Building cars and character.

Around here at Old’s Cool Co. we’re convinced you can’t buy character – you have to build it by going out into the world and actually accomplish something, something worthy of your own admiration. And we think wrenching on classic cars is a great way to do this: they’re a fascinating and frustrating and fabulous lifestyle where there’s always something wrong, and broken, and expensive, and fubar, and ugly… but when you ride around in the dream machine you brought back to life with your own two hands on a sunny day spitting fire and eliciting smiles with the wind in your hair, none of that matters a wink.

I’ve taught half the boys (and girls) in town how to drive a stick shift on my Fiat 124 Spider over the years, and how thrilled they were for the experience. I showed the other half how to ride a motorcycle on my 1973 Honda CB175. Again, the glee in theireyes was priceless. The point is we have to engage young people, on a personal level, to show them the joys we know inherently from our upbringing and experience, the fulfillment and fun of working on your own car or motorcycle – self-reliance in other words, of solving the challenges a vintage junk-bucket entails, and the thrill of accomplishment and purpose they can then carry forward into life. Confidence, humility, and self-reliance are to be found in the gunk and crud of a recalcitrant engine.

Theories and textbooks are all well and good, but our bottom-line objective around here is to instill an independent, discerning, can-do attitude that will sustain young people way beyond the cars and carburetors, and be an invaluable lesson in finding meaning and responsibility in their lives – albeit in a sometimes painful, skinned-knuckle way. They’ll learn and grow not despite the danger, but because of it. Most colleges and universities have abdicated their responsibility to actually teach young people how to think for themselves and embrace the pain and joy all around us to grow and mature into thinking, discerning beings – the inductive method has tragically morphed into the soul-deadening and unthinking deductive (non)reasoning: here’s the politically-correct narrative – memorize it. The time-honored and huge in loco parentis responsibility at almost all institutes of higher learning has been replaced with a victimhood ideology and license. 

 

Black Bridge Motors in Norwalk, Connecticut is trying its best to reverse this tragic but not necessarily inevitable slide into mediocrity and lemmings-like dependence on the prevailing orthodoxy by creating a vibrant vocational and educational hub for old-school traditions and craft under the name Harbor Bridge Academy. Scott Gilbert, a former Wall Streeter turned vintage car visionary, founded Black Bridge Motors in 2011 ostensibly to “restore, repair and reimagine” vintage cars and trucks, but his real goal is to bring the life lessons learned by owning a classic car and working on old machines to a new generation. "We're in business to recognize and understand the past, but to redesign these old machines to work better, smarter, and ultimately be more enjoyable to use. Otherwise, our beloved hobby will die with us,” he says, looking around his impressive and bustling 10,000 square foot shop. “And the best way to get young people interested and passionate about older cars is to show them the meaning and purpose to getting their hands dirty.” Self-reliance? Hands-on hard work? Discipline and excellence? What wonderful and wonderous concepts!

 

He’s teamed up with Brian McMahon High School in Norwalk to launch a pilot program in conjunction with their STEAM program to bring some of the valuable life lessons lurking under the hoods of wrecks and derelicts to the kids who will benefit from the experience the most. His first class of 15 or so students from wrenched and sweated 3 days a week for 6 weeks this past spring, and the program by all accounts was a big success. It will eventually be offered as a credited program, and he is looking to expand it to some of the other area high schools. “This isn’t a substitute for college,” Scott says, trying to reassure worried parents that their cherubs might become mechanics instead of internet tycoons, “no matter what vocation they eventually choose we think the lessons learned in the shop will serve them well.” He’s also quick to point out that STEAM is the appropriate acronym even though a lot of programs are STEM-based. He says that “the 'art' part is an important element and gives the program its important depth and relevance.” We couldn’t agree more.

 

Scott, master and commander of Black Bridge, grew up in West Chester, Pennsylvania, and went to Bucknell University. He spent over a decade on Wall Street before deciding to start another chapter and try to breathe new life into a classic hobby. He’s moved to New Canaan to raise his family – he has two children, Madeleine, and Oliver, who he points out are 6 and 2. When I ask if he’s going to also tell me how old his wife Noel is he says: “21.” I laugh and say, yeah, for the next few years, at least until she celebrates her fortieth birthday. He chuckles too.

He has seen a huge shift in attitude in the past five years from impractical trophy cars to vehicles that will be a welcome part of a lifestyle and attitude towards living, and that means mostly family-oriented classics. Black Bridge’s bread and butter is purposeful reimagining, and Scott has found a sweet spot for his company between a run-of-the-mill body shop and the super high-end shrines to the pursuit of perfection that only deal with multi-million dollar museum-quality cars. His prices for a full-restoration are between $150,000-$250,000, and most of his clients, as we’ve just mentioned, want to actually use the vehicle if not as a daily driver or as second family car, then at least on a regular basis. I told him I saw a restored Ford Bronco driving in Westport this past weekend, filled with kids and beach floats, ice cream and snorkels. He said that’s exactly right – form, first, and function forever. The owners want their vehicles to reflect their personalities and be practical, safe, reliable and fun for the whole family.

 

 

But Scott’s quick to point out that money isn’t the end-all, and there are bargains to be had, though, if you want to experience the excitement of vintage wind in your hair, and you don’t have a lot to spend. I told him I picked up a 1997 5-speed Jeep Wrangler TJ for my son when he got his license for $6500 and a 1999 Wrangler for a little bit more than that for my daughter when she turned 16 the following year. She surprised me by taking to it immediately, shifting through gears like summer boyfriends. I’m kidding. But the old-timer DMV testing instructor did get out of the vehicle after she passed with flying colors to shake my hand. She’s just about to go off to college and told me the other day that she likes driving a “janky” Jeep because it keeps her humble. I said your Jeep isn’t janky – I bought my spectacular catastrophe CJ-7 for 850 bucks and I consider it mint! Seriously, last time I stopped in to see Scott he had a Fiat 124 Spider that, back in the day was an SCCA racing champion, for under ten grand.

After getting to know Scott this past year, and seeing what he’s built out of nothing but elbow grease and vision, I’d say the future of the classic car world in Fairfield County, if not Connecticut and the whole tri-state area is going to involve or at least include Scott and his shop. One of his best traits is he actually has a vision, and the enthusiasm and smarts to make it happen. And he doesn’t just talk, he listens, a rare and invaluable quality. He hears what the owner wants, and he’s not puritanical about authenticity, either: he’s perfectly happy to drop a Big Block Chevy into your Citroen if that’s what some guy’s got his heart set on, weird as it is. But the “reimaginings” are always carefully-considered, and need to be not only appropriate for the car, but safe, possible, and in keeping with some kind of practical sanity. He knows what he’s talking about, and owners almost always defer to his expertise. Almost always. “I’ve had a couple of owners over the years demand strict, by-the-book restorations and they have all come back when they realize their romanticized version of the car from days past aren't reality and given how modern driving habits have changed the vehicles become difficult to use on a daily basis." But for the most part the owners know what they want: a car that looks vintage, but drives like it just rolled off the showroom floor. And Scott knows how to deliver that unique combination without sacrificing quality and customer satisfaction.

  

Scott has big plans for Black Bridge. After seeing the success of Caffeine & Carburetors, the extraordinary car show hosted by Doug Zumbach that takes place in New Canaan on some Sundays in the summer, and the passion Fairfield County has in general for cars, and coffee of course, he thinks there’s a definite need for a ‘club’ that car lovers and their friends can hang out at. He sees it as a much-needed community-building gathering place – and he knows how important engagement and purpose are to success. He’s talking about having stick shift driving lessons to initiate the younger drivers into a new way to look at the world they probably have no exposure to, and classic car rentals, which would put people into the seats of automobiles they’d otherwise only ever dream about.

He thinks a bar and eventually a restaurant, with an outdoor deck overlooking the Sound would be a big hit, and he would make sure there was always some kind of interesting work/instruction or project going on to engage the members, along the lines of: a day rally; how to weld; carburetor disassembly and cleaning; or DIY upholstery restoration, for example. In short: a living museum. Car lovers could bring their sons, or daughters, or the whole family for that matter, every Sunday morning, for example, just like church. Come to think of it, cars are a kind of religion for a lot of people. And with Scott living and preaching the good word, and not all the time to the choir, we see the congregation only growing.

July 27, 2019 — Johnny Mustard