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In repair shop, teacher indulges love for the classics

When the stock market plunged a few weeks ago, Lou Mandich wondered whether the phone would ring again at his Last Chance Garage.

Lou Mandich in his Last Chance Garage with Jim Groome (left) and Fred Shufflebarger. Mandich gave up teaching to work on and restore classic cars in Unionville, Chester County. (Ed Hille / Staff Photographer)
Lou Mandich in his Last Chance Garage with Jim Groome (left) and Fred Shufflebarger. Mandich gave up teaching to work on and restore classic cars in Unionville, Chester County. (Ed Hille / Staff Photographer)Read more

When the stock market plunged a few weeks ago, Lou Mandich wondered whether the phone would ring again at his Last Chance Garage.

Mandich, who specializes in the care and repair of vintage automobiles, needn't have worried.

Customers still call, and Mandich and his team of three mechanics have at least a two-week backlog.

"I think we are just fortunate to have a large customer base," Mandich modestly explains. He could have added "loyal" and "peculiar."

People who love old cars, anyone familiar with the hobby will tell you, love them profoundly and irrationally. In tough financial times, they'll part with just about everything else - home, spouse, children - before they'll sacrifice the Model T or '57 Chevy that grips their hearts.

And when these beloved vehicles are ailing or need mechanical attention, they'll entrust them only to someone who shares their infatuation. For many in and around Chester County, that is Mandich.

A rumpled fellow with wire-rim spectacles and red suspenders, Mandich, 63, has the thoughtful air of a professor and speaks in sentences precise enough to be diagrammed. No accident that. Before opening his garage in 1999, he taught middle-school English and reading in Coatesville for 32 years.

His garage, back a ways from Unionville's main street, is the sort of funky place shade-tree mechanics dream of. It is housed in a converted 19th-century barn with weathered board-and-batten siding and a metal roof. Inside, oil and grease, WD-40 and testosterone create an intoxicating fragrance. A flight of shaky wooden steps leads to his "executive suite," a Dickensian clutter of scarred furniture, tattered files, and amputated auto parts, where bookshelves sag under the weight of ancient repair manuals and a worn Oriental rug long ago surrendered its rosy hues to the grime of the shop.

Last Chance Garage is a play on the shop's address; it is located next to a graveyard on Cemetery Lane. A more accurate name would be "Another Chance Garage," because that is Mandich's specialty: automotive resurrection.

"I like working on cars that have been sitting for a long time - barn finds and cars that have been forgotten and neglected," he says. "I like reviving comatose vehicles. That's the real joy - getting them up and running."

This is not the place to bring an old car to be chopped, channeled, customized or hot-rodded. Mandich is a kindly, diplomatic sort, but he clearly considers such practices akin to desecration.

"I prefer more original cars," he says. "My favorite cars are those built before World War II, especially those built prior to 1930."

Mandich and his fellow mechanics can fix just about any antique and classic car, from brass-era horseless carriages to muscle cars of the '60s and '70s. They even work on foreign makes, including notoriously temperamental British sports cars, assisted by an array of tools and diagnostic devices from the very times of the cars they're servicing. Mandich has a well-stocked Rolodex and prides himself on his ability to hunt down scarce parts. About 70 percent of his business is maintenance and tune-ups; the rest is partial and full restorations.

"He knows old cars from working on them when he was a kid," says Dick Dilworth, 63, of Coatesville, president of the Chester County Antique Car Club. "You go to a regular garage today, they know the new computer systems, but they don't know points and condensers. He also knows where to get parts, and with old cars, that's important."

Dilworth remembers the bleak day when he shattered the taillight lens of his 1933 Chevrolet five-window coupe while changing a bulb. Distraught, he telephoned Mandich, who called a source in Missouri, who furnished a replacement in a jiffy.

In the garage the other day were a 1937 Ford two-ton stake truck, a 1922 Model T depot hack, a 1947 Ford woodie station wagon, a 1977 AMC Pacer station wagon, and a 1948 Ford 8N tractor. In an adjacent garage that Mandich also owns were a 1942 Packard Clipper and a 1935 Cadillac convertible sedan.

Mandich is a self-taught mechanic. He calls himself "a putterer who can do basic things." His three mechanics - Fred Shufflebarger, Jim Groome, Walter Higgins - operate largely autonomously. "These guys are trained," Mandich says. "They really know what they're doing. I'd never be able to function without them."

His main job, Mandich says, is to attract work and deal with customers, an easy task for someone so glib and affable. A member of the Chester County Antique Car Club, Mandich advertises in local car-club publications but relies mainly on word of mouth and contacts he makes at various car shows.

"He's well-spoken, amusing, and always ready to laugh," says Irenee du Pont, 88, of Montchanin, Del. "He's good at repairing old things rather than replacing them, and he's very sympathetic to my desire not to spend a lot of money to make a show car that nobody can enjoy."

Born in Youngstown, Ohio, Mandich grew up in Coatesville and Unionville. While his boyhood friends played football and baseball, he spent his leisure time fixing things and tinkering with old cars.

At 16, Mandich inherited his grandfather's 1950 Buick sedan, which needed a clutch. He then graduated to a gorgeous 1949 Buick station wagon, a gift from his parents. He refinished the wood and prepared it for a new coat of gleaming dark green paint. One June night a year later, he rolled it while trying to negotiate a turn on a back road.

"I was so ashamed, I covered it and put it out back," Mandich says. "I sold it five years later." It's an episode that still engenders remorse.

During his 20s, Mandich hauled home a variety of automotive carcasses, many of which became lawn ornaments. "My parents were very tolerant," he says.

To supplement his wages as a teacher, he bought a 1932 Ford stake truck and a '32 Ford dump truck, which he used for moving, carting away junk, and delivering coal and mulch. He purchased the garage in 1980 to shelter his trucks. His current old vehicles include a 1946 Chevrolet pickup, a 1941 Chevrolet dump truck, a 1918 Buick touring car, a 1947 Willys CJ-2A Jeep, a 1949 Hudson Commodore, and his pride and joy, a 1938 Hudson Terraplane.

Old cars fascinate Mandich because of their character and their understandable, fixable innards. They are Zeitgeist artifacts that speak volumes about the style and ingenuity of their times. Over the years, several of his cars have appeared in period movies, such as Dead Poets Society.

In his office, a cabinet bulges with dog-eared files, each signifying a customer and his cars. They are a loyal, grateful bunch.

After the Last Chance Garage repaired the clutch on his 1918 Cadillac touring car, du Pont was persuaded to bring in the 1936 Oldsmobile F-36 touring coupe that his father had given him for Christmas, two weeks before his 16th birthday. For decades it had been in what du Pont calls a state of "suspended animation." Mandich and company rejuvenated the car and made it roadworthy again.

"Now, at age 88, I get more of a thrill out of driving that car than I got on Christmas Eve 1935," du Pont says. "Back then, it made me feel older. Today, it makes me feel younger!"