Classic Cars restored to their original beauty

I am having dinner with a group of men that are like brothers to each other. They have known one another for at least thirty years. They talk, laugh, eat, drink, and finish one another’s sentences. They have lived their personal lives while creating a passion, a history, and a legacy that will live on beyond all of them. The legacy is called the NB Center for American Automotive Heritage.

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The NB stands for Nicola Bulgari. Nicola’s great-grandfather is Sotirio Bulgari, founder of the famed Bvlgari jewelry. Sotirio migrated from Greece to Italy, where Nicola was born. In the 1970s, the Group expanded to the United States. The luxury brand is now part of the LVMH Moët Hennessy – Louis Vuitton SE, known as the LVMH Group.

In some ways, Bulgari is like every other six-year-old kid, watching cars as they go by on the street, looking at magazines, and reading articles about his favorite cars. The other guys at the table know that Bulgari could have collected anything in the world, but cars are his passion. Bulgari could have collected any vehicle, undoubtedly Italian cars would have been the natural genre, but the American beauties from the ‘30s-’50s are his favorite.

Bulgari’s Executive Assistant, Alfredo Mercado, tells the story of how Bulgari and Keith Flickinger, curator and head of restoration at the NB Center for American Automotive Heritage, started working together in 1995. It involved a lunch in New York, a 1942 Buick Special Estate Wagon that rolled forward and hit an oak tree and a little car company called Precision Motor Cars.

The car needed to be fixed by a person that knew what they were doing. Through multiple recommendations, they were steered to Keith, owner of Precision Motor Cars, a thriving business in Allentown, known for its meticulous attention to detail. Keith, refusing to go to New York to fix the car, had them bring the crashed car to Allentown.

After the first car was restored, Bulgari started sending all his cars to Keith. Keith bought a bigger building to house all of his work. Pretty soon, Bulgari purchased the shop next to Flickinger’s, so that they could house all of Bulgari’s cars.

After a while, Bulgari acquired the 27-acre area that used to be Allentown’s original drive-in theater but had practically become a landfill. It took years to clean up the compound. All the old hippie buses where the homeless slept were taken away. Builders were brought in to create a conference center from re-purposed wood in a Pennsylvania Quaker, Amish-style.

Each building has a name, though some of them have two names; there’s an upholster building, a mechanical building, a Fab (fabrication) shop that could be called 808. On the top of the hill is the tile building or the HVA center named for a part of the building that is on loan to the Historic Vehicle Association, a company that documents all vehicles that are important in American and automotive history.

What may seem a disparate group of friends on some levels has been thirty years of passion with a goal of restoring these cars to the pristine style they were in when they came off the production line.

This everyman’s era of American cars is lost, no museum has the sedans of this era in such pristine condition; they weren’t collected, they weren’t preserved, so now they have to be restored. These are the guys that are scouring the world to bring middle-income America’s history back to life.
If there is one person that knows these cars as well as Bulgari, it would be Flickinger, and Bulgari is proud of that. “Look what Keith did,” he says, pointing at a piece of finger jointed wood that had to be recreated to finish the structure of a car.

Keith said that up until 1938 or 1939, vehicles were made using a wooden skeleton with sheet metal skin wrapped around the wood. Pieces of the wood frame have rotted, or have been eaten away by termites, and have to be reproduced.

When Flickinger owned his own restoration company, he got to work on the cars. Today he manages a lot more of the work. You get the impression when talking to him that he’s not completely comfortable with the manager role, accepting the awards, traveling the world. He spoke of the first time he visited Bulgari in New York, “I felt like Crocodile Dundee in New York City.” There is part of him that yearns for the nostalgia of working on a car and going home and mowing his lawn.

There’s part of him that has to pinch himself because he knows he’s the luckiest guy in Allentown. What drives him now is paying it forward, finding young people that have the quality of craftsmanship that it takes to work on a Bulgari car. Flickinger is on the Board of Directors for Restoration, Preservation, and Mentorship, a foundation that supports the craft of collector cars through education and funding.

Flickinger is working with about 1,000 young people at the Restoration Learning Center at America on Wheels in Allentown, Penn., looking for someone to carry on for him. “I’m hoping to find someone in their 30s that is as passionate about the business as I am. I’m not ready to retire, but I’m already looking.”

Flickinger’s brother, Kris, gets the title restoration shop manager and International liaison for NB. Flickinger brought Kris onboard after his brother worked with him four hours a night, four days a week, for an entire year for free, learning the trade. Every night after Kris’ paying job, he would go to his brother’s restoration house. Flickinger brought Kris into the fold because “I needed someone I could trust. If you can’t trust your brother…” The brothers don’t realize how much they have in common, how much they feed off of each other in the minutia for detail, the love of discovery. Between the two of them, they keep track of Bulgari’s cars all over the world and decide which part of the restoration is done in Allentown and which is done in Italy.

Flickinger showed me the book that the team had created about the 1940 Nash Ambassador Eight convertible restoration, resplendent with the original leather from the Nash as the binding of the book. The original leather wasn’t usable in the car, so instead of throwing the material out, they produced an album around it. Kris showed me the 1939 Nash Ambassador Eight styling model sedan he had found at a flea market. While cost is no object, it is also not the objective to be known as a buyer for NB because the price will go up exponentially.

Both Keith and Kris told me that after the price is negotiated, the former owner is excited to know that it will be going to the NB Center for American Automotive Heritage. They eagerly grab book after book of elaborate magazine advertisements of American cars and show me the cars that were sold to the public in the magazines. It is a time capsule of life through advertising.

Each restored car has a mini version of the automobile made by hand, not a die-cast, by Brooklin Limited. The Bath, England based company creates some of the most spectacular white metal 1/43 scale models ever seen. Only jewelry makers themselves rival the artisanship required to produce the Brooklin pieces of art. Bulgari appreciated the quality of workmanship so much he acquired the company four years ago.

Kris loves traveling the world, looking for those lost, one-of-a-kind finds. The first time I met him in Italy, he was on a stopover, flying to two other countries to see a couple of cars.

The stories behind the cars are just as legendary as the cars themselves. The Peter, Paul and Mary 1930 Graham classic automobile that is on the front of the Album 1700, the 1940 Buick Super Woodie wagon that was in the movie “Now Voyager” that starred Bette Davis and Paul Henreid, a ’33 Ford loved by Dillinger because “no one could pass him.”

They recently bought three Lincoln Zephyrs, of which there are only about twenty total left, all others were turned into street rods. One of the Zephyrs is a rust bucket, waiting to be restored. We open the door to take a picture, and the door falls off the hinges.

One of Bulgari’s favorites, a 1935 Buick 96S Coupe, sits in splendor outside the building, the deep maroon paint glistening in full restoration. Just 41 of the long-wheelbase Model 96S Buicks rolled off the factory floor in 1935, during the Great Depression. This is the car that infused Bulgari with the love of American cars.

This is the car he waited to see whiz past him during the Mille Miglia when he was six years old. It was found in a puddle, restored in Allentown and won best in class at the grandest of all car Concours’, the Pebble Beach Concours d’Elegance.

Bulgari is just as fascinated with airplanes and aerodynamics as he is with the Nash Airflyte. When he found out my husband was a musician (it came up because Bulgari has a Steinway Model D at the center) and a homebuilt pilot (Thorp T-18), he wanted to know all about the music he played and the plane he flew.

We talked about the wooden Catalina model that he had in his room, and he wanted me to tell my husband that he had flown in a B-17 twice, once in Allentown, and once out of Detroit, Mich. He’s interested in talking to anyone that works with their hands, that has a passion for what they do in life. It is the symbiosis that binds these men. They are doers, not talkers.
We walk through the service and mechanical restoration buildings where the guys are creating headlights for a car.

There’s a 1934 Nash Brougham sedan bare chassis sitting there, “Mr. Bulgari’s good friend, Dr. Fred Simeone, gave that to him. Fred knew that Mr. Bulgari was the one person that would do justice to bringing this car back to life.”

All the homework has to be done to ensure the car is restored to pristine condition. The mohair, from the chin of an Angora goat, seats that have mold in them have to be taken apart and replaced with the same material. That little bit of cloth wrapped around the back, where the seats are sewn together, is taken apart to reveal the original colors of the seats and door panels, allowing the new material to be as close to an exact replicate as possible. Upholstery artisans from the bespoke furniture business produce the new fabric.

All of the restorations for all of the cars around the world are recorded through videos, go-pros, and photographs cataloged and digitized in a database never to be lost again. The picture that is the sweetest was of Mr. Bulgari when he was six-years-old, sitting in a 1938 Chrysler Royal convertible in Lugano, Switzerland, in 1946, just after the war.

As the sun sets over the compound, we all pull up comfy chairs on the conference center podium so that we can have the best view of the massive theater to watch the American sports comedy film “Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby.” It doesn’t get much more American than that.

The NB Auto Center is making itself the largest historical trust of American cars and information from the ’30s to the ’50s. It is not just a car collection; it is a legacy, an American heritage that an International band of brothers is creating.