Robert's Fascination

He was just a kid then, growing up on West 10th Street in Brooklyn. Parked around the corner was a broken down old 1934 Chevy, he was fascinated by it, had to have it. He convinced his father and that '34 Chevy became his first car.

All across America boys worked on cars. Driven by the allure of things mechanical, they worked hard and learned to build their own cars. "Kids have lost that today." Robert says, "Kinda sad." He talks about the invaluable lessons, responsibility, discipline, common sense and their short supply nowadays.

Robert Dongara fixed up that '34 Chevy, made it run beautifully. Before long he opened his own repair shop, training himself in mechanics, body repair and fabrication. One day a Porsche pulled into his shop. He'd never seen anything like it. He devoured every morsel he could find about Porsche. He worked hard, saving his money. One day he crossed the bridge into Manhattan to Hoffman Motor Corporation, off Broadway near the Ed Sullivan Theater. A salesman who looked like Ernest Hemingway, tossed him a 'What do you want, kid?' look. Robert said he wanted to buy a new Porsche. The salesman tried to talk him out of it but Robert left a deposit and his phone number telling him to call when his car came in. A couple months later the call came. Robert put his savings in a shopping bag and headed back to Hoffman's.

"How you going to pay for it, kid?" The salesman asked, and Robert dumped the contents of his shopping bag onto the desk, $4,700 cash money. The salesman called in a woman with an adding machine and the counting began. The paperwork and counting complete, Robert drove home that 1961 Porsche Super 90, silver with black interior; the first one delivered to America.

Robert loved that car, studied it, fascinated by its design and engineering. Before long he was a Porsche expert, repairing mostly German cars, Porsche and Mercedes. Whenever the Porsche guys from Germany came to town he was invited to Hoffman's to meet with them.

Years later, in the 70's, Robert decided it was time for a change; sold his business, bought a place in the country outside of Catskill and tried to figure out what he wanted to do with this new phase of his life. Time passed and as he jokes, "I soon became Mr. 'Fundz Alow'." He knew he had to do something.

He ran an ad in a local paper and started repairing Volkswagens in the single car garage on the property. He'd sold everything from his shop in Brooklyn and didn't even have the right jacks, but he found a way, he made do. The business grew and a year later he started construction on a new larger shop. After that the Porsche and Mercedes business began to find him.

I mentioned fabrication earlier. Fabrication is the movement, the shrinking and expanding of metal. Robert elevates this craft to an art form. Imagine a rusted fender. Cut out the bad section then bend, shape, form a piece of metal to fit like new, undetectable from either inside or out when finished.

Robert's current fascination is the restoration of a 1950 CitroŽn. From 1934 to 1957 the CitroŽn remained unchanged. With a unitized body, hydraulic brakes, front wheel drive, great handling and maneuverability the CitroŽn was an engineering masterpiece in 1934. Robert completely disassembled the CitroŽn, every nut and bolt, fabricated where necessary and is now reassembling it. He promises me a ride when it's complete. I can't wait.

Life's marvels capture Robert's imagination. He works out on his leather speed bag with a boxer's skill he learned as a boy. He even flies kites, delighted at how they work.

"What would you have done, if it hadn't been cars?" I ask.

"Run a restaurant," he smiles. "My mother ran one when I was a kid. She taught me how to cook. I'm a very good cook, you know."

"An Italian restaurant?"

"What else?"

"Northern or southern?"

"You kiddin'?" He throws a warm, wide smile, "Sicilian! There is no other Italian cooking." Fascinating.

We'll talk next time From The Road.

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