(Parts and) labor of love

Billy Cusack at work. (Photo by Christina Coulter)

Inside the garage at B.C. Autoworks in Saugerties, a standard-issue U.S. Mail truck is suspended alongside a bumperless, rusted Ford F-100 from the 1960s. Sparks fly and an impact driver whirrs; Pantera plays loudly over it all on the radio. Regular customer “Paulie” mills about the shop, taking advantage of what’s essentially an open door policy. In the shop’s small sitting room, antique New York license plates dating back to the turn of the century line the walls. There’s also a dart board and a stringless guitar with a sign that reads, cheekily, “PLAY ME.”

The little squarish building off Route 9W in Malden has served as a mechanic shop since 1948. When current owner Billy Cusack, 44, was an adolescent living nearby, the then-owner often filled his bike tires while he bought 50-cent Cokes from the shop’s machine. A photo of the place in the ’80s, then called Fiero’s Garage, hangs in the front of the shop and features Cadillacs from that bygone era.

“Kids would come up with their bikes — I was one of those kids. He’d give me air for my bike,” said Cusack. “That’s the kind of business I like to run, customers come to have their tires filled, I’m good to them and they come back. It’s an old-timey relationship, not a hard-ass ‘I need your money’ thing.”

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Cusack never imagined that he would operate out this childhood landmark three years ago, much less back when soda cost 50 cents. He and his wife, Angie, who runs the shop’s front-of-house operations, have worked out of the building for just shy of two years. Somehow, over a dozen auto mechanic shops stay afloat in Saugerties. Cusack says he takes a multi-faceted approach to setting his business apart: fair pricing, clear communication and explanation of projects to customers, as well as an incredibly diverse skill set acquired over years by taking things apart and putting them together.

“If I think I can fix it and do it fairly, I’ll do it,” Cusack said. “My biggest problem is that I don’t tell anybody no — it’s hard to know that you can fix something for someone but don’t have the time to do it … You want to know what it takes to be a trustworthy to somebody? Informing them about something they don’t understand. If you teach them or have a really good explanation for what you’re doing for them and educate them, if they go out the door and understand why they spent that money, they’ll be cool with spending that money. I’ve taken people into the shop and shown them broken parts and explain what happened, why new parts need to be bought. Once they understand it it’s okay, there’s no mystery.”

He welds — “To be a good welder and fabricator is like an ace in the hole,” he said. He does electrical work, he’ll fix your speaker or do routine diagnostics in his goal of running a one-stop garage. Cusack cut his teeth in a tractor-trailer shop at 17; beforehand, he got the itch for tinkering while watching his father perform simple processes, like changing oil or sparkplugs. Early on, he manipulated the innards of forklifts, hole drillers, tractors and motors big and small, and worked in a slew of shops before hearing about the current space through word of mouth. Previously a graffiti-covered combination auto and barber shop, the floors were covered in hair and “the ugliest blue paint you can imagine.” Now, with a gifted hand-made sign adorned with sprockets and made of leftover rebar, a colorful cast of cars from a smattering of eras stationed outside and a meticulously decorated personal space, it could be described as “cozy” — a word that may have never been used to modify “mechanic’s garage” before.

Cusack attributes his success at managing and outfitting the site to those that first encouraged his talent: Billy Barrett, who owned Ever Ready Beverage when he was employed there, and Nick Styer, a former employer whose shop, Styer’s Hudson Valley Auto Inc., is just down the street.

“[They] set a good example for what a business owner is — someone that will treat you fairly and try not to gouge you to make your quota. [Nick] made you feel like you were safe, or family,” he said. “[Now], this place is like a psychologist’s office — people come in, tell me about their problems and sometimes ask for advice. You say ‘I don’t know about the advice but this is what I would do.’ I’ve had people cry, I had a lady pass out.”

In a very familial fashion, on the Fourth of July, Cusack pulls up the doors of the garage, puts on music, hands out glowsticks and lights up the barbecue for locals to watch the fireworks. He will often pick up and drive local’s cars, particularly those belonging to the elderly, to and from the shop. Cusack’s son, the excitable 7-year-old Quentin, brings his own small tool box to the shop several times a week after school. He and his father have been conducting “science experiments,” making small circuit boards. Quentin can at his tender age already take apart a lawnmower.

“It will be a dead old mower and he can get it into so many pieces,” said Angie. “He doesn’t get them back together — that’s later on. Hopefully he’ll get a love for it.”

Cusack travels to area post offices to pick up their standard-issue Grumman Long Life Vehicles, drive them to the shop, and give them their required inspections. He estimates that he works on 250 mail trucks a year.

Also alongside the cars brought in are a slew of classic cars and welded hybrids — the aforementioned Ford F-100 sits centrally in the garage. Originally No. 13 in a fleet belonging to “Rammer Nursery” in Buffalo, the original door art is still in good shape. Outside, is a bizarre creation, a Ford van with airbag devices in the wheels that deflate when the car isn’t in use, bringing it entirely to the ground. Also outside are two ‘65 Chevy C10’s, Cusack’s personal favorites, one with a swapped-in 2006 fuel-injected motor. “They’re so ugly they’re good looking — they have nice lines to them, there are no other trucks that look like that,” Cusack said.

Sequestered in another part of the shop rented to a friend and fellow classic car enthusiast Brian Morris is a 1948 International Harvester truck, resembling the rusted “Mater” from the popular children’s film “Cars.” Hewn to it is the chassis of a 1995 Chevy; once it’s road-ready it will run on a Dodge Cummins motor — “nobody else has one,” he said.

“You’re taking Chevy designs, International’s design and making something your own — ‘I like what you did there, what you did there and what you did over there and now I’m going to smash them all together to make what I want,’” said Cusack of his passion projects. But over time, the attitude towards and ability to heavily personalize vehicles, plucking components from different cars and Frankensteining them together, has become less common for a number of reasons, Cusack said.

“There is definitely a transition. When it went from a carburetor motor back 10, 15, 20 yeas ago when the [fuel] injection wasn’t so popular, they’d have to try to make 500, 600 horsepower for something with a carburetor — it would cost $10,000-$15,000. Now you can get a fuel injected motor, put a camshaft in it and put a turbo on it, and you can make it go that fast with $1,000 or $2,000 worth of stuff. There are guys that do it, it’s not like muscle cars like it was back in the day — Chevy against Ford, Dodge against everyone else. The Internet has really replaced the old process — talking to old hot rod guys who know how to do stuff, asking around for parts. I still do that.”

To have work done on anything from a Bentley to a Pinto, a lawnmower to a tractor-trailer or to get a reasonable price or sound advice, interested parties can visit B.C. Autoworks Monday through Saturday, 9 a.m.-7 p.m. at 3912 US-9W, or call (845) 247-3329.

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