I ran this post in Automotive Traveler almost a year ago. Since then, I no longer travel about looking for these oddities, mainly because I no longer travel about…. The company I was working for decided they no longer need an articulate, cultivated individual within the medium truck world, just someone who says yes all the time, even when the “yes” path leads to disaster. More on that later, but for now, enjoy this posting.
In my profession, I have to travel throughout the Northeast in support of my existing dealers and to scout for new prospects. Along the way, I stumble upon some unique roadside discoveries, places that have a story to tell related to my love affair with the automobile. I’m starting a special series I’ll call “Roadside Discoveries” to share my finds. Among them you will discover a sand and gravel company that utilizes 40 year old trucks in impeccable condition, a business that restores vintage Airstream Trailers, a used-car dealer that has a giant gorilla holding up a vintage VW that welcomes you to their place of business, and a vintage commercial-truck museum nestled in the hills of Connecticut. For the first installment of the series, I want to share one of my favorite roadside discoveries, an antique- and classic-car dealer located in the Village of Horseheads, New York, just west of Binghamton on the border with Pennsylvania called Otto’s Wheel.
I have driven by Otto’s Wheel a number of times when visiting my dealer in the region. What caught my eye almost two years ago was a classic 1963 Chevy Impala SS parked on the driveway of what looked like an average suburban home built during the 1930’s. However, I did notice a small sign on the property. I thought it odd that a car dealer was located within what looked like a residential area. There were at least two other cars parked with that Raven Black Impala SS, but I can’t remember anything about them. I thought that this Otto fellow only sold a couple of cars at a time and never really gave it much consideration after that. My first impression didn’t quite prepare me for what I was to discover almost a year later.
It was a very mild, early spring day in April. I concluded my business with my dealer quickly, and had time to check out Otto’s and introduce myself. I found myself on a side street in back of Otto’s and the adjacent homes and businesses where I discovered an open garage with a vintage Plymouth, an early Nash, and not one but two Corvairs. There were other garages and buildings on the site as well. I just had to stop and take a look to see what the place was all about. I drove in from the back and parked behind a recent Grand Marquis with two Metropolitans, a mid-eighties Mustang GT Convertible, and a Smart FourTwo parked along the driveway. I knocked at the front door of the house and said I’d like to meet the owner. A lovely older woman said he would see me in the back yard. As I made my way to the back, I met a gruff, spritely, and accommodating gentleman old enough to be my father–and I’m 53–who stood not more than five foot five. We made our introductions, and what do you know, the proprietor isn’t Otto, but Mel Hayes.
Mel Hayes wasn’t always in the collector car business. He actually worked in the cash register business for most of his life, but he found a way to make money trading cars beginning with his first Model A “wizzer” that he later sold for $45. With the help of his son, he is now able to have two locations, so that he can spend winters in Delray Beach, Florida, and summers in Horseheads. He is fond of pointing out that all of the cars he offers for sale are drivers. They are neither concourse winners nor are they junk, and during my visit, I found that there are some wonderful drivers waiting for new owners.
The first building that he opened up was a rather deep three-bay garage, and my eyes opened wide as I spotted what was inside. The first car I saw was a 1955 Ford Crown Victoria in a beautiful Aqua and White two tone with wide whitewalls and the air of optimism that was a part of the 1950’s. Behind this beautiful Ford was a 1959 Edsel Ranger Convertible, and I don’t ever remember seeing an Edsel look this good. If the treasures in the first building were this good, what on earth would he show me next? I learned that Mel has at least 85 cars in his possession and none of them are on consignment; he owns them all.
Going through the building, I noticed other unique and eye-catching vehicles, many that I would give an arm or a leg to own. There was a ’65 or ’66 Mercury convertible next to a 1957 Mercury Turnpike Cruiser sedan. He had a beautiful 1959 Ford Skyliner Retractable with a ’71 or ’72 Mercury Cougar convertible on one side and a mid-eighties Ford Mustang convertible on the other. After taking in the sights within the first building, Mel suggested we go on to the building across the driveway. Attached to it is a lean-to–sort of a covered shed–where he keeps his two rows of mid-eighties El Camino’s. I counted seven of them, with a couple of other cars–like a ’66 Ford Galaxie sedan and a ’74 Dodge Charger SE–mixed in. By then I was hatching a plan to sell the house and buy a few of these pieces of history, but I quickly came to my senses.
Mel then slid open the side door to the next building and there were three rows of cars, five wide, housed in a weather-tight compound. The cars kept within included everything from late thirties Plymouths to fifties finned cruisers, late sixties muscle cars and almost everything in between. I saw a ’64 Pontiac Grand Prix, two three-passenger Dodge Wayfarers, a ’62 Chrysler Windsor, a ’49 Nash, and a ’50 two-tone Hudson. Mel picked that moment to tell me his official title was “Bird-Turd-Wiper-Offer.” While the cars may have accumulated dust and a couple of bird markings, they are generally in great shape.
He buys and sells almost anything, but Mel’s passion is the Nash Metropolitan. When I visited he had no less than 11. Three of them were in various states of restoration on the property, one–air-conditioned!–was at a specialty shop, two were out in the sunshine trying to attract a buyer, and the rest were nestled in their own separate building. Sharing the Metropolitan Parking Facility was a ’30 American Bantam in magnificent condition that was already slated to go to a new home. I spent quite a while lingering over the two located in front of the unassuming house, taking in the simplicity of the interior, the delightful two-tone paintwork of the Aqua and White coupe and the companion Black and White convertible.
If I owned Otto’s Wheel, I would want to take each and every car out for a drive, but Mel is a little more practical. His daily drivers are currently a pair of Smart FourTwos, a bright yellow one he keeps in one of the garages, and an all-black car parked in front of the Metropolitans. He feels that these are still rare enough to sell at a decent profit, so he actually looks for them at the usual auctions he attends. I asked how the collector-car market has changed since the collapse of the financial markets, and Mel told me point blank that it hasn’t affected his business. I believe him.
One of the last stops was a distinct wall of old license plates attached to one of the numerous garages on the property. It was an interesting collection, and I asked how it came to be. Mel’s response was simply stated, “Where else was I going to put these plates?” It was getting late, and I shook his hand, thanked him for the time he spent with me, turned, and drove away. As I was driving to my hotel room in the next town, I reflected on what I had witnessed. Otto’s Wheel is a piece of Americana, nestled in the lower tier of New York, that wasn’t quite like anything else I have ever visited. It was low-key, yet oddly exciting. It was a museum, but not locked away, and if you had the means, you could take away a piece of history. It is run by someone who is down to earth, trustworthy, and never pretentious. It is a true roadside discovery.