Arthur Vogel’s Willow Automotive, nestled on Route 212 in Willow, is as close to time travel as you’ll get in these parts. A couple dozen vintage automobiles in various stages of repair (or disrepair), surround the faded yellow-with-green-trim circa 1934 building. An ancient gas pump (ornamental now) stands sentinel on the cracked pavement out front. Distinguished Mount Tremper overlooks the terrain, just as it has for millennia.
A step inside finds a warren of dimly lit rooms crammed with more 20th century autos alongside hulking, still-functioning iron machines — a couple from WWI-era. When he’s not offering standard car service — oil changes, repairs, tune ups, etc. — Vogel uses these behemoths to indulge a passion that distinguishes him from most garage owners: machining. With skills initially honed at Onteora high school and Ulster BOCES in the late 70s and early 80s, he has become a renowned automobile restorer, crafting parts to reanimate engines, chassis, brakes, etc.
A humming furnace suspended from the ceiling between a 1940 Cadillac and a 1963 Chevy Corvair offers cozy warmth to Vogel’s deeply lived-in workshop. He powers the furnace with spent engine oil from serviced cars. Scents of grease, metal, contained combustion, and electrical current hang heavy in the air. There’s no WiFi, and no cell service.
Sometimes, new customers complain about being plunged into the pre-digital age. “I don’t care,” the affable, bearded, bearlike Vogel says, not unkindly. “Just what we need — more radio waves. I’ve got an office full of books if you want to read, and a landline telephone.” He even has a copy of Auto Restorer magazine containing an article he himself wrote: “Replacing Obsolete Brake Shoes,” about how he used his arsenal to craft brakes for a 1964 Amphicar.
Of course, the antediluvian accommodations aren’t news to Vogel’s faithful longtime customers. They know to untether themselves from their iPhones and laptops. They’ll bring something to occupy their wait time, or they’ll chat. Vogel is always up for a chat. As a member of the Woodstock Motor Club, and a vintage car aficionado, he’s not only crossed paths with conversation-worthy engineering, he’s also encountered memorable automobilians.
“Car people are crazy,” he says. “We’re all crazy. A great many cars on this lot do not belong here. It’s an ongoing problem. Car people often don’t take responsibility for their cars. I’ve had cars here for decades. A maroon Jaguar out back. I put an engine in it 20 years ago. Guy paid me, never picked it up. A 1950 Mercedes needed a taillight and a tune-up. Took me 12 years to track the guy down. All garages have this problem.”
He points to an in-progress 1929 Model A “Woody” Wagon. “I’ve rebuilt the engine and the chassis. But it never should’ve been fixed. Guy grew up in the back seat, it sat in the woods for 10 years. He doesn’t ask me, ‘How much?’ He just asks, “Can it be fixed?’
As exasperating as crazy car people can be, Vogel loves the work, and could take on more jobs if he found additional help. “Finding someone who can apply brains to hands is a challenge,” he says. “I call Ulster BOCES every spring and ask if they can send me anyone qualified, but they can’t.” His occasional talented helpers, he laments, are often “dysfunctional.”
When he was a couple years shy of 30 in 1991, Arthur Vogel opened Willow Automotive, moving into what had been Ken Vanwagner’s garage for almost a half century. Vogel had already opened his first shop at age 22. He’d come to that fresh from Onteora classes about which he still waxes fondly. “We had a metal shop, an electrical shop, a wood shop, a print shop, a foundry. One teacher, Mr. Moses, actually built a functioning airplane in his basement! Every year, we made a wooden-framed canoe with a canvas cover, which someone would win in a raffle. It was fantastic. But after I graduated in ’81, they started closing those shops down and selling equipment.” In fact, Vogel still uses a seemingly indestructible metal bench acquired from Onteora.
“I wanted to become a machinist,” he says. “I went to Ulster BOCES and had to qualify to take an advanced course. I was taught to use a handle and think. But in the early 80s, affordable computer-controlled machines came out, and overnight, machinists couldn’t get work sharpening lawnmower blades. I worked at J & J Auto’s mechanical shop, then opened my own garage in 1985.”
These days, Vogel’s machinist work steadily increases. He’s currently restoring the oldest known Morris Minor, a British-made automobile sold between 1948 and 1972. When he’s done, the owner will fly Vogel, his wife, and the car to England for a vintage car event. He also recently re-engineered the tracking system for Bob Berman’s Storm King Observatory. “It had Teflon and plastic crap in it,” Vogel says. “I replaced that with aluminum and brass parts I made. Bob flew me down in his plane to check it out when I was done. I got to see Saturn.”
Because of its out-of-time appearance, location scouts love Willow Automotive: The garage is featured in The Thing About My Folks, starring Peter Falk and Paul Reiser, and reggae movie Rock Steady. “Vogue and Cosmopolitan, too,” Vogel says. “Photo shoots with little French models. And album covers, and lots of short films. We can make this place look like any time period.”
While he does service the occasional Tesla and Prius, Arthur Vogel reserves his considerable enthusiasm for the antiques he resurrects, and especially the ancient, still-robust iron machines he uses to work his magic. The Monarch and Hendy lathes, the 1500-pound hacksaw named Chomp, the shaper, the planer. “They all work beautifully,” he says. “And they’re incredibly accurate. You can get an inferior offshore knockoff, but they don’t make machines like this anymore.”
Willow Auto is similarly distinctive. A drive away on Route 212 soon leads back into the rush of radio waves, 4G, and a mostly plastic phone buzzing, all bringing you back to the time of fiberglass cars, noiseless engines, and planned obsolescence, like it or not.