Santo and Frank Spadaro’s White Plains, NY repair shop could make a living by allowing motoring fetishists to tour the place and lift car covers. Just walking through the narrow brick doorway is time travel to a pre-scanner world. Inside is a dark warren of pressboard walls and a surrounding smell of old grease, worn Italian leather, and hot grinding wheel. If it could be bottled it would be a gearhead’s dream cologne. Eau de Forgotten Classic.
But they aren’t forgotten. Domenick’s European Car Repair is no secret, and has been lovingly covered by just about every automotive magazine out there. Its founder, the late Domenico Spadaro, and his sons, Santo and Frank, are well-known names in car show and collecting circles. Their cars have run in the Mille Miglia and graced the lawns at the fanciest of car shows, and yet Domenick’s is no sterile operating room full of sour-faced experts. Everyone in the work bays looked up from under candy-bright Italian bodywork and smiled as I came in, and Frank and Santo took a break from their labors to show me around.
Domenico Spadaro started the shop in 1961, and ran it until he passed away in 2009. It was known as a place where they’d make you a cup of strong Italian coffee while you waited for an oil change, as long as you didn’t mind a slight taste of gear oil in the grounds. Domenico had been a mechanic back in Italy, and he brought to America a love of small Italian cars, and a true understanding of what makes engines happy. He may have liked Lancias and Ferraris the best, but he could fix anything. His affection for the Italians and his understanding of machinery in general have been inherited by his sons. On the day I visited, the shop was mostly Alfas and Lancias, but I spotted a few Frenchies peppered about, and Santo told me with great enthusiasm about the wide-body Camaro the neighboring mechanic was working on.
With equal enthusiasm Santo showed me the complex internal workings of a late ’30s Lancia V4. “It’s sort of a Rube Goldberg machine to open the valves,” he said laying out the rockers and demonstrating the wide-splayed rockers that actuate more rockers to move valves. “It’s a neat engine though,” he said, handing me a surprisingly light piston and rod. “Aluminum rods!” He patted the little block gently as we left the room.
As we threaded our way around parts boxes and brake drums, Santo apologized for the haphazard interior decorating. “Sometimes I wish we could clean it all up, but then, this way, it’s like a filter. The kind of customer who comes in here and doesn’t like it, that probably isn’t the kind of customer we would like anyway.” Despite the apparent disarray, the mechanics seemed to find the tools and parts they needed with unerring accuracy, all under the watchful eye of a well-fed black and white tomcat. Did he just headbutt the appropriate model manual or was I imagining that?
Down below the repair shop, a dungeon of sorts held racks and racks of rare heads, geared cams, and third members. In a room lit only by a few mossy windows was an Italian automotive ossuary. “Are these cars in line for restoration?” I asked. “More like at the end of the line,” said Santo, looking at a burnt out husk of something that was probably once quite sporty. “Hey! Wait a second, I think I see one of mine,” said Automobile Magazine writer Jamie Kitman, who had brought me there in a 1988 Peugeot 205 GTI, and has enough cars that he can occasionally forget where one is until he finds it by accident in someone’s basement (We visited one of his garages too, you’ll know it in the gallery by the sudden appearance of Loti). Santo laughed and assured Jamie that his Lancia wasn’t being parted out. “Most of these though,” he said waving over the sad graveyard, “Most of these are only good for screws, fasteners, little trim pieces.” Even the best mechanic can’t save them all.
Back topside we turned to more cheerful topics. “Did you always want to follow in your father’s footsteps?” I asked. “Oh no,” he answered. “I studied accounting and Frank studied engineering, but nothing made me as happy as being here. I don’t look forward to Friday and the end of the work week. I look forward to Monday and the start.”