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When cars were part of the family

Anyone who believes man's best friend has four furry feet and a tail that wags has never seen a grown man snuggle up against a chrome-trimmed body on rubber tires.

That much was evident Sunday at the 25th Annual Antique Auto Show at the Queens Farm Museum in Bellerose, where about 185 aged cars sat beside doting owners who only interrupted their cooing to scold admirers who couldn't keep their hands off. This was a seeing event - not a touching one.

"There's always something behind their mind that brings people into old cars," said Maria Dalia, a past president of the New York Antique Auto Club, the event's sponsor. Her three-year tenure from 1999 to 2002 marked the first time in the organization's 40-year history that a woman stood at the helm, proving that girls are just as liable as boys to fall for the allure of a good-looking car.

"There's nothing like an old car," she said.

Although the event was rained out Saturday, Sunday's clear sky and bright sun brought out the hordes to gape and gaze.

The show features cars that are at least 25 years old, which means that the newest vehicles eligible for this year's show were fresh off the lot when the event was first held 25 years ago.

But new cars are not what they used to be, many lamented.

"A car was like a member of the family," said car enthusiast Stephen Wepprecht, 48, remembering back to the good ole days, whenever they were. "Now it's a utility."

"Now they change cars like they change wives," Dalia quipped.

But Wepprecht is as faithful as a lap dog when it comes to his prized car. He is restoring the 1934 Plymouth that he bought in 1971 as a 16-year-old vocational school student, when he spruced it up to such finery it earned him an outstanding student of the year award.

Today he teaches some nights at that same school in Nassau County and he spends his days fixing up car bodies as a professional, but he pours his heart into his Plymouth, rebuilding it for the second time in three decades.

"Every nut and bolt, wire and screw comes out of the car. It's a complete rebuild," he said. "You won't believe the amount of time and effort that goes into these cars. It's a labor of love because you never get the money back."

For others cars are more of a fanciful obsession.

Janice Klein, 45, had been collecting miniature models of orange Volkswagen Beetles for years until she finally broke down and bought a real one, which she displayed at the auto show with dozens of plush orange toys lining the seats.

Alongside her Beetle - aptly named "Clementine" - was the 1968 Imperial sedan owned by her husband, Ross Klein, 53, whom she met at that very auto show exactly 12 years earlier.

On that day she had been wearing a denim jacket with ruby sequins when he called out from behind her that he liked the coat.

"I said, 'I like your car, do you want to trade?'" she recalled, describing her first conversation with her husband of five years.

Ross Klein no longer has the 1969 Buick Electra convertible that caught his future wife's eye that day, but he still has her.

For George Wagener and his wife, Oralyn, old-time cars are all in the family. They showed off the 1954 Hudson that his father bought in Rockville Centre. Not much has changed in the life of the car, which remains in the same town.

"It's been in our family from new," George Wagener said. "We've had it repainted - not much more than that."

The Wageners are big Hudson fans. They have four more back at home.

And finally there's Ron DeMieri, 64, who bought his 1930 Cadillac with a rare V16 engine - one of only 125 left in the country - 17 years ago to fulfill a lifelong dream. It is a long, elegant machine that looks like it should come with a chauffeur and having cost a whopping $9,000 back in 1930, it probably did.

But today, DeMieri is content to simply show it off.

"Nothing stops it," he bragged. "I drive it - it's not a show car."

Reach reporter Dustin Brown by e-mail at Timesledger@aol.com or call 718-229-0300, Ext. 154.

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