Lewis and Clark: Saving a classic car

Lewis Turner and Jessica Clark go for a spin in a Jeepster.

EAST PALATKA, Fla. -- East Palatka in Putnam County is mostly farm county. But just off of State Road 207, near the St. Johns county line, there is a man who used to have a horse farm there. But he works with a different kind of horsepower now.

Jim Vaccaro is known as Jeepster Jim. That's because he now restores Jeepsters.

Vacarro walked Lewis Turner and me toward his former horse barn.

"I'm going to take you out to the barn and show you some Jeepsters that have been stored in barns and warehouse for 30 40 years," he said.

The old cars sat, lined up in two rows in the open air barn. They were dusty, rusty, full of holes, and were falling apart.

"I guess we've got about 15 -20 of them, waiting in line out here to be restored," Vaccaro said.

Jeepster Jim turns these rusty old classic cars into beauties.

"I look at this," he said as he pointed to the dilapidated cars. "And it's like gold."

He said "They were made by Willys, the same company that made the Jeep in WWII. They built these to sell to the soldiers when they came back so they'd have a family car."

But, they were pricey.

"The price was $1,765 which was very expensive. So they didn't sell because of the price and marketing," he said.

That meant not many Jeepsters were made.

"They only built 19,000 of these cars in 1948, 1949, and 1950," Vaccaro said. "We estimate they're only 3,000 – 4,000 left in the world."

Lewis marveled at his Vacarro's business model.

"If there are only a few thousand left, it seems like you'd run out of business. You'd fix them all and then you're done," Lewis said.

Vaccaro smiled as he said, "Everybody told me I was crazy in the beginning but I've stayed booked up for a year and a half to two years."

He explained that in the larger building across the way.

"I've got 5 miracle workers working for me."

Inside that warehouse, it was loud. Men are busy taking cars apart.

"It's a complete teardown," Vaccaro said. "Every nut and bolt is taken off. The cars are completely disassembled, the engines are cleaned and made to run like new, and the pieces are put back together."

Vaccaro used to go looking for the Jeepsters. Now, people send them Jeepsters. He has shipped cars all over the world after restoring 58 of them. But now, he says he has a much work, you'll have to wait for your restored Jeepster.

"If you had a Jeepster and wanted to ship it in here for restoration at this shop, we're about a year and a half out before we start on it," he said. "We do all the tops, interior, and upholstery and everything on premises."

Once we saw how they get taken apart and put back together, Jim asked the big question: "Would you guys like to ride in a Jeepster?"

Lewis and I jumped at the chance. Someone told Vaccaro that I had once driven a stick shift. And so after he drove me around in a lovely yellow 1950 Jeepster, he offered to give me a refresher course on driving a stick shift. I felt comfortable enough, so I drove him around for a little bit, and then he hopped out, to let Lewis ride. Needless to say, I was a bit nervous without the instructor by my side, but the thrill of the car washed over me and I was ready to drive some more when Lewis jumped into the passenger seat. Lewis was happy as a clam.

And then it happened. I stalled out the car! I couldn't get it going again. Jeepster Jim came to the rescue, and told me there is a starter peddle I had to push. Once started, Lewis and I were ready… But I stalled it again! This happened a couple of times, with much embarrassment on my part. Finally, I got the hang of it, and we rolled down the country lane on Vaccaro's property. It was a terrific feeling! The top was down. Lewis and I wore big smiles, and we often couldn't stop laughing at my oh-so-cautious driving.

One time Lewis even almost tumbled out the door which he thought was shut. We laughed even more. Riding along, I fell in love with this car. Evidently, the Jeepster had the same effect on Vaccaro.

He shared with us that his father bought him a Jeepster when he was 16 years old.

"I think got my first kiss in the back of a Jeepster," he smiled. "I have had a love affair with them ever since!"

And now that love has turned into a work of passion.

"We say we're saving American history one Jeepster at a time," he said.

Saving history… in a classic way.

Jeepster Jim's facility is open by appointment. Check out his website at JeepsterJim.com.


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