Lou Mandich taught middle school English and reading in Coatesville for 32 years, but his passion was always restoring old cars. So when he retired 10 years ago from teaching, he took a gamble and invested in a shop in Unionville and called it Last Chance Garage, because it was located next to a cemetery. Business has been steady ever since, even when the economy went sour.
"The economy so far hasn't hurt me," Mandich said. "I get a lot of business from word-of-mouth and car shows." Mandich, 64, who has three mechanics on staff, has had a constant backlog of customers.
But for Mandich, the real payoff comes when he rides his antique cars. He has several in his collection, including a 1918 Buick. His favorite is a very rare 1929 Rolls Royce Phantom, which isn't his, but he takes it on the road because he cares for it for a customer. "When this car was built in 1929, the chassis alone cost as much as three or four Cadillacs at the time," he said. "But it's tricky to drive by today's standards."
Those looking for show cars need to look elsewhere. Mandich firmly believes in taking his cars out for regular use. In addition to the Buick, he has a 1947 Willys Jeep, a 1946 Chevy pickup truck and a 1941 Chevy dump truck. Because they're antique, there's just a one-time licensing fee and insurance is very cheap, just $100 annually per vehicle.
Driving antique cars on the roads gives Mandich a thrill, but there are many challenges. Often, cars will drift into his lane because they gawk at the cars while passing by. "I try to always keep to the very right side of the road," Mandich said.
And then there's the challenge of operating such an old car. The 1918 Buick can be quirky to start, and once started, the driver must manually advance the spark with a device on the steering wheel. There's an oil can under the hood. The valves must be lubricated every 50 miles.
Mandich describes himself as a "putterer," and lets his team of mechanics, Fred Shufflebarger, Walter Higgins and Jim Groome, do much of the technical work. He works to obtain customers and order had-to-find parts for old cars.
Mandich said anyone who wants a start in antique cars should buy a 1928 to 1931 Model A Ford, because parts are cheap and easy to obtain and the cars are very easy to work on. It's an affordable hobby, he said.
Because his business involves restoring "woodie" cars, Mandich recently formed an association with Doug Mooberry of Kinloch Woodworking, which is located about a stone's thrown away from Last Chance.
Mandich prides himself in the fact that Last Chance can repair just about any antique or classic car, even the muscle cars of the 60s and early 70s. Even foreign makes are no problem.
Though he prefers original cars, one thing Mandich insists on adding are seat belts. This is because his cars are used and not put on show, and safety is very important. "It's funny," he said, "because when Ford put seat belts in their cars in the 60s, people thought the cars were unsafe because why would they put a seat belt in?"
The biggest obstacle Mandich faces when he takes his antique cars out on local roads is the brakes. "The cars are very hard to stop," he said. "Back then, they made the cars to go, not to stop."
Mandich and his cars can be seen at many local car shows and he is a member of the Chester County Antique Car Club.