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Archie's Other Place

Automobiles: Actor Carroll O'Connor has long nurtured a passion for classic cars. Now he's in business maintaining and restoring them.

February 16, 1997|JASON TERADA | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

NEWBURY PARK — Archie Bunker never was a Cadillac kind of guy, more like a Chevy man.

But Carroll O'Connor--the actor best known as the prejudiced patriarch of the Bunker clan and a small-town Southern sheriff on the long-running drama "Heat of the Night"--has for decades nurtured a passion for finely crafted automobiles.

And he is doing business in Newbury Park maintaining and restoring them.

As the proprietor of Carroll O'Connor's Classics, next to the Ventura Freeway at 1714 Newbury Road, the veteran actor says he oversees a crew of some of the most talented car-restoration experts on the West Coast.

Led by some master restorers transplanted from a now-defunct Santa Monica shop, O'Connor's crew pampers and refurbishes the classic Cadillacs, Packards, Lamborghinis and other carriages favored by Hollywood's glitterati.

Among O'Connor's customers is the descendant of one of the movie industry's founding families, who will remain anonymous at the request of management.

O'Connor said his classic car business began coming together about five years ago when he began renting storage space in Westlake for a few cars and household items.

"You couldn't call it a shop," he said. "It was just storage, then we started working in it, and one thing led to another."

But complaints in Westlake prompted O'Connor and company to move to their present spot next to a gardening supply store in Newbury Park, where neighbors seem more tolerant of automotive work.

After more than half a year of preparation and $100,000 worth of improvements to the building, Carroll O'Connor's Classics opened last April.

"My son and I were always interested in classic cars, and we were going to do this somewhere before he died two years ago," O'Connor said. "Then I said, 'I think Hugh would like me to go on with this thing.' "

The 72-year-old actor, casually dressed and wearing a black driving cap, gazed appreciatively around his sparkling-clean workshop packed nearly wall-to-wall with fine cars, many worth more than an average split-level home.

One, a rakish jet-black 1938 Delage D8/120 Delta Sport, was built in France for exhibit at the 1939 New York World's Fair.

"I don't know as much about this as my son, but I think he'd like me to do it and he'd get a big kick out of this place." O'Connor said.

O'Connor said his son was an enthusiast of Triumph roadsters and had acquired a number of fine examples--including a striking blue TR 250 on display in the shop's front window--before his suicide at age 32.

"He coaxed me into buying that TR 8 that's out there in the window," O'Connor said.

The golden, wedge-shaped two-seater, built during Triumph's final days before the company became yet another forgotten British marque like MG and Austin-Healey, sits on exhibit next to his son's roadster, discreetly marked, "Not for Sale."

O'Connor said he believes the sign above his shop is a little on the small side.

Still, the window framing the two O'Connors' Triumphs, several restored Cadillacs and a number of other classic vehicles serves as the best advertisement for what goes on inside.

"This place is a tourist attraction," said Richard Gallardo, one of the mechanics O'Connor picked up when the Hill & Vaughan restoration house in Santa Monica closed.

"People come and look in the windows all day long," Gallardo said.

While the automotive enthusiast may thrill at the frozen leap of a Jaguar E-Type, sense the grandeur radiated by a well-preserved Packard, or feel his or her pulse quicken while studying the sensual lines of a bright red Ferrari, the vehicles coming out of O'Connor's shop are meant to be driven, not just looked at.

"We don't run a museum," O'Connor said, starting toward his favorite car parked toward the rear of the building--a massive burgundy and black 1936 Rolls-Royce Phantom III, nicknamed "The Old Man."

"That's the only V-12 Rolls-Royce ever made. I own it and drive it all the time," O'Connor said, and gently stroked its nearly 3-foot-tall chrome grille.

"It moves along well up to 100 mph, and that's because everything under the hood is replaced as original."

One of O'Connor's lead restorers, Gene O'Hara, who has been transforming old and neglected automobiles into objects of desire for about 30 years, said the business has its own share of headaches and hassles.

"You have a budget and you also have a time budget," O'Hara said. "It's a difficult thing to keep these jobs under control moneywise and timewise.

"In most cases we try to make the cars better than they originally were from the factory."

During restorations, which usually entail taking the car completely apart, refurbishing or replacing worn components and reassembling it, O'Connor's crew does the bulk of the work on the premises. Tasks such as welding and painting are done elsewhere because of city restrictions and lack of space.

O'Connor, who drives to Newbury Park from his Malibu home weekly to check on work being done on customers' cars and his own, said the shop has generated a modest profit, which is rising as its reputation spreads.

He said he enjoys being able to help other automotive enthusiasts create the cars of their dreams, and ensuring those precious survivors of bygone days stay out of the scrap pile.

"I don't like everything forgotten all at once," O'Connor said, adding that such sentiment spawned his appetite for old cars, big band music of the 1930s and '40s and well-crafted antique furniture.

"You just get that great feeling of comfort with that furniture, and comfort with the old cars and comfort with the old music too--and it's just that I'm an old fart."

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