story and photos by Derek Doeffinger
This is just the type of offbeat place you hope to encounter when you travel the back roads. And Al Ritz, Jr. is just the type of guy you want to be the proprietor. With a crisp T-shirt and an equally crisp flattop hair style and a ready and infectious grin, Al comes straight from central casting to fill the roll of vintage gas station manager. Holy Nostalgia, you’re now in the ‘60s (the decade Al was born in). Or is it the ‘50s?
You can find this time warp on Rt. 318 a few miles east of thruway exit 41, marked by a sign Custom Auto (Al’s business is customizing old cars). At first glance it may seem like just another service station with a collection of rusted relics. But a closer looks reveals a re-creation of a 1960s gas station. Next to the 1960s gas pumps, a vintage tow truck and an old Dodge driven by era-appropriate mannequin drivers wait for service. Providing the service is a mannequin attendant in a leather jacket. Behind the station, standing guard like sentinels, are some 1920s pumps; inside, if you look hard enough, you’ll find a pump from the early 1900s hiding in the clutter.
Slumbering among those relics are some vintage cars: a Hudson, an old Studebaker truck, a 1950 Studebaker car, a 1937 Oldsmobile, a ‘36 Dodge pickup, and a ‘66 Chevy Biscayne. Al’s favorite is the 1934 Ford pickup. Should an upstart hybrid skid into the yard and start trash honking, it may be shocked to see the old timers can still lay down some rubber. Despite appearances they actually run.
Inside is a room overflowing with an eclectic jumble of early to mid 20th century automotive paraphernalia and accessories (with other oddball things mixed in, including a suit of armor and a cigarette-smoking moose head).
A scattering of mannequins includes two early Victoria’s Secret models from Carlisle, PA, a state trooper with aviator shades, and a woman holding the donation pickle jar. Signs, promotion pieces, merchandisers, gas and oil cans, tools, license plates, parking meters, traffic signals, several car horns and hubcaps, and promotional toys cram one display room and the upper level storage.
What’s most surprising may well be something you won’t see: the emotions rusted cars stir in some visitors.
According to Al, German tourists love his rusted cars. He says, “They come to see Niagara Falls and the wineries, but can’t resist my cars.” He explains their fascination with rusty vehicles thusly: “They aren’t allowed them back home so they’ve never seen anything like it. They’re amazed that I’m allowed to have all these rusted cars.” He says that each year more German tourists stop by so he’s pretty sure they’re talking it up back home.
The day I was there he was working on a 1961 Buick LeSabre. He told me that just the day before a middle-aged fella who once lived here stopped by. They got to talking out front. Al told him about the LeSabre. The guy perked up. Al mentioned it was a ‘61. The guy got excited. He had one decades ago as a young man. Al said this one had a Wildcat engine. The guy’s eyes grew wide. They rushed back to see it. He took one look and said. “That’s my freakin’ car. You got it from a guy on Hogback Road didn’t you?”
They stared at each other, dumbfounded.