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Getting inside a gearhead— Historical Society’s Car Show revs up Saturday

ANNABELLE WOODWARD PHOTO Larry Lechmanski, getting out from under the hood of his beloved Firebird.
Larry Lechmanski, getting out from under the hood of his beloved Firebird.

Anticipation is building for the Shelter Island Historical Society’s 6th annual Car Show, expected to bring over 130 classic, antique and vintage vehicles to Fireman’s Field this Saturday, June 30.

To get the inside scoop, the Reporter visited the garage of car enthusiast and Fire Commissioner Larry Lechmanski to find out about the proverbial “need for speed” and what’s involved in the restoration of a classic Pontiac muscle car.

Mr. Lechmanski, 64, grew up on Shelter Island and is a self-proclaimed “gearhead” and “Pontiac Firebird nut.” For 34 years, he taught shop class at Southhampton High School while serving in leadership roles at the Shelter Island Fire Department. Now retired, the three-time fire chief repairs lawnmowers, weedwackers and “really anything with a small engine” in his garage on South Ferry Road. And he restores and shows things with really big engines, his beloved 1960s cars, the kind that look fast even when standing still.

Mr. Lechmanski came of age along with the “age of the muscle car,” when cars were getting smaller, engines were getting bigger and everything was going a whole lot faster — a change of pace that was reflected in the music and consumer culture of the day,

“In the 60s it was the muscle car wars between the car manufacturers,” he said. “Every manufacturer had to have a car that was faster than the other guy. What ruined it was the emissions. Real bad emissions. Kind of like what The Beatles did to doo-wop music. They came along and ended doo-wop music.”

At the Car Show on Saturday, he’ll be showing off his 1979 Pontiac Trans Am, a model popularized by the 1977 action-comedy hit “Smokey and the Bandit.” To muscle car romantics, it’s a truth universally acknowledged that the Trans Am is a very special vehicle. A 400-cubic engine, dual exhausts, a swoop on the hood and dozens of other performance-enhancing features that make gearheads’ hearts race.

In 1979, a Trans Am could cost anything between $2,700 to $4,000. For $90 extra, you could get a massive Firebird painted on the hood, which, according to Mr. Lechmanski, some non-believers irreverently called “the screaming chicken.”

But no matter — Mr. Lechmanski’s model oozes cool. Silver with a custom red interior and a racing-grade steering wheel, he said it would sell for upwards of $50,000 today. “But it it’s no trailer queen.”

Asked to explain, he said a trailer queen is a car in mint condition, the kind you show but don’t drive — and Mr. Lechmanski loves to drive his car. He built it from “almost scratch” using the skills he picked up tinkering in his own garage and working part time at Bob and Don’s Garage as a teenager, where Elli’s Country Store is now.

Pontiac restoration is a family tradition. Mr. Lechmanski’s sons, Brian and Kevin, both “have the car bug,” according to their dad. They have also rebuilt classic Pontiacs and will be showing them side-by-side on Saturday.

This year, the Historical Society will partner with the Shelter Island Fire Department to coordinate the Car Show’s family-friendly activities, splitting costs; the proceeds will help fund educational programs, infrastructure purchases, department outings and other expenses. The cost of entry is $10 for general admission, but free for children under 6. Firefighters will grill hotdogs and hamburgers and snacks, beverages and games will be available.

While this showcase will attract people from around the region to the Island, it will also give many current and retired SIFD firefighters the opportunity to show off their own classic and antique cars, many of which they restored themselves.

Asked about his favorite part of the annual Car Show, Mr. Lechmanski said there are two things.

“You want to show your car off, sure,” he said. “But you also want to hear people’s stories — people will see my car and they’ll think of ‘Smokey and the Bandit’ right off the bat. And then they’ll say, ‘Yea, I used to have one of these and I banged it up, or I got divorced and my wife got it, or ‘Damn if I still had it, it’d be worth $200,000.’ Only car people are like that. It’s camaraderie.” To learn more about the show or register a car, go to shelterislandhistorical.org/carshow2018.