When Hurricane Sandy tried to take these classic cars, two New York families took them back
Marilyn and Richard Klebonas have lived in Howard Beach, Queens, for more than 20 years, but Marilyn had never seen anything like the storm surge that flooded their street, yard and basement with six feet of water on October 30, 2012. A few blocks away, Bill Newton’s family also felt Hurricane Sandy in the home that’s been in his family for two generations.
Both the Klebonas and Newton families were without power for more than a week and both lost their furnaces, hot water heaters, electrical panels and major household appliances, as well as finished basements and years of memorabilia. Each also lost a beloved collector car. Yet they consider themselves incredibly lucky because, unlike many people in Queens, Staten Island and the Rockaways, their families were safe and they didn’t lose their homes.
Knowing that a major storm was headed for New York, Rich Klebonas, Sr., and son Richie, Jr., took precautions. “I moved my 1970 Opel GT before the storm, because I was afraid it would float away,” Richie says. “I moved my 1984 Mustang as well, but I left the 1965 Mustang. We thought it would be fine in the garage on ramps.” To divert water, father and son placed sandbags in front of the garage and basement doors.
To their astonishment, the Klebonas’ yard and basement apartment were completely flooded and the restored Mustang fastback was submerged in rushing salt water. As soon as the storm subsided, Richie began hosing it down and drained the oil pan to reveal that the engine had taken on water. With the carburetor off and plugs out, he was able to turn the engine by hand and squirt oil in the cylinders.
Five minutes away, Bill Newton’s Jewel Blue 1961 Corvette fared just as badly. Although Newton was stuck at work at the Metropolitan Transit Authority, his son Ray saw the water rising and tried to jack the car but had no room to work. By the time he knew the Corvette and his Malibu drag car were going to be submersed, all he could do was “disconnect the batteries, shut off the house main breaker” and, as his father advised, “make sure Mommy and the dog are safe.”
Like Rich and Richie Klebonas, after the waters receded, Ray Newton rolled the Corvette out of the garage and started washing the salt away. With the help of family friend Andy Russo, he also drained the murky oil and water mixture out of the 270-horsepower 283-cid small-block, filled the bores with Marvel Mystery Oil and got the engine turning.
With both cars clearly totaled, why did these owners put so much effort into damage mitigation, with so much to do to get back on track elsewhere with new furnaces, water heaters, washers and dryers, and replacement family cars? The answer is simple: Before the water even reached the tires, Richie Klebonas and Bill Newton knew they’d never let their cars go.
The Mustang had belonged to Rich’s late brother, and the younger Klebonas loved his uncle’s car. After a brief stint with Uncle Jackie’s daughter, who crashed it twice, he gave it to Richie, who spent years restoring it with his father. The pair did practically every job themselves, including the beautiful Vintage Burgundy paint. As Rich explains, “There was no question the car would be kept and fixed,” so they bought it back from the insurance company.
As a kid, Bill Newton fell in love with his best friend’s brother’s 1958 Corvette. In 1986, he searched for his own. “We went to look at this car in Brooklyn,” Bill says. “It was a basket case and I didn’t even know what year it was. My friend said, ‘If you don’t take it, I will.’ So I took the car and it had bullet holes in the windows and a trashed interior.” Newton began collecting OEM and NOS parts, though the 10-year restoration didn’t start until 1990, one Sunday at a time. Meanwhile, young Ray wondered why Dad focused on the old wreck instead of taking him dirt bike riding.
For the Klebonas father and son, the Mustang is the best reminder of a lost brother and uncle, and they restored it together in his memory. And Ray Newton now understands his father’s passion for the Corvette and loves it more than his own car, although at 24, he still hasn’t driven it. But Dad has a dream for the car: He wants to leave it to Ray for him to share with his children.
For both cars, the road to restoration will be long and costly. But at the end of the day, it’s not about the money or the time; it’s about the family. Plus, they’re New Yorkers, and no mere hurricane is going to take their cars. Fuggedaboutit!