Since the days he raced fellow high school students in a 1946 Plymouth up and down Whittier Boulevard through his East L.A. neighborhood, Mel Gross has lived and breathed Southland's car culture.
He's put 46 years into Pep Boys, where he's still the auto supply chain's West Coast maintenance manager. And he's poured his heart into the cult of the Ford Model A.
"These things," says the 63-year-old gruff-voiced grandfather of two, "are all I know." Gross' spacious Montebello house is a virtual museum of Pep Boys memorabilia, and his garage is a warehouse for thousands of Model A parts. The job and the car speak of the same quality he cherishes, something so lacking in today's world: reliability.
"You know what you've got with these cars," he says, patting the polished fender of a 1929 sports coupe, one of two Model A's he owns. "Newer cars. You can't figure them out when they break down." With these, "when something goes wrong, you know exactly what to do."
He sees the same lesson at the company where he first started working as a teen-ager. In a time when downsizing and disloyalty dominate the workplace, Gross' story seems as anachronistic as the automotive antiques pictured on the walls of his tiny Pep Boys office near Downtown.
"I've always had an arrangement with the folks who run this company," he says. "If you don't like what I'm doing, I'll leave."'
At 17, Gross cleaned the bathrooms of an Eastside Pep Boys store. He became a salesman, then a store manager, and then at 34 began a 16-year stint as personal assistant to the late Moe Strauss, the mustachioed Pep Boys co-founder caricatured in the company's "Manny, Moe and Jack" logo with a dandy's smile and seashell ears. Today, Gross oversees a whole network of maintenance operations on this side of the country for the Philadelphia-based auto parts chain.
"I've seen it all," he says. "Fender skirts, curb scrapers, spinner hubcaps, dice on the rearview mirror. A lot of this stuff comes and goes. One guy gets a wolf whistle [which emulates a wolf call to pretty pedestrians] and, before you know it, everyone else wants one.
"Moe loved that we sold all of those things," he continues. "He always liked feeling connected to people."
Gross grew close to Strauss during countless hours on the road with him and watched Moe die slowly of lung cancer in 1982.
Showcases of rare Pep Boys ads, signs, banners and miniature statues of "Manny, Moe and Jack" are hung in several rooms of Gross' house.
"They wanted to throw a lot of this stuff away, so I just took it all home. My wife thinks I'm crazy," he says.
"There are only two of those in existence," he says zealously, motioning to a gold-leaf Pep Boys sign from the 1930s hanging near his pool table.
"This one here, there's only one I know of," he says, fingering a block-lettered sign reading "Employees' Message of the Day" that was made in the mid-1920s. "Moe told me this sign used to hang on a bulletin board in the Philadelphia office."
Near that sign hangs a framed collage of newspaper articles and photos that all focus on Strauss, a shrine of sorts to Gross' old boss. And once again, Gross is remembering Moe.
"He was always joking. And he always had a cigar in his mouth. When I drove him around, the cigar smoke would get so thick, I couldn't see out of the window. God bless him. You couldn't ask for a better friend. Or a better boss. Moe really cared."
Gross thinks about retirement, then thinks about how the company helped him put his three children through college and kept him and his wife, Jackie, a teen-age sweetheart Gross married 43 years ago, comfortable for decades.
"It'll be a bad day when I do go. There's gonna be tears," he says.
Gross holds weekend auto repair seminars in his garage for members of the "Los Alamitos A's," a 100-member San Gabriel Valley group. Every night after he gets home from work he spends about 2 1/2 hours cleaning and repairing old Model A parts he collected in preparation for the seminars.
Rows of buckets in his garage, filled with freshly sanded transmission pieces and reassembled Model A carburetors, signify Gross' productivity.
"You can get this stuff all over town," he says, pointing to a pile of rusty parts from local junkyards. "You just have to know where to look. Fixing them is easy. It takes a little know-how and a lot of patience."
On a recent Saturday, Gross taught his friends how to install seat belts in their Model A's.
"Where did you buy those seat belts?" he asks La Vonne Wood, a Los Angeles school district principal and teacher for 39 years.
"Where do you \o7 think \f7 I got them?" she replies.
"They know they better not go to Trak Auto," Gross jokes.
"Mel helps us all a lot," Wood says later. "People in this club have a genuine desire to preserve the great things in life."
Watching his friends equip nine Model A's with safety belts, Gross indeed has a look of contentment. "Hey, what are you doing there?" someone calls to him. "Get to work."
Gross remains seated in his garage, his hands clasped behind his head and smiles.
"No thanks," he says. "I just want to sit here."