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Embracing Vintage Cars in the Catskills

The driving season in the Catskills is quite short, abbreviated by snow and salt in the long winters and a spring rainy season that can sometimes feel endless.

But now that it’s the heart of summer, and people can mingle again, Jared Lamanna wants to provide a place for them to gather — and bring their cars.

His coffee-shop-slash-garage-slash-vintage-dealership, Churchill Classics Coffee, is intended to be that, with colorful indoor and outdoor seating, a food truck in the side yard and a half-dozen cars for sale in the showroom. Down the line, Mr. Lamanna plans a weekend rental business for vintage trucks, outfitted for overlanding — rugged backcountry camping — and featuring downloadable guides to take advantage of the area’s bounteous trails and growing restaurant and performance scene.

“We’ll also host monthly art openings with local artists, drives on our awesome local roads, cars-and-coffee gatherings where the coffee doesn’t suck,” Mr. Lamanna said. “And the fact that it’s a functioning shop adds to the allure. You can hear a real mechanic swearing in the background.”

The new cafe, set to open next month, already has a cappuccino maker set out, a 1960s Faema E61. Mr. Lamanna stares at the device, a standard-setter of midcentury Italian design and engineering, as if it were one of the marvels from Alfa Romeo, Fiat and Lancia that fill the remainder of his space.

“I may get something new and efficient,” he said, smiling. “So it’s more reliable than a 1960s Italian car.”

Mr. Lamanna, 35, opened Churchill Classics in 2016, in a former hardware store in Eldred, N.Y., a town in western Sullivan County about a two-hour drive northwest of New York City. At first, it was a vintage car repair shop and sales showroom. Mr. Lamanna and Simon Arscott, a car collector and his business partner, hoped to capitalize on a local market, working on cars driven at the Monticello Motor Club — a high-end, private racetrack nearby, where Mr. Arscott was a member.

That business didn’t materialize. “They do everything in house over there,” Mr. Lamanna said.

But word of Churchill’s oddball existence spread, and it soon became a destination for owners of finicky vintage European cars in the area, myself included. Mr. Lamanna’s clients find him a gifted and trustworthy mechanic, willing to delve deep into the online forums to, for example, find an ingenious, lower-cost workaround to fix your (my) 1990 Range Rover’s clattering differentials.

In 2020, Mr. Arscott sold his stake in the business to Mr. Lamanna, who decided to expand the enterprise’s reach to become more community-oriented. He organized weekend drives for local enthusiasts; he staged events at the space. Traction was starting to develop.

When the pandemic hit, the events had to stop, but business exploded. Given its proximity to New York City, the area experienced a minor population boom, as weekenders became full-timers and newcomers arrived seeking access to nature and reasonably priced homes.

Mr. Lamanna found a niche. “People called wanting help with project cars they now had time to work on,” he said. “Or they moved up here and bought an Outback, but they wanted to get closer to something less sense-numbing, since new cars practically drive themselves, so an old truck became their refuge.”

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He sold dozens of vintage Toyota Land Cruisers and Land Rover Range Rovers, in the low- to mid-five figures. He just hired a third mechanic.

The car scene is growing elsewhere, too. In a former Ford dealership in nearby Narrowsburg, Fred Twomey is on the verge of opening the eighth restaurant in his transportation-adjacent New York City group, Bar Veloce. (Veloce is Italian for fast.) Vintage Vespa scooters are lined up outside, decoratively, as at his other locations. But a mid-60s Mustang parked out front hints at a further automotive secret in the basement.

“We closed all of our locations in the city during the pandemic, and I spent a lot of time up here,” said Mr. Twomey, who owns a weekend home in the Catskills. “And I thought, with the influx of new people in the area, this is the perfect time to pivot.”

In the soaring, skylit bar of the newly built restaurant, Mr. Twomey described the various modular spaces he has created with Karl Wasner, an architect at the Modern Catskills firm, using sliding reclaimed wood walls.

“We’ll have an espresso bar here by the entrance for the morning, before the bar opens,” Mr. Twomey said. “We’ll have two private tasting rooms, a smaller one in the old office and a larger one in the old showroom. And upstairs, on the roof, we have a deck for 60 people.”

For now, the roof deck will open in early August, serving food and drinks Wednesday through Sunday evenings, though the rest of the indoor spaces will hopefully open this fall, pending whatever occurs with the pandemic.

But down a narrow staircase is a three-bay shop that once contained the dealership’s service department. Mr. Twomey has a modern plan for the space. “We want to give new life to old American cars, so we’re going to be converting vintage Mustangs to run on electric power,” he said.

This new venture, Narrowsburg Motor Works, will source non-running, but solid, first-generation Mustangs, and use a bolt-in conversion kit from a reputable Southern California supplier, Electric GT, to swap out Ford’s rumbly internal-combustion engines for silent, battery-powered electric motors.

“We’ll upgrade them to modern safety standards, and add in a little customization, like wood-rimmed steering wheels,” Mr. Twomey said. “And they’ll be the perfect second car at your country house. Luxurious, but not pretentious. Fun, and friendly.”

He hopes to start performing conversions late this year, with the goal of selling the cars for $75,000 to start. To test out the practice, he’s first converting the shop’s truck, a 1970s Ford F100 pickup.

The mechanics “who worked at the dealership before I bought it were skeptical at first,” Mr. Twomey said. “But they’ve come around to the idea.”

This is true as well for local mechanics with respect to Churchill. “A lot of my business has been from referrals from mom-and-pop repair shops around here,” Mr. Lamanna said. “Finally, after a few years, I called one of them to thank them. They said: ‘No, thank you. You’re doing everybody a service. We don’t want to touch those weird old European cars!’”

Mr. Lamanna, too, has worked his New York City connections to expand his Catskills empire. He has teamed up with another venture, taking his client list and branding to a group of city investors who are transforming an old roller rink in a nearby town, Yulan, into a vintage car storage facility (and co-working space). It will be called Churchill Classics Collective and will open in September.

“We’ll have room for 40 cars, a professional detailing station and even a car concierge who can deliver and pick up one of your cars,” Mr. Lamanna said during a tour around the cavernous, concrete-floored space. “Plus, when we sign people up for storage, we’ll also get first rights to broker any sale of their car. So if someone sees something on site they might want to buy, we can help put together a deal.”

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