Someone has to save them

1973 Chevy Bel Air and 1970 Chevy Chevelle Malibu

Wayne Wiener, 59, is a workingman. Compact and physically fit, he wears a Magnum, P.I.-era moustache and lives in a midcentury working class neighborhood near the water in Freeport, N.Y. He repairs heating equipment and manages his own rental houses for a living. It’s said that people are products of their environment, so perhaps Wiener’s is what shaped his affinity for the sort of classic cars once commonplace on American roads.

“They’re workingman cars,” he explained. “These are cars that everyone drove. They aren’t fancy, but there aren’t many of them left. People just used them up.”

On the sidelines of a photo shoot below the Manhattan Bridge, in Brooklyn, N.Y. earlier this year, he waited patiently on a folding lounge chair he’d brought along as a fashion model lounged luxuriantly across the vinyl front seat of his beige Dodge Aspen. Wiener hires out his cars for film and photo shoots when the work pops up (which isn’t, he tells me, all that often). So he knew the drill, and was equipped with a sleeping mask, a blanket and some light reading material with which to occupy himself while the photographers did their work in and around his car. Early the next morning, he was scheduled to bring another of his cars to a film shoot elsewhere in the city.

“Picture work is very spotty – you can’t rely on it,” he said. “Some people never get called at all.”

New, the Aspen was an unremarkable car – perhaps at the time, it was even the butt of a few jokes about Detroit’s legendarily poor build quality. Even today it’s not a car that grabs a lot of attention. But in the film and television world, productions like “The Americans,” which is set in the early ‘80s, create a demand for cars that look like they would have been around on the streets during the time period that’s being depicted. For his part, Wiener – who isn’t shy in stating his preference for old things, and who plays trumpet in a handful of big band-style jazz ensembles – genuinely likes these cars.

Like many collectors, Wiener sees himself as a preservationist charged with maintaining a slice of automotive history – the part that favors bench seats and stolid mechanicals over flash, opulence and high performance. His fleet is a checklist of mundane grocery-getters from a bygone era: a 307-powered ‘70 Chevy Chevelle Malibu sedan; a ‘73 Bel Air equipped with a column-shifted three-speed manual transmission and a six-cylinder engine; a ‘65 Buick Gran Sport he’s owned for more than 30 years; a slant-six ‘67 Plymouth Barracuda; a ‘72 Plymouth Satellite Sebring Plus (the personal luxury version of the Road Runner); a ‘73 Dodge Charger with a front bench seat; a ‘76 AMC Matador; a Bicentennial edition ‘76 Dodge Dart Sport; an unremarkable ‘78 Dodge Aspen coupe; a plain-Jane ‘90 Toyota Corolla sedan; a ‘91 Mercury Cougar and a ‘95 V-6 Mustang. The only cars he owns that are even remotely sporty are a trio of mid-‘60s Chevrolet Corvairs.

Wiener’s cars may not match most people’s definition of exciting, but they’re all more or less pristine low-mileage cars.

“I guess I’m a contrarian – everyone likes muscle cars and hot rods, and I like to be different,” he said. “If you think about it, my cars are all old man cars and old man versions of sporty cars.”

Being a workingman himself has helped Wiener keep his cars out of the elements. His daily driver is a work van he doesn’t mind parking outside, and the rental properties he owns have garages. His tenants – who are selected on the basis that they understand his multi-classic lifestyle – know from the time they sign the lease that those indoor parking spaces are for Wiener’s historic everyman cars.

“If I get the vibe that someone’s got their eye on the garage, I don’t rent it to him,” Wiener said. “I say, well, I ain’t gonna rent to this guy, because he’s always gonna resent me being in the garage.”

They generally keep the driveways in front of the garages clear, too, because Wiener often grabs cars for shoots or even just for exercise. Accessibility, he explains, is key.

“I like to be able to get to any car at any time,” he said. “What’s the good of having a car if you have to move six cars to get to it? You’re not going to use that car.”

Wiener said that his wife – who claims ownership of the Bicentennial Dart – is also sympathetic to his fondness for old cars.

“My wife has kind of gotten used to it,” he said. “As long as I’m working and bringing in money, she doesn’t mind the extra cars.”

Wiener can pinpoint the exact moment he became a collector. He was 21-years old and serving in the U.S. Air Force when he spotted someone driving a Corvair Monza driving across base with a for sale placard in the window.

“I chased the guy down and bought it,” he said. “Once I had it, I realized I didn’t need it. That’s the first car I bought that I didn’t need, so I guess that’s when I became a car collector.”

At 15 cars, Wiener’s current fleet may sound bountiful to most people. But he says he keeps his roster at a manageable number so that he’s able to drive each one at least every couple of weeks to keep engine and brake parts in good shape.

“I’m at the maximum that one guy can maintain, and I’m not trying to buy any more,” he said, although he admitted that saying no to an interesting new addition could, possibly, prove difficult.

“Sometimes the cars find you, and you wake up the next morning and you’re like, well, I did it again,” he said. “Or my wife will come home and see another one, and I’ll say, ‘That’s our car, too.’”

The Corolla, which looks new even though it’s almost 27 years old, is one of his more recent purchases. Its red paint is still shiny and its spartan gray cloth interior is unblemished by the marks that use and time can leave.

“If someone else had bought this car, it’d get used up in five years – it would be just another daily driver,” he said. “I saved it from that. I’m going to preserve it.”

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