When master mechanic Domenico Spadaro died last year at the ripe old age of eighty-nine, hundreds of loyal customers turned out to pay their respects. That his wake and funeral were standing-room-only affairs underscored the depth of his clientele’s affection for him, unusual in itself, for while many might wish their mechanics dead, few actually want to attend their funerals. Or, more remarkably, lay plans to keep celebrating their garage man’s memory for years to come.
Yet just the other week, the First Annual Domenico Spadaro Memorial Rally drew more than 150 customers for a motorized tribute to this Sicilian super wrench, known to most patrons — at least those who didn’t come from the old country — as Domenick. His shop, Domenick’s European Car Repair, of White Plains, New York, has been an old-car mecca since it opened in 1961. So it was only fitting that after some strong Sunday morning coffee, like he might have served himself, a parade of more than seventy-five classic cars set off along the winding lanes of New York’s Westchester County and southern Connecticut. Following the triumphal spin, a gargantuan buffet was laid out at the spacious and exceedingly gracious digs of one of the shop’s customers, with high-performance meatballs made from an old family recipe supplied by Domenico’s wife of fifty-six years, Tindara.
Yes, Domenick was well loved. He tolerated the Americanization of his name but not his ways. Coming of age in war-ravaged Italy, an environment of scarcity where wide-ranging mechanical skills were not just ideal but essential, his bias was to fix, not replace, and to keep the machine running, not throw it away. Locating hard-to-find parts did not upset him. At a time when plugging in modules is most common, making parts remained an option for this gifted machinist and his skilled offspring. Gracious interaction with the customer — talking, eating, scheming, dreaming — was his standard, making his busy shop as much a destination as a place to get your car fixed.
A successful garagiste in Roccalumera, Sicily, Domenico one day picked up and moved to America. Fifty-some years later, the shop he founded is running stronger than ever, thanks in large measure to his sons Frank and Santo, who’ve been joined more recently by his daughter, Vera, who keeps the organization organized.
Jam-packed with an ever-changing but always mind-bending assortment of older, name-brand thoroughbreds (Ferrari, Alfa Romeo, Maserati), obscure racing machinery (Stanguellini, Dagrada), so-called etceterini (Abarths, ASA, Siata), and random orphans (er, my Triumph Dolomite), the shop is a little grimy, which puts off some white-gloved supercar types. But what price sterile efficiency when old cars are the game? Domenick’s musty catacombs are filled with obscure parts, its basements crammed with parts cars and future restoration projects, all organized to the old man’s inscrutable specification. It remains a tight and orderly ship where fine work is done at fair prices.
The memorial tour brought out not just the Italian confections that were the shop’s first lifeblood, but the offbeat assortment of Jaguars, Mercedes-Benzes, MGs, Austin-Healeys, BMWs, Minis, Aston Martins, and Volvos that now just as often find their way to Domenick’s. Like a doctor who has one standard of care for all his patients, rich and poor, Domenico, who wore a sport jacket to work and, in later years, a beret, showed all machines the respect and patience they deserved. While he could lay hands on priceless old Colombo V-12s and banks of Webers like few others, he saw the beauty in everything. Although he’d not worked on the 1963 Dodge Dart GT convertible in attendance at his memorial (carpeting halfway up the door panels made it a GT, owner Rob Moore explained), he probably would have, had he been asked. European Car is just the name of the shop.
One of the great things about Domenick and the many who’ve worked their way up in his shop, in the classic European apprentice tradition, was his holistic view of automobiles, the ability to see the interconnection between their many systems. He had no patience for blindered technicians who fix one thing while ignoring others, such as replacing an unevenly worn tire without addressing the cause of the wear — or noticing that a nearby brake hose was weeping or the steering gear was dry.
I first met Domenick in 1995 when I bagged the Lancia Fulvia I’d long been pestering vintage racer Harry Reynolds to sell me (see Automobile Magazine, December 1991 and May 1996). I cold-called an officer of the American Lancia Club, seeking a recommendation on whom to entrust with recommissioning my new charge. He set me straight.
A former official Lancia sales point back in the 1960s — when all it took was a few brochures and the ability to place an order with the factory in Italian — Domenick’s no-frills premises would hold the knowledge, the parts, and the interest. That spoke to me, as someone whose old-car experience included numerous instances of being chased off garage forecourts when wheezing into sight in something old and funky by mechanics afraid they’d never get rid of, say, my Rover 3500S. As a bonus, Domenick’s was only a twenty-minute drive across the Hudson. I hoped he’d do a bang-up job on my Fulvia, and he did. Little did I know that over the next fourteen years, along with Frank and Santo, he’d work wonders on everything I own, from Triumph Dolomites to old Saabs to Ford Lotus Cortinas. Turned out they were great with Rovers, too.
Although he smoked like a chimney, swore like a professional, and did not suffer fools gladly, Domenico was indeed a gentleman. He outlived many of his patrons, but the Spadaro tour drew customers who’d been with him since the 1960s, with memories of him throwing his three kids into the back of the family’s Ferrari 330 for jaunts up to the grand prix in Montreal.
While I was visiting his shop one day in 1996, Domenick complained of a shooting pain in his arm and disorientation. I ran to get his sons, and an ambulance was called — he’d suffered a stroke, which temporarily took him out of commission. But Domenick’s race wasn’t run. In time, he’d return to the shop he loved, brilliantly rebuilding complex engines and operating machine tools with his eyes closed, but speaking less. For a while, he even forgot he’d been a two-pack-a-day Winston man. One morning he woke up, however, and asked words to the effect of “Where the *** are my cigarettes?” A man from another time, he smoked happily for years to come.
Domenico Spadaro is gone now, but it’s safe to say that his flock are not done memorializing him. First Annual implies Second Annual, Third Annual, and so on. We celebrate him and honor what he stood for, and that will never get old.