The Thriving Long Island Classic Car Scene

By Liz Pulver

Tony Mendola pushed his shoulder-length grey hair out of his face and took a sip of his beer. He then smiled while describing how he began to work on his prized 1964 Chevy II Nova when his daughter was just eight years old.

She is now 31.

“It doesn’t get out of your system,” Mendola said.  “I’ve had that car forever, I love it, and keep doing little stuff here and there to it.”

The violet-pearl Nova, with its exposed engine and plethora of window stickers, was one of over 400 cars at Long Island Street Rod Association’s (LISRA) Spring Car Show at Suffolk Community College on April 22. The show was open to anyone, not just club members, and raised money for the school’s automotive department.

“We’ve been doing a car show for about 35 years here,” Jerry Prinzivalli, LISRA President, said. “Years ago we were the only show… now everyone’s doing car shows, so its hard, but we try not to step on each others toes.”

Many car clubs do charity events to help out in the community. The LISRA show pays for a full two-year scholarship for two students in the Suffolk Community College automotive program.

Many of these newer car shows try to bring in fun for the whole family, not just car fanatics.  The annual St. Patrick’s School Car Show, hosted at St. Patrick’s Church in Smithtown on April 29th, is one of the many shows that have popped up in recent years.  In addition to cars, the show had craft and food vendors, attractions for children and a DJ. It raised over $12,000 for the school and had over 250 cars.

The CEO of the St. Patrick’s Car Show, John Forlenza, says he and Prinzivalli support each other by scheduling their shows on alternate weekends, recommending possible vendors  and encouraging car owners and club members to attend the respective shows.

Proceeds from the St. Patrick’s show go towards new educational equipment for the school, like laptops and Smart Boards, according to Forlenza.

“What’s nice about it you can go to these other car clubs and they don’t discriminate, whatever type of car you have,” Mendola said. “Coming and enjoying and having fun, that’s what it’s about.”

Long Island is home to over 50 car clubs, that host events from nightly cruises, to weekly breakfasts to large-scale car shows. LIRSA was founded in 1965 and currently has 98 members, making it the oldest and largest car club on Long Island.

Many owners passion’s are in the restoration process. Often times, owners acquire their cars in bad shape, and then put their time and money into its transformation.

“Taking a car that looks like it should go to the scrap yard and then turning it into something that everyone wants to see, that’s my passion,” Prinzivalli said. “I just want to get it to run, stop and steer, that’s the thrill I get.”

Collecting and restoring classic cars, is not an inexpensive pastime. Complete restoration of a car can cost upwards of $50,000  and a fully restored car can cost into the millions.

“People come over and look at the car and say their mother had the car, their grandmother had the car, and then they take pictures,” Steve Candreva, the owner of a 1956 Ford and 1954 Mercury Monterey, said. “It’s the best, it’s worth it.”

Many people wait to officially take up car collecting until they are financially thriving, like Douglass Williams. Williams began collecting cars in 2004 and currently owns a modified 1970 Corvette Stingray that appeared in a 2015 Super Bowl commercial.

“I enjoy the people,” Williams said. “It’s a good place to be, and you can be doing a lot worse things with your money.”

Many owners see classic car collecting as a way to travel back in time. Whether it be reliving childhood memories or transporting themselves to a completely different era, it’s a way to get out of the here-and-now.

“Many people who have these cars, had them when they were growing up,” Steve Calise, owner of an award-winning 1964 Pontiac Grand Prix, said. “People see it as a revival of themselves.”

The hobby of car collecting and restoring is more often than not seeded in a life-long passion for automotives, that is not able to come to fruition until later in life.

“Hot rods is just a state of mind,” Mendola said. “ It’s always in your blood, it’s always going to be there.”

According to Prinzivalli, many people do not realize that Long Island has such a booming classic car scene.

“Chip Foose, a big-time builder in California, came out [here] and just couldn’t believe the amount of cars and enthusiasm,” Prinzivalli said. “There’s a lot here, there’s a lot of people on Long Island and there’s a lot of people that love the cars.”

Journalism major at Stony Brook graduating in 2020. Also a member of Stony Brook's NCAA Division 1 women's volleyball team.