COAL 3: Motoring Into the Working World

After graduating, I took a summer job at an auto repair shop in Palisades Park, NJ. I don’t recall all the details, but one day after work I discovered someone had banged into the left front fender of my Imperial parked on the side street across from the shop, and created quite a dent. The next day, some guy came by the shop at lunchtime; asked if the Imperial was mine, and told me he could take out the dent without having to do any major body work or repainting. I accepted his offer and paid him whatever he asked to repair it, and later when I came out to inspect the results he told me to leave the ‘soap’ that covered the supposedly-repaired area until later.

So I waited until later to clean off the soap as he suggested. Underneath the soap all the paint was still there, but the surface of the fender had all these hammer marks in it from banging out the dent, and it looked awful. The original dent had looked better. That incident was really what cooled me on keeping the car, because as I recall I never got that repaired properly.

I was not thrilled to be working so far away, and just before the Christmas season I got a job as a stockboy at a large store in the Paramus Mall. After the holidays, many of us were laid off—it was time to get a real job. I applied at McCrane Auto Company, a DeSoto-Plymouth Dealer in Hackensack. I got the job and began my Chrysler mechanic career. I often visited my friend Joe, who lived in Wyckoff, and on George Washington’s Birthday 1959, once again made a visit. On the way up I passed that same Chrysler dealer I had purchased my Imperial from and spotted this awesome 1958 Plymouth Fury on the front line of the used car lot.

I decided to stop on my way home, and worked a deal to trade in my ‘51 Imperial for the ‘58 Fury. Of course, I had to get my mother’s OK and rearrange the car loan at our bank, so I had to wait to close the deal until later. I took delivery of an almost new car at the age of 20. When I drove my new car to work, the management was upset because I had not bought it there, but they didn’t have a ‘58 Fury. And the ‘59 was not a limited edition, as had been the ‘56-‘58. The Fury was my daily driver, and I enjoyed it immensely. Summer or winter and in between, I drove it everywhere. On Saturday night and Sunday afternoon I was off to the stock car races—Middletown, New York on Saturday, and Nazareth, Pennsylvania on Sundays. That racked up a lot of miles, and snow didn’t stop us in Winter.

In 1959; 1960, and 1961 I worked at McCrane DeSoto-Plymouth. 1961 was an awful year for the Chrysler line in general, in my opinion.

Now, Larry Landrine was a nice man with a small auto repair shop, there since the 1900s (or at least the 1920s), in the not-so-nice part of Englewood, New Jersey. It was next to what was at the time called a Colored bar. Larry had worked at the shop during the 1929 stock market crash; as he tells it, he got the shop when the former owner offed himself due to the crash. Larry offered me substantially better pay ($100 a week) than I was earning at the dealership ($65), and the new 1961 cars were really just plain ugly, especially the Plymouth, so I took him up on his offer and went to work for him.

The door for cars to drive in and out was at the front of the shop, separated from the busy 2-way street by just a narrow sidewalk and ramped curb, like this upholstery shop Daniel Stern wrote about:

Larry’s basic rule № 1 was NEVER, EVER START AN ENGINE INSIDE THE SHOP. He would not tolerate the exhaust, though he didn’t mind (insisted on) raw gasoline to wash parts with—of course it was leaded at that time, and parts-washing was done with bare hands. I often wondered how we never burned the place down; the parts-washing sink was located right below the wooden staircase up to the upper floor storage loft. At least there was no water heater pilot light to spark off a blaze; we washed our hands with cold water both Summer and Winter. There was a boiler in the basement where I suppose you could get hot water, but as far as I knew, that was only for the wall mounted radiators that hung around the stone walled shop.

Anyway, the rule was no starting engines inside the shop. So, having finished a tune-up on some old 1950s car, I’d sit in the driver’s seat wondering if it would even start. Larry would open the garage door, watch for a traffic gap, holler “No cars coming!” …and out he would push the car! When the tail end would hit the fresh outside air, I was to hit the starter and back the car into the street. Fortunately, they always started.

Larry and his wife Ruth loved to hunt bear and deer in the Fall and Winter, and had photos of their 1951 Buick with deer and bears strapped across the front and back—and top, too, as I recall—and there the two stood beside the car in their hunting outfits, shotguns in hand. He reminded me of the ‘medicine man’ character in the old western movies as he was a seller of all sorts of automotive elixirs:

• ClearEx exhaust air injection. Before it was a factory-installed emission control strategy, it was an accessory add-on said to clean up the exhaust and allow it to flow more clearly and evenly, like venting a Carnation coffee creamer can for it to pour smoothly. According to Larry, it worked; vehicles that ran hard and hot would sometimes have the exhaust manifolds glowing, and Clearex was supposed to eliminate that. I can see how that might not be fact, since years later we would see CHP cars with air injection get the manifolds glowing hot at times.

• Aviex penetrants and ‘tune-up fluid’ types of products (oops…)

• Dyna-Flyte center-pivot ball-bearing distributor breaker plates. These pivoted around the same axis as the distributor shaft, so the dwell didn’t change with increasing vacuum advance, as it did with the factory plate’s pivot axis off to the side of the shaft. That meant the timing of the engine was solely dependent on centrifugal and vacuum advance.

• Frantz toilet paper oil cleaners—on his 1951 Buick, Larry ran Oilzum non-detergent 30-weight oil and never removed the oil pan drain plug, just changed filter cartridges and toilet paper. You could pull the dipstick at any time—1956 or 1970—and the oil was still as clear as before. Larry died before the engine was ever touched, and he’d had it since new.

He stocked Baldwin filter products, and was a distributor of Oilzum engine oil to the local trucking companies (Oilzum appears to be still around, maybe sputtering a little). It was truly like a scene from Doc’s lab in “Back to The Future” when you were inside the shop!

Larry’s basic rule № 2 was to SELL any new customer any or all the products we had. So a tune-up would consist of installing this ball bearing Dyna-Flyte breaker plate in the distributor in place of “that deficient factory friction plate”. Also, depending on the engine, drill and tap a ½” pipe hole in the exhaust manifold(s) and install the ClearEx device(s). This, of course, was dependent on convincing the owner that they needed these additions to their engine. Larry was a master of the hard sell; I used to pity the poor customer when this great big bear of a man would stand nearly nose-to-nose with a potential customer and slowly back them against a wall until they agreed (or disagreed). He expected his employee to be able to do the same, but the sales pitch didn’t work as well when I tried it; I was built more like Bambi!

In retrospect, Larry was so generous with his pay offering because his previous employee had left the building after launching a sledgehammer in his (Larry’s) direction. A proper farewell, he would say! When I went in to pick up parts at the local jobbers, and I said I was there for parts for Landrine, the faces of the sales crew reflected potential for some fun. They began betting on how long ‘this one will last’ before I even had a chance to say more. As time went on, they would all have lost! Larry was interesting to work with; he was strict and wanted it his way, but he was fair—at least in his estimation.

Previous chapters:

  1. First Transport – Coming to ‘Amerika’
  2. COAL № 2: Being American and Picking a Car Company