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Cruise Night, New York Style

Times Staff Writer

Steve and Marie Michaels maneuver their black ’55 Chevy with the “MOB HIT” license plate so the rear faces into the parking lot of a Carvel ice cream shop, where everyone can see the trunk’s “Godfather” mural. It shows Brando as Vito Corleone, Pacino as Michael Corleone, and the guy who plays Luca Brasi, the hulking henchman who winds up sleeping with the fishes.

“Luca, he’s the man,” says Bronx-born Steve Michaels as he folds his cigarette pack under the left sleeve of his white T-shirt.

Jose Rodriquez, another old Bronx guy, pulls in to the left of “The Godfather” in a ’67 Chevelle convertible with a flame-like “hot licks” paint job. On the other side, Steve Leporis eases in his candy tangerine ’42 Studebaker Champion Coupe. “Only three left in the country,” he says.

Next to the Big Brothers Big Sisters clothing bin, Steve and Marie Michaels set up their sound system and a folding table Tuesday night. Steve puts four trophies on top -- to be awarded later that night -- with bottles of car wash and speed detailer (“from the sponsor”) and unfurls his Wheels of Time Car Club banner. A Black Sabbath tune pounds over the speakers -- there will be time for ‘50s doo-wop later -- and they’re ready, at just past 6 p.m., for Cruise Night.

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Many people don’t think of New Yorkers as car nuts, but that’s probably because they think of New York as Manhattan, where on most days it’s foolish to drive and the sane folk take the subway, buses and taxis.

But club members grew up in the outer boroughs -- mostly the Bronx and Queens -- or here in suburban Westchester County, where it’s much like anywhere in America: Urban backdrop or not, a lot of kids feel the call of custom paint jobs and roaring engines.

Platinum-haired Marie Michaels, for instance, might well have been the model for Marisa Tomei’s character in “My Cousin Vinny,” having been raised in her mechanic father’s Astoria garage. Thus, there is nothing X-rated in her declaration “I enjoy getting dirty.” She says, “To me it’s about the engine.”

Eight years ago, the couple moved to a split-level in New Rochelle and soon after formed the local Wheels of Time chapter. In addition to Cruise Nights -- each Tuesday during the summer in the Carvel lot -- their group runs a big car show each year at the Westchester County Center. The celebrity guests at the car show in June were “American Graffiti” stars Cindy Williams and Paul LeMat, who played drag-racing John Milner in the fable of California’s cruising, drive-in car culture.

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Steve Michaels, 45, had long eyed the Carvel on Central Avenue as a site for New York-style cruise nights.

Legend has it that this is where a tire on Tom Carvel’s ice cream truck went flat on Memorial Day weekend in 1934, causing him to sell the melting product out of the back and inspiring two notions: that people like soft ice cream, and that the spot might be a good one for the first of what became hundreds of Carvel outlets.

“With all the nostalgia,” Michaels says, “it’s perfect.”

He said he hadn’t heard of the similar scene on the other coast -- classic car enthusiasts have gathered for ages on Friday night at the classic Bob’s Big Boy in Burbank.

By 8 p.m., several dozen cars had gathered at the Carvel in 90-degree heat, including two red Mustangs and a Chevelle with a “HEYBABY4" plate. Many of the owners watched their cars from folding “cruise chairs” as the Four Seasons’ “Oh What a Night” filled the air.

The owner of the Carvel franchise says at first he worried about the weekly gatherings in his lot. Now, though, he’s a convert. “It’s helped my business,” said Abdol “Abbie” Faghihi, whose main job is heading the social studies department of a large high school in the city.

From his tangerine Studebaker, Leporis calls out his order: “Root beer float with vanilla ice cream. The big one.”

Leporis, 54, began building car models as a kid in the Bronx’s Arthur Avenue neighborhood, progressed to racing go-carts on the site that’s now Co-op City -- with 35 apartment towers and 50,000 residents -- then got his first car at 16, a ’46 Olds. “It cost me $65,” recalls Leporis, who recently fielded a different sort of offer for his sleek Studebaker -- $170,000 -- though he has no intention of selling.

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A few in the Carvel lot are “in the business,” including body shop owner Anthony Sicuranza, 48, of Mount Vernon, who used to customize cars for New York Knicks basketball players. But he did the ’80 Corvette with “MYCUSTOM” plates for himself, turning it into a red-on-black work of art in 1984 with a paint job that looks mint to this day. He’s not happy, though, with the water spots picked up on the ride over.

“That’s my fault,” says his 19-year-old son, also Anthony, who failed to avoid a sprinkler’s spray.

“We’re slipping,” says dad, who has a gold neck chain to his kid’s silver.

They’re mostly Italian American working guys here, but diversity is provided by a couple of car nuts from Scarsdale, which is among the wealthiest of New York’s suburbs. One gives his name only as “Larry” because he’s afraid someone might steal his “CIA1"-plated Corvette convertible, painted like an American flag, that was featured in one of the “Austin Powers” movies.

“Heather Graham drove it and Mike Myers bounced off the hood,” says Larry, who admits he sneered at the car when he saw it on screen, thinking, “Ah, it’s a small block, probably a 300 horse. Then I ended up buying it” -- it turns out it’s 350 hp.

The one-name-only owner says he has no plans to market the movie Corvette. But when he drives off early, at 8:15, another club member, a retired prison guard, reports that Larry sells cars like that all the time; “he turns ‘em over.”

The loudspeaker plays Elvis’ “Suspicious Minds.”

The other Scarsdaler is 18-year-old Evan Cygler, who just graduated from high school but has already made his name by organizing, with a classmate, “The Scarsdale Concours.” Their car show has the theme “Uniting Collectors for Charity.”

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“My partner and I raised $100,000,” Cygler says. “I’ve never taken a penny. I’m not even a 501(c)3 [nonprofit]. I’m an obsessed car child.”

Across the lot, one car is openly for sale, a “Hawthorn green” ’50 Ford with the “original tires” and just 10,500 miles, according to signs posted by owner Larry Barazzotto, 61, a former muffler man. A flier on the windshield says that, under the previous owners, “this car was kept under blankets and not driven if threat of rain.”

Asked what he hopes to get for it, Barazzotto says, “Thirty.”

At 8:30 p.m., it’s nearly time to award trophies, but first Steve Michaels announces that there is a hero of the craft in their midst: “Jim LiVecchi is in the house!”

LiVecchi is the tall, graying custom-painting wizard who put the hot licks and other designs on a number of cars in the lot, including the “Godfather” mobile, where the theme extends to the engine’s valve cover. The paint job there depicts a speeding bullet coming from a gun held by a hand that has a “bling ring” on the pinkie. “You put a light on that,” LiVecchi says, “it sparkles.”

LiVecchi concedes that there are challenges to being car crazy in New York, as opposed to, say, California. Owners need a good garage, for starters, and can’t be planning to drive in snow, ice and road salt. Of course, those indoor months give them time to work on cars such as the “Godfather” Chevy. Next on the drawing board for that one?

“You know the scene where Sonny gets killed at the toll plaza?” LiVecchi says. “We’re going to do a mural of that, under the hood.”

At the Wheels of Time table, Steve Michaels hoists a tall trophy and says: “This one goes to the black Corvette right here! Where are you, Anthony?”

The father and son Sicuranzas have won despite the water spots. To applause, they accept the prize, plunk it in the front seat between them and drive off, to the sounds of “I Only Have Eyes for You.”


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