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Best Not in Show

Couple’s lovingly restored cars are meant for driving

photo by Matt Rose

Lean and avid, arrayed in snug scenester threads, Franzi Charen and Kip Veno don’t look like regulars on the classic-car circuit. And they’re not. Their weekends aren’t spent puffing about shows in pressed chinos, re-polishing white molded steering wheels and fretting about the incalculable damage of childish fingerprints on restored chrome.

Instead, you might find Veno and a friend tinkering under a vehicular work in progress, while Charen takes one of the couple’s “daily drivers” — including a salmon-and-black ‘55 Chevy Bel Air and a ‘75 racing-striped tan Impala — out to work or play. In all, they own eight vintage cars spanning 20 years. A few of them are kept at Veno and Charen’s North Asheville bungalow, and the rest abide in various stages of roadworthiness in a garage on Veno’s mother’s property in Alexander.

There’s the black ‘61 Plymouth Fury whose push-button transmission bears the touch of radical designer Virgil Exner, and a resplendent, parade-worthy, aqua ‘59 Cadillac — an epitome of its era on the level of Elvis and McCarthy.

Two years ago, the couple — who both called California home for various periods before finding one another in Asheville — bought Hip Replacements, a vintage-and-repurposed clothing shop that has stylistically anchored North Lexington Avenue for more than a decade. It’s a natural pause on their journey, especially for Veno, who by his own account was a throwback before throwback was cool.

“My parents were not car people, but even as a little kid, I liked the big, crazy, gaudy cars from the huge fin era — the late ‘50s and early ‘60s. I knew even then that they were completely different. I was obsessed with them, and when I traveled with my grandparents, I could identify years, makes and models from a young age.”

He didn’t grow out of it. In high school in the late ‘80s, when his peers might have been blasting Bon Jovi from the just-invented CD players in their CRXs or Cabriolets, “I was pretty much the only one riding around listening to Muddy Waters on my tape deck,” Veno says with a laugh. “When I was 17, I spent all summer mowing lawns so I could buy a ‘57 Olds. It was falling apart, and I knew nothing about cars, but I loved it more than anything. When the transmission went out, I sold it. But I was heartbroken, and I said: ‘The next one, I’m not gonna sell.’”

Charen, too, was an early pupil of retro-fabulousness. “I grew up with parents who didn’t have anything in the house that wasn’t older than all of us … everything from the towels to the rugs to the faucets,” she says. Antiques in her blood, she can easily pinpoint distinguishing facets of various epochs, including items from the most recently trendy Mid-Century Modern flashback. As far as cars go, she laments an industry that’s now “focused purely on profit,” with no funds earmarked for the development of memorable design.

Both aficionados refute the notion that vintage-car collecting has to be a pricey hobby. Rather than scouring eBay or prowling shows for already polished gems, they buy local, sometimes paying just a couple hundred dollars for a lifeless shell of a ride. Many of their finds had only one or two owners before they happened upon them; one particularly lucky score was a ‘65 Chrysler Newport that came from the old Chrysler of Asheville dealership at the corner of Coxe and Hilliard streets. “It had been here its whole life,” says Veno, “and it’s one of the most dependable cars we’ve ever had.”

Nevertheless, “when I started out, it became really apparent that I was going to go broke unless I learned how to work on these old cars,” he goes on. Veno honed his skills at the Automotive Restoration class offered at Blue Ridge Community College in Flat Rock, noting, “that’s what brought me to Asheville.”

Charen, who in turn gained mechanical knowledge from Veno, has more thoughts on the business end of the matter. “Every single car we have we could turn around for exactly the same amount of money, or much more, than we bought it for,” she says. “They’re investments whose value can only increase.”

Her serene practicality balances Veno’s boyish enthusiasm. No seat belts? No problem. It’s one of the risks they’re willing to take: the tradeoff is the comparative mass of metal that surround them. “These cars,” says Charen, “are not tin cans.”

“Back then, the stylists had no restrictions,” declares Veno with a gesture of wonder. “They were given a blank canvas and were able to let their ideas soar. And the public was hungry for it — the options were limitless. It was an exciting time, one that’s not going to happen again.”

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