Owner stories: The Brooklynite’s beloved Bentley

If you told a young Joe Assenza back in the early 1950s that he would own a luxurious Bentley convertible someday, the Brooklyn, N.Y., native would have considered that prediction about as likely as the Dodgers moving to Los Angeles. “Me? Own a fancy car like that? Fuggedaboudit.”

Of course, Brooklyn’s beloved baseball team left for the West Coast nearly 60 years ago, and today there’s a 1956 Bentley S parked in Assenza’s garage.

A badge of distinction (Benjamin Preston)

The story of how the curvaceous British automobile found its way to Assenza couldn’t be told without including tales from the good ol’ days, when childhood buddies became lifelong friends. Long before the Bentley came along, the fanciest car that Assenza saw in his Italian neighborhood while growing up in the 1950s was the Cadillac convertible that belonged to his buddy Pete D’Angelo’s father. A teenage D’Angelo was allowed to take his friends on an occasional cruise, and the group almost always included Assenza, Sam Gambino, Pete Grasso, Jojo Durante, and Guido Volante. “We didn’t care if it was winter or what,” Assenza recalls. “If the sun was shining, the top was down.”

Of course, sometimes Assenza and the guys had to settle for a car that belonged to someone else’s father, like the dowdy 1936 Pontiac sedan owned by Assenza’s dad. Assenza remembers one night when the group drove the Pontiac to see a movie in Bensonhurst, the largely Italian-American neighborhood where Saturday Night Fever was filmed many years later. They parked the car in front of a pool hall, and when the film was over they found themselves confronted by a couple of ornery pool hall toughs.

“We were getting into the car to leave and one of the guys standing out front said, ‘Whatta you lookin’ at?’ You know how it is. He said this and we said that, and he broke the windows of my father’s car with a pool cue as we were driving away. I told my father we found the car like that when we got out of the theater.”

Assenza wasn’t afraid that he’d get into trouble with his dad; he was worried that his dad might go looking for some. “I didn’t want him going down there and getting into a fight with those guys.”

The 1956 Bentley S at Coney Island (Benjamin Preston)

Many of Assenza’s stories about the old days feature mishaps. Like the time D’Angelo let one of his friends—who was unlicensed at the time—drive the Cadillac during a cruise along the Belt Parkway. When traffic stopped short, the inexperienced driver crashed into the car ahead.

Assenza’s time in the Cadillac eventually convinced him to buy a convertible of his own, a straight-eight-powered 1946 Buick Super. “That car was so smooth. I’d get home from work on Friday, and if it didn’t rain I’d leave the top down until I left for work Monday morning.”

Though the years, Assenza and his pals remained tight. Assenza, D’Angelo, Gambino, and Volante even worked together for a while at JFD Manufacturing, a well-known manufacturer of television antennae back then.

“One time, Guido—I don’t know if he had a license or what—was driving a truckload of steel for JFD,” Assenza says. “The whole load let go in the middle of the Brooklyn Battery Tunnel. It was a mess, but whataya gonna do? We had a lot of fun back then.”

The group also enjoyed a different type of pleasure cruising, pooling their money to buy a 42-foot boat. One day, Volante and his wife took the boat out and forgot to open the sea valve—the device that lets water into the heat exchanger to cool the engine. Realizing his mistake, Volante opened it, but when the cold water hit the hot engine, it cracked the manifold. “We spent hours trying to get that thing going again, but we never could,” Assenza says. “That was that.”

Joe Assenza behind the wheel of his right-hand-drive 1956 Bentley S. In the background is the Verrazano-Narrows bridge, a symbol of the Italian-American neighborhood Assenza grew up in (Benjamin Preston)

On another occasion, the friends took D’Angelo's 18-foot cruiser on the Hudson River and enjoyed a picnic near the George Washington Bridge. On the way back, the engine died, and the group—including wives and girlfriends—paddled the boat 10 miles from 14th Street to the Bay Parkway marina. It was nearly midnight when they finally reached the dock in south Brooklyn. The wives and girlfriends were not amused.

Assenza’s wife, Rosemary, learned how to drive in his Buick convertible, but her displeasure with what open-air drives did to her hair necessitated a change to a more practical car.

Years passed without another droptop in the driveway. Assenza and his wife raised three children. He worked at a machine shop for a while, then became a partner in one. His company made dies for plastic manufactured goods, everything from handbags to book bindings. He owned other nice cars—like a mid-’90s Cadillac and a late-’90s Mercedes (which he still drives)—but none of them were convertibles.

Meanwhile, Pete D’Angelo eventually moved his family to Florida, and his work as a theater manager required frequent travel to California and back. That’s where he found the Bentley. D’Angelo died in 1998, leaving few clues about the car’s origins. His son, Bob, doesn’t recall much about the car’s provenance, other than something about it being involved in the pilot episode of a television show at some point. Describing the Bentley as “money pit,” the younger D’Angelo eventually put it into storage. Then a few years later he received a call from his father’s boyhood chum, asking about the car. Assenza offered to buy it, and Bob was all-too happy to part with it.

Joe Assenza carefully navigates his narrow driveway (Benjamin Preston)

Today, Assenza drives the Bentley in parades and shows in and around New York City. One of his favorites is the Veterans Day parade on 5th Avenue in Manhattan. Among the distinguished passengers he has chauffeured are Robert Morgenthau, a World War II veteran and Manhattan district attorney (the third longest-serving D.A. in American history), and a U.S. Marine Corps Navajo “code talker” known as “Chief Little.”

Assenza says that meeting Chief Little got him thinking about his father, Frederick Assenza, who served in the infantry during World War I. After some research, he learned that his dad had been injured by shrapnel on Oct. 4, 1918, during the Meuse-Argonne offensive. “When I was a kid, we didn’t know about his time in the army, just that he had a big scar on his leg. All that time he was a hero.”

Assenza enjoys Rolls-Royce (and Bentley) Owners Club get-togethers, although the attendees—while always friendly and accommodating—tend to be a bit different than the blue-collar members in the other owner club he frequents, the Antique Automobile Association of Brooklyn.

On most days, the Bentley resides in a tiny garage at the end of a long, impossibly narrow driveway, behind the row house that Assenza and his family have lived in for five decades. He had a few rows of bricks removed from the back wall to accommodate his earlier Cadillac purchase, and the modification also works well for the lengthy Bentley.

It’s difficult to tell from a few yards away, but the car was originally a four-door sedan. A previous owner chopped off the roof and turned it into a convertible, smoothing off the tops of the doors with fiberglass and metal. Most people don’t even notice, and Assenza seems not to care. For shows, he keeps an Italian coffee pot and espresso service in the trunk, ready to be displayed on the knurled walnut folding trays in the back seat.

Joe Assenza is a member of the Rolls-Royce Owners Club, which also includes Bentley owners (Benjamin Preston)

Assenza says he hasn’t done much to the car in the decade he’s owned it. A brake problem took some time to sort out; the Bentley has two master cylinders and they’re both under the car. But the large six-cylinder engine always starts and runs smoothly. And Assenza really appreciates the styling. “The lines remind me of the Buick, the way the back fenders end all the way at the rear. It feels good driving it with the top down. With all the attention you get … fuggedaboutit!”

Case in point, as Assenza cruised the Bentley at Coney Island recently, a pair of teenage boys stopped in their tracks and stared gape-jawed at the car. One of them blurted, “Yo, Ima call you for a music video!” And just around the corner, a woman in a battered sedan smiled and shouted, “Mmmm-mmm! That car looks fine! And y’all look good in it.”

Assenza says he always appreciates the compliments, since the experience takes him back to his roots and reminds him of his younger days, when his friends—all but two of whom have passed on—were his constant companions. “I wish I had this car back when I was cruising with the guys.”