By Jeff Porada
My good friend suggested we restore cars together. This nudge in my life made sense. Get paid to do something I love? Yes, I like that idea. I had been running a restaurant and touring with a jazz band but it was nearly impossible to play music around a busy restaurant schedule, so off we went. Out of his three-car garage he did the paint and bodywork, and at my home garage I did the mechanics. We mostly worked on British cars because that’s where I have the most experience. After a couple years of this, the unthinkable happened. My mother had a stroke and passed away at the age of 58. Two months later my grandfather, who gave me my love of music and whom I had played in bands with since I was 12, passed. Two months after that, my grandmother, who I was also very close to, followed. This put everything on hold.
I inherited some money my grandparents had saved. It wasn’t really life changing money for most, but it was more than I had ever seen. With it I bought a building in need of a lot of work. It would be my new shop.
I gave my business the name DEB Vintage Motorworks. DEB stands for Don, Elaine, and Barb, the names of my mother and grandparents. I didn’t do any advertising, but kept getting work just from referrals. A guy down the street started working with me. He was taught to wrench from a former Formula 1 driver and had worked on very high-end restoration projects. My brother is great at interiors and finishing work. My dad works on weekends doing electronics. The business was starting to become something.
On the Way to Conclave
In 2016 my local club, Ohio Valley Austin Healey club, was to host the Healey Conclave in Cincinnati. I’ve had a Bugeye for about 15 years, but at the time it was a pile of parts. I have been to many Conclaves, but never in my own car. I didn’t have the extra time or money to get my car done, but my girlfriend, Nancy, and I decided it had to be there. I rebuilt the engine and it ran great, but without a top, windshield wipers, a horn, and with seats that had dust for padding. We had a great time at Conclave and anyone who attended may remember seeing me perform with my band at the time: “Keith Jones and the Makeshifts.” We played for the car show and after the banquet; I was the sax player who stands on the bass.
The next summer’s Conclave was in Waco. Nancy and I, along with a few of the local club members decided it was a good idea to drive our LBC’s to Texas. As with every winter, my car was apart again, this time to fix the body. I stripped everything off of the car and cut out all the rust.
Nancy and I are clearly bad with directions. On the way to Texas in the Bugeye we thought we should first drive to Maine for a wedding. When putting my car together and knowing we had this big road trip planned, I decided to get away from my tired wire wheels and install Minilites I got from a friend. The problem was that they rubbed the springs. It was suggested I call Dave Giorgi at The Winner’s Circle to get some wheel spacers for the car.
The next phone call ended up being more influential on my life than expected. I called The Winner’s Circle and Dave answered. I told him what I needed, he made a recommendation and we chatted for a bit. I told him that my focus was mainly restoring Sprites and Midgets. His immediate response: “You should buy The Winner’s Circle.” I laughed and we talked a bit more. Before I hung up, I asked out of curiosity how much he wanted for it. The next few days I thought a lot about it. I mentioned to Nancy what he had said and talked to Jake Jacobs (a good friend and the guy who organized the Cincinnati Conclave) about it since Jake is a businessman who understands how money works. Strangely, they both thought it wasn’t a terrible idea.
Over the next few weeks, I was hustling to get my Bugeye back together hoping to have time to test things out before our adventure. My car was being built on a tight budget. I wouldn’t have frivolous luxuries like a roof or working gauges. One day I decided to call Dave back and see how serious he was. It turns out, he was determined to sell his business to someone younger who is passionate about Sprites and Midgets. As you can imagine, that’s not a high percentage of the population. He suggested I make a trip up and see the place and we could talk some more.
The Winner’s Circle was a nice little tired storefront in Cleveland with a beautiful all-original Bugeye sitting in the entry. Nancy and I talked with Dave for a few hours. He explained that his son Rob was working with him, but had taken a new job and that he himself was too old and tired to keep the place going like it deserved. He showed me some of the products made specifically for him, many of which he had developed on his own. Dave also told me about all of the products which he made in the past and just let die because he didn’t have the time to oversee them anymore. He is a master distributor for Moss Motors, but this only scratched the surface of what made The Winner’s Circle special.
Determination and Heart
Dave started racing a Bugeye in 1963. He ended up crashing and rolling it, but he continued racing for decades after. He started The Winner’s Circle in 1967 out of his home garage. He eventually grew enough to start a storefront in 1970. There just aren’t many people around anymore with the experience and knowledge of these cars that Dave has. One of his selling points of the business is that I get Dave’s help whenever I need his brain. Dave has been there and done that with everything on these cars, and if he hasn’t done it himself, he knows someone who has.
Talking with Dave, I found that often he would get people asking for something, so he’d figure out how to get it made. One example is Hawk brake pads. The company didn’t think it was worth it to make brake pads for Sprites and Midgets. Dave went and met with them and asked what it would take to get them made. They said they did not want to pay for the fixtures for them. Dave got the fixtures made and they are still making brake pads off of those. As Dave’s son Rob grew up, he got the racing bug as well. For many years Dave or Rob would pick up the phone if you called for help and they always had the answer.
After meeting with Dave for several hours, Nancy and I continued up to Niagara Falls, across Canada, to Maine and on down the East coast. We discussed buying the Winner’s Circle many times and both thought it wasn’t a bad idea and that it fit well into what I was doing.
The New Glory Days
The Bugeye never did make it to Texas. Since I had spent more time on customer cars and less time testing my Bugeye, our journey ran into a few bumps. We replaced a head gasket in a hotel parking lot, replaced a piston in Rhode Island, and eventually had to pronounce the car dead. We towed it down to Gary Lownsdale’s where his wife Paulette let us drive Miss Piggy, her BJ7, down to Texas. We met up with the rest of the Cincinnati Healey drivers and had a great time at conclave. I even managed to win the gymkhana in Jake’s Bugeye.
When we got back home I called Dave up to let him know we took on a loan to buy his business and he was happy to hear it. He had some interested parties, but he was pulling for me. With a Suburban, a work van, and two 14-foot enclosed trailers we trucked as many parts as we could from Cleveland to my shop in Cincinnati, but this was less than half of what was there. On these trips I spent much of the day with Dave going over different products, how they are made, what he stopped making that I should bring back, and how to work the old computer system.
The next couple of months were spent trying to organize everything onto shelving again, all the while trying to keep the business running. The sheer number of parts were overwhelming when they were sitting in a pile unloaded from a trailer. Every phone call for parts was a challenge—a challenge of finding a part’s physical location, a challenge answering questions about custom parts that I just got my hands on, and a challenge of finding part numbers for the custom parts. Often when I would call Dave for a part number I couldn’t find anywhere he would say, “That’s because it’s in my head.” That’s great if you’re Dave, but challenging if you’re not.
Today everything has a place. Dave gets fewer phone calls from me, but if there’s something I don’t have an answer for, I’m not ashamed to admit it and give him a call. I am in the process of bringing back many of the old products Dave helped produce. I have the original build sheets and patterns. The Winner’s Circle’s “Competition” and “Super Competition” oil pans are now available again. This is an oil pan with a larger sump area, (more capacity), baffles and trap doors to keep the oil by the pickup under hard braking and cornering. The Super Competition has a windage tray, scrapers, multiple trap doors and a custom oil pickup. We are also bringing back the two part engine mounts, big brake kits made off of the factory blueprints, offset leaf springs, and more than 50 custom parts altogether.
I’ve loved these old cars since before I could drive. I’ve always bought projects because I’ve never had the money to buy something completed. Being cheap meant I also learned how to work on cars with my dad who fixed his own vehicles and anything else needing fixing. I’ve always dreamed of having my own space for my cars and a nice place to work on them. I’d better stop writing and get back to keeping this dream going…