‘It’s Always Parts Hell,’ Says Classic Car Caregiver

Sometimes, especially with old cars, his specialty, you had to make the parts yourself
Jim Shelly, above, says the going price for an Aston Martin DB5, the car driven by James Bond, is “around $600,000 . . . for the junky ones.” Jack Graves

    Gracing the entrance to Jim Shelly’s Georgica Services Ltd. station on Springs-Fireplace Road the other day were a 2002 red Thunderbird, a silver 1973 Citroen SM, a shiny black Porsche, a Mercedes-Benz 280SL, and an Austin-Healey 3000Mk III.

    Inside, on the office’s walls were posters from sports car racing’s vintage days.

    So, he was asked, had he been a lover of classic sports cars since his teenage days in Pottstown, Pa.?

    Actually, no, said the shop’s proprietor. “It was Julia’s fault,” Shelly said, referring to his wife, who, when he was working for Associates & Ferren here, owned a car rental business whose fleet at one point totaled 40 automobiles.

    “I’d come home and she’d say, ‘Big Red,’ the 1966 Cadillac, ‘has to go out tomorrow and the top doesn’t work.”

    “I am a mechanical person,” he explained. “I can fix cars, computers, clocks, anything really. You look at whatever it is, figure out how they made it to work, take it apart, and put it together.”

    And a good thing too, he added, for sometimes, especially with old cars, his specialty, you had to make the parts yourself.

    “This is parts hell — it’s always parts hell,” he said with a laugh as his assistant tried to find via the Internet “a piece of an emergency brake for an ’89 Dodge pickup truck. It’s no longer available from Dodge — it’s a mystery. If we can’t get it, we’ll figure some way to put the brake cables together.”

    “The after-market parts industry is fascinating. . . . There’s Jeff’s Bronco Graveyard in Michigan. He’s big now. The Thing Shop for Volkswagen Things in Arizona. There’s one guy who just supplies parts for convertible tops, all makes and models. These guys are absolute specialists in the field. We spend an awful lot of time looking for parts because we service so many peculiar cars. If we can’t find a part we’ll invent something to replace it. I could build a 1930 Model A from parts — it is so well supported and so popular. But you can’t get parts for some cars these days that are 25 years old!”

    As for the 1973 Citroen SM, with its “fabulous hydraulic suspension,” he owned one, said Shelly. “Rather my wife owns one. It’s an interesting story. Back in 1973, when we were living in New York, Julia had a dress shop, and outside of it one day she saw this white Citroen SM. Those were the days when the streets were filled with unprepossessing Pintos and VW vans. She put a note on the windshield: ‘This is a really nice car!’ ”

    “The owner, Bruce Diamond, responded, and we became fast friends . . . for 40 years. When he died in 2006, he left Julia his car in his will. We used to play practical jokes on one another. This was his last one: You don’t leave a famously finicky French car to the wife of an American mechanic!”

    “The one outside is owned by a customer in Montauk. He bought it from somebody else, not from me. When he bought it he probably said to himself, ‘I can get it now because Jim is such an expert — he can fix it!’ ”

    “Yes,” he said, anticipating his visitor’s next question, “you can get Citroen parts from SM World in California. . . . The SMs have a cult following. There are four of them on the East End. One day we should have a parade.”

    Speaking of which, Shelly has for the past decade overseen road rallyes for classic cars here, the latest, which covered a convoluted 118-mile course between Bridgehampton and Montauk — and which included in its 27-car fleet Alan Patricof’s 1927 Franklin and Dr. George Dempsey’s 2013 Tesla — just a few weeks ago.

    “The worst thing at a rallye is to be passed by a fellow rallyer going in the opposite direction,” he said, with a smile. “There are all kinds of rallyes. Ours is 100 miles, some are 12,000 to 13,000 miles. There’s one from Peking to Paris every three years — a 12,000-mile Enduro rallye. I went on one a few years ago, from Concord, N.C., to Anaheim, Calif. — 4,300 miles.”

    “The ones we do here are T.S.D. rallyes, time-speed-distance rallyes. We keep to the speed limit. You have to arrive at specific spots at specific times. You have to be good at map reading, and the navigator is very important. The route book might say the next checkpoint is five miles away and you have 14 minutes to get there. If you’ve driven 10 minutes and have only gone two miles, you’re in trouble. . . . We also have secret route checks along the course to keep people honest, and we try to get you lost.”

    Road rallyes, Shelly said, had followed in the train of “flat-out races. . . . The 1,000 Miglia [Rome to Brescia and back, via Ravenna, Verona, Florence, and Siena], a rallye now, used to be a flat-out race, through the streets, with everybody going as fast as they could. They used to race through the streets of Bridgehampton too, from 1949 to ’53, until a driver killed himself in a practice run. Then the New York State Legislature put an end to racing over public roads.”

    “Bruce Stevenson, a local fellow who’d been a fighter pilot in World War II, came back from the first race at Watkins Glen, in 1948, and said, ‘We can do that here too.’ He got together with the Bridgehampton Lions Club, and they bought 100 parcels of land on Millstone Road . . . Jeffrey Potter was involved, Henry Austin Clark, who had the auto museum in Southampton, Jim McGee, the mechanic, who could listen to a car that was 10 feet away and tell what was wrong with it . . . I don’t know who designed it, but, in the end, ‘The Bridge’ track wasn’t economic, it wasn’t a money-making proposition, lying as it did at the end of a two-lane road.”

    Racing was “a lot safer now,” Shelly said. A good example, he said, had been provided that very morning when a car on a speed run at Utah’s Salt Flats had “come apart,” though, while it had been a grisly scene, “the driver survived. That’s engineering — your car can save you now. That’s why when people tell me they’re saving their old cars for their kids, I ask them, ‘Really? Do you care about them?’ ”