If there’s a definition of an original-style hot rodder, Frank Agueci must surely fit it. From the time he was a teenager, there was grease under his fingernails and a wrench in his pocket.
“I got my first Model A in 1959,” says Frank, who was born in Sicily and moved to Canada in 1949. “It was owned by a guy that I used to hang with. He built and raced stock cars at Pinecrest and he’d started on this and didn’t have time to finish it. It was just a body and frame and it was really rough. My dad almost threw me out of the house when I brought it home.”
Frank got around the problem by ensuring that his dad’s car was parked outside and the Model A hidden in the garage. He worked on it for a couple of years, “but one of the kids that hung around with us said that a young fellow had gone into the Army and had this 1935 Chev and his dad wanted to get rid of it. He wanted $60 for a three-window coupe. I went and looked at it and I knew right then and there that the Model A was history. I put the Model A up for sale and I got $185 for it. We towed the Chev home and my dad thought I was even crazier.”
His garage is still filled with cars, although $60 ones are no longer in the picture. He currently owns a 1925 Dodge Brothers sedan, a 1938 LaSalle powered by a 1995 Cadillac engine, 1931 Oldsmobile, 1939 Cadillac Series 61 sedan, 1989 Jaguar XJS 12-cylinder convertible, and 1997 Camaro Z28 30th Anniversary Edition. He shares it all with his wife Yvonne and they have two children, Jane and John.
But it was that 1935 Chevrolet that really got him started. He was attending Ryerson in Toronto at the time “and I worked on it for about a year, with no heat, no light, and an extension cord from the house into the garage.” A friend had dropped a small-block engine into his 1955 Pontiac and so Frank took the now-orphaned 261 engine for his car. “I was taking mechanical engineering technology at Ryerson, so I had the chance to make all the motor mounts in welding class. I did all the work in school as part of my class work, and I finally got it running. That was my transportation back and forth to Ryerson for my second and third year. This was 1963 and I drove it in winter and summer, year-round.”
Eventually the Pontiac engine was swapped out for a 371 Oldsmobile engine with a Hydramatic, “one of the first cars around with an automatic transmission in those days,” he says. “Some friends of mine raced and they had a 1954 Oldsmobile. They had a 1957 Olds block that was bored an eighth of an inch and stroked a quarter of an inch, with 1959 heads where the ports were about 50 percent bigger than the 1957s, and that’s the engine they had in their tow car. After a while they decided they were going to get a truck and the car was a wreck, so I bought the engine (for the 1935 Chev). I could lift the wheels off the ground with that car. I used to drive it on the streets with Goodyear wrinkle-walls. I lived in Scarborough and worked in Oshawa, and I’d often bring it to work.”
He started working for General Motors in 1967 and bought a new Corvette in 1971. “I thought, what do I need two passenger cars for?” Frank says. “So I sold the Chev, and after about a month it felt bare not having something, so I started looking around. I’ve always been a fan of something different. I found the 1925 Dodge Brothers sedan and bought it for $200. Over four years I finished it, with paint, upholstery and a 1970 Corvette 454 engine. I drove it for 20 miles just to make sure there weren’t too many bugs in it, and then promptly headed to Memphis to the Street Rod Nationals. Other than an alternator that the brush holder screws backed out before we go to Oakville, we had no problems at all.”
From about 1964 he belonged to the Canadian Motor Club, a Toronto-based group of some 30 members that was directly sponsored by the Scarborough Parks and Recreation Department. They met at an old car dealership and hosted a small indoor show, “but we didn’t have money to buy two candles,” Frank laughs. “We had electricians who were in the club so they dropped lights down from the ceiling.” He stayed with the club until 1977 when he was transferred to Calgary and Edmonton, and didn’t join any club when he returned to Ontario.
He initially got in touch with Motor City because of Yvonne’s late sister, Elaine Minacs. At that time, Minacs was an Oshawa-based call centre that had GM’s OnStar as a client. When Durham Region was planning ideas for its 20th anniversary, Elaine asked Frank about putting on a car show. “I approached Dave Gerard in 1993 to see if the club was interested,” Frank says. “This eventually turned out to be Autofest. I’d known Dave since the 1960s and I knew he was in the club. I raised the question to him and he brought it to the club, and they agreed to give it a shot.”
Frank approached GM about holding the show on the company’s grounds and was initially met with scepticism. “They weren’t sure because of the mess and liability,” he says. “But after going back about three times, Stew Low at GM said, ‘You can have the property, but don’t ask me for anything else.’ After our first show, which was about 400 cars, we left the place spotless. He phoned me on Monday morning and couldn’t believe that the place looked like nothing had happened on the weekend. From then on, we had a very good relationship for thirteen years.
“We only went into it with the goal of helping out the region. There wasn’t any great profit in this thing. If I remember, we charged $2 for admission. We thought we’d just get a bunch of guys we knew and have a good time. We didn’t know if we’d get five or 500 cars. Afterwards, I don’t think our feet were touching the ground. We’d pulled it off and everything was successful.”
Frank wasn’t a member of the club during that first show, but joined in 1995. He has since retired from GM and is self-employed, and he and Yvonne like to “disappear” to their cottage north of Campbellford on weekends, and take one or two cruises each year.
But the club is still important, as is the work he does each year for Autofest. “Nobody thought there’d be a second or a third one, and by the time we got to number five we said we should pack it in, it’s too much work. Then, at ten, we said ‘here we are,’ and by 15 years we have much more space and a much better facility.
“I had no compulsion to belong to a club, especially since I’ve got the space to build my own cars at home. Autofest was the thing that drew me to the club, and the more I got to know the guys, I was there and I kept on going. I want to see it progress and see it succeed.”