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Crazy for classic cars

scan0010When the office lights go off at night, some men turn to wine, women, and song to relax. Not Ralph Nicewonger. “For me, it’s always been cars,” he says.

And in recent years, it has been classic cars. “My wife, Judy, and I have two classic Thunderbirds—a ’57, which was the last two-seater model Ford manufactured, and a ’58, the first four-seater. “Since I turned 15,, I’ve owned 79 cars, trucks, and motorcycles, says Nicewonger. “Unfortunately, I didn’t realize how valuable some were until after I sold them.”

Nicewonger’s daytime job is owner, along with his wife Judy, of Publication Distribution Services, a business he created in 1997 for another company and bought out in 2003. The company, through its 30 contracted carriers, distributes free publications from southern Georgia down through Ocala and Silver Springs.

After hours, as a way to relax, reduce stress, and “to preserve history,” the Nicewongers like to take one of their classic cars out for a spin. “The fun is to get [the cars] out and run them around. It’s neat when you drive down the road and somebody recognizes that you’ve got something unusual,” he says. “Somebody will drive by you and blow the horn and wave. I think all old-car owners get a kick out of that. It probably strokes their ego somewhat.”

Although some classic-car buffs do their own restoration, Nicewonger says he doesn’t pretend to be an expert. “Our cars, according to judging classifications, are considered ‘drivers.’,” he says. And although the Thunderbirds they currently own are not “concourse quality” vehicles, they have won a few trophies, some based on their great condition and some for fun. “Last Halloween, we won a trophy for ‘Best Halloween Performance.’ We borrowed a mummy from a party store and put it in the trunk and decorated the car with cobwebs. It was fun.”

The awards are won at car shows put on by various classic-car organizations to which they belong—the Thunderbird Club, First Coast Car Council, the Florida Show Car Association, and the Antique Automobile Club of America (AACA).

“These organizations do everything from Saturday-morning cruise-ins from 7 a.m. to 9 a.m. at a Crispy Crème to different shows sponsored by churches or organizations.” He says the AACA goes to senior citizen centers regularly. “You sit there for a few hours and get the chance to talk to some people who remember their first date in the back of a Model A.”

Driving his cars and exhibiting them are only two ways in which Nicewonger’s hobby keeps him busy after hours. A third is organizing events. In April, he organized the classic-car show at the Cecil Field Air Show, which this year was billed as the largest air show in the United States. It was also a fund-raising activity for the auto club. “Typically we raise money for different charities at our car shows. This year we joined with the Cecil Field Air Show to raise money to help a stunt pilot who broke his neck in a tragic accident and became paralyzed,” explains Nicewonger.

The car buffs raised money by inviting visitors to vote on their favorite auto. Each vote had to be purchased. “It was the first time we’ve had this kind of contest,” he says.

Owning a classic car can be a little “pricey,” says Nicewonger, but it is a great family hobby. The only downside? “We have a two-car garage,” he says, “and unfortunately, our ‘regular’ cars have never seen the inside of it.”

Publication Distribution Services, 904-737-7327, is located at 5107 University Boulevard West, Jacksonville, FL 32216.


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