2 June 2010

Recipe for the Car Guy

Three up-and-coming gearheads happily pursue lifelong passions.

What’s the difference between a 20-something car guy and a 50-something car guy? Turns out, not much. Sure, there’s more hair and less waistline. And they’re more likely to crank Sublime than the Beach Boys while wrenching – but their obsession is just as intense as their baby boomer counterparts.

To see into the future of the hobby, take a look at guys like Ed Sweeney, Ryan Mahoney and Jack Hicks – three young Automotive addicts doing their part to keep the enthusiast flame burning bright. All three guys had an early, almost unnatural attraction to cars and a willing, knowledgeable enabler.

Sins of the father

Ed Sweeney’s enabler was his father, Ned, who enjoyed working with his son on his ’64 MGB so much, he and his wife requested afternoon preschool so he and the toddler could stay up late in the garage. “Yeah,” says Ed, “from the start, it was pretty much my dad’s fault.”

When it came time for college, Ed, like many young hobbyists, thought it was time to be practical. “I figured cars will be my hobby, but I need to get a real job,” Ed says.

While studying marketing at Temple University, Ed fed his passion by working at Motorcar Garage, a British car restoration shop across the river in Maple Shade, New Jersey. He also traded the old family Civic for an MGB/GT. Ed’s father began to realize the level of his son’s obsession when Ed took a bus to North Carolina to buy the MGB/GT and drove it a thousand miles back.

After Ed graduated, he accepted an internship at Subaru. But his heart wasn’t in it. Instead, he talked to his old boss, Pete Cosmides, about making Motorcar Garage his career. Ed decided to join Cosmides full time, a decision he didn’t relish sharing with his parents – but they gave him their full support. Ned, a talented woodworker who’d abandoned his passion for a more practical career in management, says, “I have my regrets about my own choices. How could I tell him not to pursue his dream?”

Cosmides, who plans one day to turn over the reins to Ed (now a 10-percent partner), says there’s something special about a true car guy. “My son likes cars, but it’s not a passion. Another guy we hired was a good mechanic, but he was here for the paycheck. Ed’s like me. We have to work on cars. We can’t help ourselves.”

At 26, Ed couldn’t be happier. He’s restoring a rare ’58 MG Magnette. And guess who restored the gorgeous new burled-wood dashboard? Ned Sweeney. As word’s gotten out, the senior Sweeney’s woodworking talents are increasingly in demand. Says Ned, “It’s amazing – my son’s pursuing his dream, and he’s taking me along.”

Born a ramblin’ man

Twenty-nine-year-old Ryan Mahoney says he was born with a Matchbox car in his hand, but more likely, his father John put it there in the delivery room. Ryan grew up working alongside his dad on his ’40 Packard, ’41 Ford and ’65 Renault Dauphine.

On his 15th birthday, Ryan’s parents surprised him with a project – a ’66 Mustang. Since Ryan couldn’t get his New Jersey driver’s license until age 17, John Mahoney figured two years was plenty of time for his son to get the “Rustang” running. “It was probably the worst first car anyone ever had,” laughs Ryan.

After two years, the Rustang still lacked luxuries like window crank-handles and floorboards, but the engine started. Ryan was licensed; the car wasn’t. Against his parents’ wishes, he drove it around the block. It had such flex, the doors popped open around corners, which was fortuitous, since the windows wouldn’t open and black smoke poured through the floor from the rusted exhaust. The smoke attracted the attention of a police officer who declined to add to the boy’s troubles and sent him home.

When it was time to choose a career, Ryan put his car dreams aside and pursued a degree in HR Management at Northeastern University. John Mahoney knew his son wasn’t happy. Finding an ad for the restoration program at McPherson College, he encouraged Ryan to apply. But the program was full. Rather than wait a year, Ryan enrolled in the nine-month program at WyoTech in Laramie, Wyoming, then finished at McPherson. Two weeks after graduating, Ryan opened his own shop with $500.

The business was a success; Ryan found a bigger space and hired McPherson grads. Five years later, he moved the shop to Jackson, New Jersey, near his hometown. His first hire was his father, a former Army mechanic and retired postal worker, now the parts specialist at Coastal Classics. “Finally, I’m doing something I’ve wanted since I was 14 – watching rust buckets come back to life,” grins John.

Ryan credits his dad for facilitating his dream. “My dad is the whole reason I’m into cars.”

Grandpa’s influence

Jack Hicks, 23, has walked around with Hemmings Motor News under his arm since he was a kid. The enabler in Jack’s formative years was grandfather John Johnson, who taught the lad to drive his 1950 MG TD at age 11. A quick study, Jack could soon identify which sounds meant what. His grandfather called him “the 10,000-mile check-up.”

“That boy had a knack – he’d get into any car and diagnose it,” Johnson says. He recalls when Jack’s father and a partner bought another MG TD that developed shift linkage trouble at inopportune times. “Tony, the partner, would be stuck at a stoplight, unable to get it into first. He’d call Jack to rescue him. Jack had no fear – he’d take the gearbox cover off and dive right in,” his proud grandpa says.

At 15, Jack accompanied his grandfather to sell a ’52 MG TD they restored at the RM auction at Amelia Island. Jack noticed the driver was having trouble with the TD’s tricky handbrake. As Jack showed him how to release the “fly-off” handbrake, he heard these magic words: “Why don’t you drive it across the block?” With the ink barely dry on his driver’s license, Jack not only piloted his grandfather’s car, the short-handed staff let him drive many other expensive toys across the block. RM’s Gord Duff asked Jack to do the same thing the next year – and get paid for it.

“He knew what he was doing,” says Duff, now just 29. Duff says trusting a young teen was no big deal. After all, Duff started at RM on his 18th birthday. “I saw the same thing in Jack Hicks that Rob Myers saw in me.”

A recent grad with a degree in political science, Jack’s setting his sights on a government career. “Financial security is important. Before I play, I need to work hard and save. Eventually, I’d love to have my own restoration shop,” he says.

In the meantime, Jack’s close to buying a Jaguar S-Type he plans to restore. And, due to Grandpa downsizing his collection, the ’50 MG TD that started it all is going to live with Jack.

The Future’s so Bright

If one were to draw a lesson from this fable, perhaps it’s this: Sharing your love for the hobby with your kids isn’t quite enough. Later, you just might have to acknowledge the part you played in creating their obsession, support them and encourage them to follow their heart. Who knows? There could even be a job in it for you.
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To see this article in its original format, view the pdf version of the Summer 2010 issue of Hagerty magazine.

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