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Classics Are Cookin’

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

John Eichinger was seduced by the sleek curves and shiny chrome of a Philco-Bendix ’58 Duomatic all-in-one washer-dryer combo--the same machine that promised his mom “the end of all wash day work!”

A man and his washing machine?

It hardly resonates like a man rescuing a ’58 Corvette from junkyard oblivion, but Eichinger’s devotion to this household appliance is really no different. The dual ’58 Duomatics currently churning laundry in Eichinger’s St. Paul, Minn., basement were dug out of the dirt of a South Dakota junkyard, stripped to the last screw and lovingly restored to the gleaming splendor intended to dazzle mid-20th-century housewives.

“When I brought the machines home, there were earthworms and grass growing in them,” Eichinger says. “My brother thought I was crazy. Now he doesn’t.”

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Eichinger is among the more devoted collectors of classic or vintage modern appliances. Old-appliance lovers give up modern conveniences in favor of the retro look and unequaled durability of the appliances of yesteryear.

“I don’t like anything new,” says Ann Berkery, a Costa Mesa antique appliance collector. “I like old houses with windows that slide up and down. The old stuff just has more character. We like the look and feel, and we like keeping the spirit of our older house.”

Her collection started small--the waffle iron her parents got as a wedding gift in 1937. “The waffles stick a little, but it still works,” she says, chuckling. She now counts a 1932 General Electric Monitor Top refrigerator and a ‘30s-era Gaffers and Sattler stove among her antique appliances.

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Marvel Bond, owner of Bond’s Appliance in Long Beach, has been in the appliance business since Berkery’s old stove was in its prime. Since 1941 she has watched styles change from the sturdy classics of the 1940s to the unimaginative hulks of the 1990s. Six burners became four as stoves--and kitchens--shrank. Stylish, smooth edges became square and utilitarian. Dual ovens became one. Stove-top griddles and periscopes--so the cook could check a cake without opening the oven door--vanished.

“This is an inch and a half of insulation,” Bond says, tapping the ceramic finish of a fire-engine-red 1940s O’Keefe & Merritt oven that has been the centerpiece of her showroom floor for decades. “When you bake at 350 degrees, it stays at 350.

“I guess it’s like automobiles,” she says, sighing. “Some of your older ones work better than the new ones.”

“They’re bulletproof--totally sturdy,” says Jack Santoro, founder of the Old Appliance Club and owner of a Ventura County stove restoration business. “They’ve got those classic, streamlined curves. On par, I’d like to see what of the stuff that’s made now is going to be around in 40 or 50 years. It just doesn’t have the strength.”

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While durability is a sure selling point, old appliances are most coveted for the warm, eclectic vibe they bring to kitchens sterilized by progress.

“There’s a cleanness about the modern look,” says Scott Cheverie, publisher of Echoes, a 20,000-circulation magazine devoted to the classic modern look. “It’s fresh, it’s simple and striking.”

The steel and chrome leviathans aren’t for everyone, though. “I think it’s a fluke myself,” says Jason Titus, a veteran Southern California interior designer. “I have never had anyone ask me to do that to a house. Everyone wants new appliances.”

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Old-appliance collectors point to rising prices as an indicator that their hobby has arrived. Stoves that used to end up on the scrap heap are now selling for up to $6,000 with original parts, fresh paint, a rebuilt thermostat and refinished chrome. And it’s no accident that retailers such as Service Merchandise carry new appliances with that retro look.

Retro style is riding the millennium wave to a mainstream comeback, Cheverie says.

“I think it’s more psychological than anything--it’s just, ‘Hey, now it’s old,’ ” says Cheverie, who cooks dinner at his Cummaquid, Mass., home on a 1930s Chambers Range. “It’s like 19th century antiques. People start collecting it, prices go up and it becomes respected.”

Santoro boasts that the ranks of his Old Appliance Club--which he calls a nonprofit “preservation organization"--have swelled to 3,000 members in five years. For a $15 fee, members get a subscription to Santoro’s offbeat newsletter, the Old Road Home.

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The notebook-size publication features everything from whimsical articles on “Mixmaster Memories” to detailed information on the history and inner workings of electric-stove heating elements. The newsletter is most valued for its classified ads, which serve as a clearinghouse for stoves and spare parts.

“The interest is tremendous,” Santoro says. “Many times we get calls from movie studios to locate an old appliance for a scene. Nationally, people see that appliance on TV or in the movies, and the more they see it, the bigger and bigger it gets.”

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The days of great deals and good finds are coming to an end. Collectors such as Jim Apthorpe, a central Florida retiree who hunts old appliances for pleasure, say another good hobby is being trashed by commercialism.

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“It’s a pleasure for me to have them,” he says of his extensive collection of everything from a 1919 Torrington vacuum to a ‘50s-era Toast-O-Lator toaster. “A lot of people buy things for the express purpose of reselling them. When they get it, they think it is so super valuable that they want to charge too much money for it and that makes it hard for everybody.”

To others--like Eichinger--it just makes the chase more thrilling.

He found his Holy Grail slowly sinking into the dirt of that South Dakota scrap yard. He wrestled two rusted Duomatics--sunk more than five inches into the dirt--onto a truck and hauled them to his home 267 miles away. The discovery ended a 13-year quest.

It took three more years to restore the machines. The motors and three-speed transmissions worked after a thorough cleaning--a testament to the durability of the 40-year-old machines.

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“They’re the last of the big ones,” Eichinger says. “I can’t imagine what they’re worth. Not that I’d ever sell them. Offer me $20,000 and I’d never sell them. Never.”


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