 24/7 grind I had reached my limit.”

So Mike took the little bit of money that they had saved and bought the first building, all 1500 square feet of it. He was all in. Over the next decade he developed a restoration shop focused primarily on British sports cars. Gassman Automotive differentiated and distinguished itself with its rare ability to perform everything in-house. Mike says, “We do all of our own motors, transmissions, overdrives, wiring, body fabrication, paintwork, upholstery and assembly. As well, Mike in prior years had exhibited great foresight that would prove to serve him well.

Through the 1980’s, with Triumph and MG going belly up, Mike bought out the NOS parts inventory of many shuttering British car dealerships. At the same time he aggressively prowled the swap meets at Carlisle, Hershey and any other event offering the possibility of NOS parts. Mike says, “Over the years I have made hundreds of trips bringing back trailer loads of NOS British car parts.”

Focused with his determination to be a go-to place for those seeking superior quality, Gassman Automotive started to get noticed. People realized Mike and his shop meant business. Attention came their way even as they restored lower-end cars at first. Gassman Automotive became recognized for producing the high-end restorations of cars such as TR6s and MGBs. They gained a recognition for quality panel beating and their dexterity with aluminum.

Ferrari in early stages of restoration

Interestingly at that point while Jaguar and Healey restoration work seemed a step above his client base, the quality of the work coming out of his shop stood at a Ferrari level. It was just a matter of time.

It occurred when a client sent Mike a TR250 for a full restoration. At the same time the TR250 owner sent another of his Triumphs which had been subjected to a very expensive restoration by another restorer to the National show. At the event the Triumph restored by the other shop received a sound beating at the hands of a participating car that Mike had restored. Learning his lesson the client sent his losing car back to Mike to “fix it.” Mike says, “We did our job to our standard and sent it back. He took it to the Nationals and won first place as well as a Vintage Triumph Register National “Best of Show.” A few years later in around 2010 the same client returned with a new project that would be the breakout opportunity for Mike and Gassman Automotive.

The client had purchased a 1952 Ferrari, the first of six prototype 212 Inter Geneva Coupes by Vignale and wanted Mike to restore it. Mike says, “I flew to Indiana to look at it. I’ll admit it was extremely intimidating to me. So many pieces were missing or broken. Worse there was never a spare part made for that car. Everything would have to be handmade. Of course, I said yes.” It would be Mike’s first “right at a million dollar” restoration. After two years the finished Ferrari went to Cavallino where it received a Platinum Award. It then went to Pebble Beach followed by a trip to Arizona for the 2014 Gooding Auction in Scottsdale.

Mike, pointing out for those that do not appreciate the significance of an invitation to Pebble Beach, says, “Even the “worst” car at Pebble beach rates as an incredible automobile. There are no “also-rans.”

The Gooding catalogue promoting the 2014 auction described the Gassman Automotive restored Ferrari 212 as follows:

  • A Spectacular Example of Italian Custom Coachwork
  • The First of Six Such Vignale- Bodied Coupes
  • Displayed at the 1954 San Remo Concours d’Elegance
  • Fascinating, Well-Documented Provenance
  • Exquisite Restoration to Original Appearance
  • Retains Original, Matching-Numbers Engine
  • FCA Platinum Award Winner at the 2013 Cavallino Classic
  • Displayed at the 2013 Pebble Beach Concours d’Elegance

Mike says, “At the time it set a world’s record for that car by selling for a total of $1,787,500.”

The masterful craftsmanship that distinguished that rare Vignale-bodied Coupe put Mike and Gassman Automotive of little Waynesboro, Virginia on the international map of people with whom you could trust your Pebble Beach worthy car’s restoration.

Mike says he hopes Martha would be pleased.

By |2023-03-16T15:45:44+00:00March 16th, 2023|6 Comments

Conversations With People We Value #46

Spending time as I do in the Blue Ridge Mountains offers a great opportunity to commune with the beauty of nature. However, where I stay, being at the end of a serpentine dirt road snaking its way deep into the forest, affords a level of social connection just north of Neil Armstrong’s solitary stroll on the moon. Jeremiah Johnson I am not. So to break the spell of the woods, I often go in search of stories. The other day my friend Eddie, mentions a local restoration specialist. Game on.

Escaping from my forest sanctuary, I head out to meet a man who I would come to respect as an artisan. He works in the shadow of the Blue Ridge Mountains where he produces Amelia Island, Pebble Beach and Cavallino quality work with a special place in his heart for British cars.

Meet Mike Gassman.

Woulda, Shoulda, Coulda with One of America’s Most Important Cars

1907 Thomas Flyer

Heading north, the Rockfish Valley Turnpike passes beneath the terminus of the Virginia Skyline and the entrance to the Blue Ridge Parkway. We are talking God’s country. Clinging to the western side of the mountain above the Shenandoah Valley this old blue highway cuts through the Rockfish Gap before descending to the valley floor below where my destination awaits.

Clean and white with a garnish of distressed old British sports cars from the 50s and 60s dressing the side lot of the shop, Gassman Automotive presents itself as a buttoned downed source of high end restoration services, NOS parts and restored vehicles for sale.

Mike Gassman welcomes me with the warm humor of an old friend. In his mid-50s, he possesses a forthright country geniality reflecting his farm family upbringing. Mike converses with the intensity of a high energy, engaging storyteller. Conversations reflect the technical acumen of a master restorer delivered with the flavor of comedian Ron White.

Time spent at Gassman Automotive offers rich servings of eye candy and good information. Mike’s business offers a great story. However, that story will have to wait to be told another day. Why? Because before I interviewed Mike he told a couple of great stories that I had to share, now.

As we walked through his fabrication shop, Mike motioned to a bare metal shell mounted on a rotisserie. It appeared to be a smaller mid-century coupe of European breeding. Indeed, it turned out to be an early 1960s AC Greyhound. It actually represented a very rare find considering the total production numbered just 83 with only three having left-hand drive with this being one of the three.

It had been off the road since 1968 and left untouched in a barn in North Carolina. It would spend the next year undergoing a full restoration at Gassman. As Mike told it, the really funny part of the story resided in the fact that it had sat quietly for over fifty years under a thick layer of dust in a barn within sight of Tom Cotter’s home. Yes, that Tom Cotter “The barn find hunter.”  As Cotter says, “They are out there, sometimes right under your nose.” Cotter must have laughed at this find.

With that story told and well received, it triggered Mike to bust out saying, “If you like barn find stories I have got one for you.” As told to me by Mike, it actually starts well before Mike was born in 1964.

Mike says, “My family ran a dairy farm in Alden, NY east of Buffalo. A widow lived on the farm next to ours.” Apparently the widow’s deceased husband had been good friends with Mike’s grandfather, so Mike’s father would farm her field for her. Before Mike’s birth his dad had a real thing for brass era cars. Mike says he heard his dad probably had 20 of them at one time. In the course of tending the widow’s farm Mike’s dad discovered her barn contained a terribly distressed but very interesting car from the brass era. Mike’s dad had his eye on it with intentions to buy. With that in mind Mike’s dad would take every opportunity to squirt a little oil in the cylinders and turn the engine.

At that time Mike’s dad supplemented his income of $45 a month from farming with money he could make flipping cars. Mike says, “He would buy a car for $5 get it running and sell it.” Though the widow’s car was in terrible shape she wanted $500. Mike’s dad felt the $500 price outrageously steep especially considering its condition.

Mike says, “I have heard this story a million times. One day in the 1950s as my dad rides over to the widow’s farm he sees a tractor-trailer backing its stainless steel trailer up to the barn. On the side it reads “Harrah’s.” Ken Gross writing in Hagerty/Insider quotes David Gooding recalling Harrah’s trucks saying, “There were semi-trailer trucks bringing cars that they’d picked up around the country, every few days – both cars that were pulled out of barns and new purchases. They had different car spotters in different parts of the country.”

While Mike’s dad had made offers for the car, they never approached the $500 asking price. He accepted the reality and helped load the car onto the truck. He watched the loading of two straw filled crates that contained the vehicle’s brass head lamps. Lastly he witnessed the loading of what would prove to be a very important old bicycle. And that, was that, until.

Over a half century later young Mike, born in 1964, had grown into a master restorer fine classic automobiles. In 2008 he had brought one of his restorations to the Amelia Island Concours d’Elegance. On the day of the judging, in the early morning hours, he went to the underground garage where cars had been stored to detail his car. Right next to his entry stood the car that he recognized as the “wreck” his father recalled pushing onto Harrah’s trailer.

Michael knew more details than most about the 1907 Thomas Flyer that had won the 1908 “New York to Paris Great Race” and its grand prize of $1,000. (An interesting sidebar to history is that, at the time, the race sponsors The New York Times neglected to present the prize money to the winning Thomas Flyer team. It would be another 60-years, in 1968, that The Times awarded the money to driver George Schuster the only team member still alive.)

Michael knew that the Thomas Flyer finished first in 169 days beating the German Protos in second place by 26 Days. He also knew the significance of the headlights and the bicycle.

While the German entry, the Protos, had arrived first to Paris, the Germans had been penalized for cheating (The Germans had put their car on a train between Ogden, Utah and San Francisco) so the American had the race in hand until a gendarme refused them access to Paris and victory. Why? Parisian law required two headlights and the Thomas Flyer only had one. Unfortunately the Thomas flyers lost a headlight during a misadventures along the route. Just as things seemed poised on a pin head and ready to tilt towards ugly, a gentleman offered the team his bicycle which had a carbide lamp. After numerous failed attempts to attach the headlight, the team simply lifted the bicycle onto the hood of the car and held it there by hand allowing the Thomas Flyer to enter Paris and claim victory.

Now standing next to the Thomas Flyer he just stared as a man came over and began wiping the car down. Mike says, “I told the guy, my dad had a chance to buy this car in 1952 for $500. He looked at me like I was an idiot. I said believe it or not. He said I find it hard to believe.” The man then asked Mike where his dad lived and Mike said Alden, NY. Mike says, “His eyes lit up.” Mike then told him that his dad had pushed the bicycle next to it and carried the two crates with the headlights into the Harrah’s truck. Mike says, “Now the guy was listening. That I knew about the bicycle flipped him out. I learned later that day that he was the grandson of Ernie Schuster who drove the Thomas Flyer in the Great Race.” Mike says, “If you ever want to read a great book about it all get a copy of Race of the Century by Julie Fenster

Today, the 1907 Thomas Flyer that won the 1908 New York to Paris Great Race has been recognized for its historic importance by its inclusion in The National Historic Vehicle Registry. It now resides in the pantheon of most significant cars in American automobile history, treasured by the National Auto Museum where it resides and a priceless icon, which, Mike acknowledges, his dad passed on for $500.

By |2023-03-02T16:36:23+00:00March 2nd, 2023|4 Comments