One of the community’s most iconic neighborhoods is also home to some of its most classic cars
Veiled behind the doors of oversized garages in a 1980s-era subdivision lurks the world of automobiles past. There you’ll find beautifully restored vehicular specimens time-lining America’s love affair with the automobile.
Welcome to Mandarin Club Estates off Markham Woods Road in Longwood, home to the area’s least-known concentration of car collectors and automotive enthusiasts for the past 30-plus years. Why has Mandarin become a mecca for car buffs? Don’t bother asking the community’s HOA... Mandarin doesn’t have one. That, plus the subdivision’s acre lots, make this phenomenon work.
“We were sensitive to HOAs in Fredericksburg, Virginia,” says Carolyn Baksa, who researched the Orlando area before moving south in 2007. She knew her husband Lou’s hobby of restoring old cars might not be welcome in all neighborhoods, so finding the right fit was crucial. “I found Mandarin in unincorporated Seminole County, which offered a wide variance.”
“This is a car neighborhood,” says Lou, who, at 57, is retired from the FBI but not from car restoration. “There’s a guy who rides the neighborhood in a 1920s open roadster with goggles and a duster coat. Here, a 90-year-old lady is not going to yell at you for changing your own oil.”
A self-professed car guy, Lou is currently the proud owner of a 1958 garnet red Cadillac Eldorado (a.k.a. the Rodeo Queen), a gleaming white 1957 Chevy pickup called Mr. Horsepower, and a 1957 Cadillac Fleetwood he has been working on for 20 years.
The prize possessions are stored in a king-size shelter that Lou built as soon as he moved in. It’s a working garage with an operational lift, but the spotless floors and automotive décor depict more of a showroom atmosphere. Ringing the upper walls of the main bay are license plates from every state in the Union (plus Washington, D.C. and Puerto Rico) from 1957, Lou’s favorite year for cars.
“That year was the high point of design for the automobile,” he believes. “I have always liked that renaissance age of style and design.”
While he never pursued a career related to cars, Lou’s hobby grew to the point of expertise. It began in 1968 with a car and truck show in Cleveland. Lou bought his own tools in 1974, followed by his first car, a 1967 Impala hardtop that he bought for $50, all before he even had a driver’s license. Since then, Lou has owned more than 30 cars and has been published and quoted in classic-car trade magazines.
“It has been a hobby my entire life, a dying hobby,” he says.
Soon after settling in Mandarin, Lou was tooling around the neighborhood in his ‘58 Eldorado when he met Larry Gerry, another serious classic-car collector who moved to the subdivision in 1990 with his own fleet of automobiles. Larry immediately constructed a working garage measuring 68-by-24 feet to store his precious collection.
“I built my first car from scratch, a 1932 Ford Model B two-door sedan, when I was 17 years old,” says Larry, now 71. “Then I was drafted, so it went into a barn until I came home.”
Originally from Iowa, Larry began collecting cars at age 27 when he bought a 1958 Rolls-Royce Silver Cloud I that he still owns today. “It is very special,” he beams.
Today, Larry is the proud owner of a pair of impeccably restored ‘58 Silver Clouds, which were synonymous with Walt Disney World weddings up until last year. He also maintains a 1958 Rolls-Royce Wraith Limousine, a 1946 Bentley Mark VI, the first car completely manufactured by Rolls-Royce at its factory, and a 1930s-era fire truck. To better showcase his compendium, Larry recently built a second garage. The 113-by-24-foot showroom also contains a lift.
While Larry may be retired and spends much of his time with automobiles and his wife of 41 years, Mary, he is still involved with the community. During the holidays, the car collector decorates his 1936 fire truck, participates in parades, and drives the neighborhood kids around to see Christmas lights.
Another Mandarin resident, Brad Meyer, is also the owner of a retired fire truck – a larger, more modern version – but classic in its own right. The 1973 American LaFrance fire engine was purchased at a public auction in North Carolina and restored to its current condition by Brad, a professional mechanic, who has dabbled mostly in antique cars.
“We moved to Mandarin a year ago, partly because I wanted a place to store the fire engine and one day have the space to build a nice big garage,” he says. The garage is in the works.
Brad shares the love for his hobby with the community as well, attending parades and car shows. Occasionally, he takes the family out for ice cream and shows off the big red machine.
So, if you find yourself driving around Longwood and see a driver with goggles putter by, or a 1946 Bentley turn the corner, you have not gone back in time. Rather, you’ve stumbled upon the local phenomenon known simply as The Cars of Mandarin.
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