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Two generations welded to classic VWs

The Mastrogiovannis show the same devotion to Beetles and other old Volkswagens as their owners.

MICHAEL CANNING
Published February 6, 2004

There's just something about old Volkswagens.

Andy and Jerry Mastrogiovanni will tell you. The father and son team have spent most of their adult lives fixing and restoring them, especially old Beetles.

"It's the best car ever made," said the elder Mastrogiovanni.

Old Volkswagens, especially Beetles, give Jerry "the butterflies in my stomach," he said.

Owners of classic VWs, not just their mechanics, are famously devoted to their cars. As a result, old Volkswagen repair shops can be just as durable as old VWs themselves. The Mastrogiovannis' South Florida Auto Repair has been at 13301 N 22nd St. in north Tampa since 1972.

The three-quarter acre lot just south of Fletcher Avenue has the odd old Porsche, Alfa Romeo, Audi and Mercedes. But it's mainly packed with dozens of Volkswagens from bygone eras. Remember the Dasher, Quantum, and Rabbit? How about the little VW pickup? They're all here, in varying states of decay and disrepair.

But more than anything, the Mastrogiovannis' lot is stockpiled with the true classics, Beetles and Microbuses, the VWs with the all-important classic feature, an air-cooled engine.

Recently inside the Mastrogiovannis' office, Jerry displayed a newspaper article on the new Volkswagen Phaeton, an ultra-modern luxury sedan, to his father. "Six-speed automatic transmission. Wow," the 70-year-old said without a trace of enthusiasm. He pushed the article away from him. "I don't know anything about this."

For him, the ultimate VW is still a good old Beetle. "With that," he declared in his heavy Italian accent, "you can drive to Jacksonville on two cylinders."

Jack Espinosa, a longtime customer of the Mastrogiovannis, went through a similar crucible with his 1971 Super Beetle. Two years ago, he was doing 80 mph on Interstate 75 when his engine blew a cylinder near Brooksville.

Espinosa slowed to 30, turned on his hazard lights, and made it all the way to South Florida Auto Repair. "When it was wounded, it made it all the way in," he said, laughing.

That's why people love their old Volkswagens. Like faithful dogs that fetch help when their masters get lost in the wilderness, old Volkswagens can inspire uncanny loyalty.

And that dependability ultimately lies in the simplicity of the car's mechanics and design. Old Volkswagen engines may be notoriously low on horsepower, but they're also famously easy to work on and hard to kill.

It's why a mechanic like Jerry doesn't get too excited about modern VWs, post-air-cooled engine. Sure, he and his father and their chief technician Glenn Ackley are qualified to work on modern Volkswagens. Jerry even grudgingly calls the Passat a "good car," and owns a 1990 Jetta.

"But VW has the most success," said Jerry, "when they make the simplest car." When Volkswagen phased out the Beetle and its air-cooled engine, Jerry mourned. "I think it's a big mistake. I was very sad about it. It's like a loss of innocence."

But Jerry manages to hang on to some of that innocence with his personal pet project, a 1957 Beetle with a ragtop sunroof. His first car, it is up on a lift at the garage, awaiting a full restoration. "It's been more faithful than the women in my life," Jerry said.

As Volkswagens inspire loyalty, so can the mechanics who specialize in fixing them. Pat O'Shea, a technical writer who lives in north Tampa, has been coming to the Mastrogiovannis for 20 years. "If you find a mechanic that's honest, it's like a good hairstylist," she said. "You keep them."

"They do very good work and they're very honest people," Espinosa said of the Mastrogiovannis. "They just don't miss. Last year they put a rebuilt engine in ... That damned thing hums now."

Credit the founder's Old World work ethic.

Andy, a native of Guardiaregia, Italy, left his home country in 1952 for better job opportunities. He landed in Maracaibo, Venezuela, and worked as a mechanic for Shell Oil. In 1966 he moved with his family - wife Lucia, son Jerry, daughter Adriana - to Syracuse, N.Y.

The following year, warmer weather and a mechanic job for Andy at Lindell Motors brought the Mastrogiovannis to Tampa. A year later Andy partnered with his brother Pete and opened Mastro Brothers Volkswagen repair shop at Hillsborough Avenue and George Road.

The brothers split in 1972. Andy founded South Florida Volkswagen Auto Repair (he was later forced to drop "Volkswagen" from the name by the automaker), and Pete converted Mastro Brothers Volkswagen into a Subaru dealership. Mastro Subaru is still in business at Hillsborough and George.

In the meantime, Jerry grew up learning the mechanic's trade at his father's side. He earned language and mechanical engineering degrees from the University of South Florida, and worked for the university's personnel department. He officially joined his father at the shop in 1989.

While it's hard not to know someone who once drove a Beetle into the ground, it becomes important to point out the difference between durability and reliability.

O'Shea started driving in a 1967 Beetle. Then she got a "69 Beetle, and later a Rabbit. "I always had VWs, and they always had strange little electronic things going on," said O'Shea. Eventually, she switched to Nissans and Toyotas. "VWs were sort of high maintenance for me. And I didn't have a garage."

Like any old car, things wear out on Volkswagens. They may get you to the next town after blowing a valve. But, to cite some problems O'Shea had, the windshield wipers might turn on by themselves, or the seat belt warning buzzer may continue after you've buckled up.

And so the typical classic VW owner tends to be someone who likes to work on his car, or have his car worked on. "and that's not most females," said O'Shea.

Gender issues aside, an entire car culture has been created around modified Beetles and Microbuses, from dune buggies and souped-up racers, to decked-out surfers' vans and backwoods campers.

But that brings us back to owners like Espinosa. His '71 Super Beetle is arguably the most distinctive of all the Volkswagens that pass through the Mastrogiovannis' garage. Espinosa, a retired Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office spokesman, uses his car for deep woods hunting trips in the Ocala National Forest.

After several years of tinkering by him and the Mastrogiovannis, the car has a souped-up engine, wide track tires, an electric winch, a trailer hitch, headlight stone guards, and an olive drab paint job.

Mounts for an over-the-roof platform allow Espinosa, 73, to eschew the traditional tree stand as he waits for deer to pass through his sights. A steel plate welded underneath the car allows it to glide over sand and logs like a snake.

To top it off, the car's name is painted right on the door: General Beauregard J. Turdtumbler (it bears mentioning that Espinosa used to be a standup comic).

"I love my VW," said Espinosa. "It's my baby."

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