Car czar Bob Millstein

Whether it’s a classic Mercedes or a new Porsche, this racer and restorer knows what makes an engine hum.

Walking over to a shiny silver 1955 Mercedes-Benz Gullwing, then to a bright yellow 1954 Dodge Royal Convertible and a sleek black 1956 Jaguar Saloon, Bob Millstein is like a kid in a candy shop as he points out the variety of classic cars he repairs and restores at his shop in Briarcliff Manor.

While his lot at Briarcliff Classic & Imported Car Service teems with eye-catching older cars, there are just as many late-model vehicles, ranging from Saabs, BMWs and Hondas to Volvos and Volkswagens.

“The shop is very eclectic in its nature. We service a rainbow of cars, and we treat them all as important and with the same degree of expertise,” says Millstein, who has owned Briarcliff Classic for 43 years.

When asked what still makes him excited about coming into the shop every day for more than four decades, he says, “I love doing a service for customers and fixing things that other people can’t. To take a car that hasn’t run in 30 or 40 years and then to go out on the road in it with the owner is truly a wonderful feeling.”

Millstein remembers fixing a Jaguar Mark IV that had belonged to a customer’s grandfather and hadn’t been on the road in decades. The client was so overwhelmed that he picked Millstein up off the ground and hugged him.

Millstein has been a car fanatic ever since he was a child. His father, a Russian immigrant who put himself through Yale School of Medicine, always had a love of foreign cars and drove the family around in a Porsche 912. Millstein’s particular attraction to English sports cars can be traced back to his older brother, Jeff, who used to race a 1949 MG TC. As a 10-year-old, Millstein would tag along with him and help out at the track. He eventually went to work with his brother at his car shop in Long Island City, Queens, before opening up Briarcliff Classic in 1974.

At age 19, Millstein bought his first British racing car, a 1958 Austin Healey “Bugeye” Sprite.

“My dad financed the $100 to buy the car and my brother and I fixed it up. We used to park it in the streets near where I grew up in Washington Heights,” he says.

From there, Millstein moved on to more and more commanding English race car models until he arrived at the 300-horsepower 1965 Jaguar XKE, which he has owned for more than 40 years and won races in across the Northeast. (His other classics include a 1960 Aston Martin DB4, a 1955 Austin Healey 100-4 and a 1924 gaff-rigged sloop sailboat, all housed in his Pleasantville home’s five-bay garage.)

Because of Millstein’s widespread reputation for racing, restoring and repairing classic cars, customers flock from Manhattan, Connecticut and even New Jersey. He also gets a lot of local business from late-model car owners in Briarcliff, Chappaqua, Pleasantville and the surrounding towns.

“It’s really a neighborhood friendly shop. If you come in and have a bulb out, I’ll stop what I’m doing and put a new one in for you. You don’t have to make an appointment and go out of your way,” he says.

In addition to Millstein, the shop has three full-time and two part-time mechanics.

Full timers include Leo Bunker, who’s been there for 39 years and focuses on British marks and classic cars. Dan Thaler, a 27-year veteran, services the newer cars and solves complex electrical problems. A recent recruit is Dylan Boscia, an apprentice who, according to Millstein, will “make sure that the talent from the shop gets passed on to a future generation.”

Many of Briarcliff Classic’s customers are regulars who are drawn in by the continuity in the shop and enjoy an ongoing relationship with Millstein and his staff.

“Car owners get to know the mechanic that’s working on their vehicle,” he says.  “If you came in and you’ve got a noise in your car, I’ll let you talk to the mechanic directly. He’ll take a ride with you in the car and listen to what’s rattling. It’s rare to find that in another shop, especially in a dealership.”

While the shop is always busy year-round, Millstein points out the jobs they take on can vary depending on the season.

“In the spring and summer people take their sports cars out and want to use them. We’ve really got to get as many cars back on the road as quickly as possible. In the wintertime, it slows down. That’s when we take on ground-up restoration work, which can take hundreds of hours on just one car.”

Among the recent vehicles Millstein brought back to life was a 1958 Jaguar XK150, owned by architect Ricardo Scofidio, whose projects range from The Museum of Modern Art to Millstein’s own shop. Briarcliff Classic rebuilt the Jaguar’s engine and suspension, put in electric-powered steering, enhanced the disc brakes and installed a new pair of carburetors.

If that wasn’t enough, Millstein sent the car’s original radio up to Canada to get it restored, had its grill re-chromed in Philadelphia, installed recovered beige leather seats and had the car painted the perfect color of dark British racing green.

“Really, every last item was replaced, rebuilt or refurbished,” says Millstein.

To keep up to date with servicing classic cars as well as all the newer models that come in, Millstein and his technicians have stayed on top of changing technology. Whether it’s repairing a 1923 Chevrolet or a 2016 Audi, the shop can now access almost all of its car manuals online, plus they have the latest scanning devices to get into current car computers. 

“While the scanner points you in the right direction, you still have to be knowledgeable about the car to determine and decipher what the code means and where to look for the problem,” Millstein says. “So, even while we’re using computers, it takes a skilled technician with experience to solve the problems of a modern car. Plus, cars will always have brakes and fan belts that need to be fixed and radiators and gasoline engines that need to be serviced.”

As the shop has evolved with the times, so has Millstein’s personal car collection. While he’ll always cherish his Jaguar XKE, calling it “one of the most sensuous cars ever built,” he just purchased a late-model Porsche this year.

“With a modern car, you push the button of the car and the top goes down. With the classic English cars, you have to be a rocket scientist to make that happen.”

For Millstein, the Porsche is really compensation for dealing with the brakes, steering, handling and horsepower of the classic cars.

“The Porsche does everything right. It’s a superb machine. But there’s always going to be a special place in my heart for these older machines that take much more talent to drive and repair.”

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