Driving the Story

Driving the Story

Driving the Story

“Let me start over from the beginning,” he says after we’ve talked for some time. “Somewhere around 1910, my grandfather stowed away on a ship when he was just 12 years old.” As Raffaele Recchia speaks, the shells of vintage, unrestored trucks stand with their rusted rounded hoods and hollowed insides in a dramatic backdrop behind him. As he continues his grandfather’s story, the road to this place and Recchia’s love for antique vehicles begins to make sense. These cars and this place is a story of many years and thousands of miles. It is a story that needs to be told from the beginning.

Raffaele Recchia owns the Tecumseh Trade Center, one of Michigan’s largest flea markets. The grounds of the Trade Center, and its maze of indoor space, serve as a foreshadowing to the story to come. There are slews of antique vehicles, some beautifully restored, others waiting with what seems like stubborn dignity to not be forgotten. “I’ve always been buying and selling something,” he tells me. “It just must be in my blood.” When Recchia was about twelve years old, he started fixing bicycles and selling them in front of his parent’s house. “At one point I had around 50 bikes lined up across the front yard,” he says. “Eventually, I started doing the same with cars, airplanes, properties. My business has always been buying and fixing and selling.” As we stand outside, he points out various cars. I ask about a fantastic 1969 Cadillac Coupe Deville with bull horns mounted on the hood. It is a car with both style and sense of humor. He laughs in response. “That’s actually my car,” he says. “I drive that.”

The love for these old cars and the inclination to drive a Cadillac with horns instead of a new car off the lot was a gift from Recchia’s father and grandfather. “I guess you could say that I grew up in the business,” he says. “My grandfather started R&R Vehicle Sales in 1941, and my dad went on to own the dealership. My dad had always been into trucks since he was a kid. He went on to collect antique vehicles, so I grew up around them.” When Recchia was in high school, his father told him that if he could fix the antique vehicles, he could drive them to school. “I’d go work on one and get it running. Working on all the bicycles as a kid had made me mechanically inclined. I got to drive all these different antique cars to school. That’s how I got a passion for it. I didn’t know it at the time, but my dad was teaching me.” Recchia recently purchased the former Harry’s Furniture location on US12. Later this fall he will open as R&R Vehicle Sales. “We’ve always been R&R since 1941, he says.” This new location will be dedicated to vintage vehicle sales with a showroom he describes as, “a playground for car enthusiasts.”

We wander indoors, and he shows me a beautifully restored 1946 Dodge, which he calls the DeVito truck. When Recchia was in high school, Hoffa, staring Jack Nicholson and Danny DeVito was set to be filmed in Detroit. “They were looking for antique trucks, and dad had a bunch of them,” he said. “So we provided vehicles for the movie.” Recchia was only about 16 years old at the time, helping his father with the cars on set. “Danny DeVito is less than five feet tall,” said Recchia. “He was supposed to drive this truck, but he couldn’t reach the peddles. I was sitting there listening. There were a bunch of blocks by the tires, so I put them on the peddles and duct taped them on so DeVito could reach them.” The DeVito truck still sits at the Trade Center, “We kept it,” he said. “It was the debut, the first movie we ever did, so my dad didn’t want to sell that truck.”

The Hoffa movie was the start of a new business venture for the Recchias. They went on to rent their vintage vehicles to more films like Lost in Yonkers, The Young Indiana Jones, Gifted Hands, and Jumpers, to name a few. At one point, the business had 210 vehicles in their collection that they could supply to movie sets. When Recchia was in his twenties, he became a partner in the business. With the Tecumseh Trade Center as their base, they could offer more than just vehicles. “While we are on set, we just listen to what they need. With the flea market and all the antiques that are here, we’ve rented things like washing machines and lights. If we don’t have it, we go find it, buy it, and rent it to them.” He has even appeared in a few of the movies that used his vehicles. “I did Jingles the Clown,” he laughs. “Horrifying movie, but a lot of fun. I got to be the police officer who basically saved the day in the end and killed the clown.”

We continue to walk among his collection. I am formally introduced to many beautifully restored vehicles. We walk by former Detroit mayor Coleman Young’s parade car and the limo used in Gifted Hands. He shows me his grandfather’s tractor. “He bought it brand new,” he says. “I could spend days telling you about everything in here. Every car in here has a story.”

After wandering the indoor maze of vehicles we go back outside and once again the shells of the unrestored vehicles stand behind him. I ask Recchia to tell me his favorite vehicle story. He is quiet for a moment before beginning a vague story about a coal miner saving money to buy a vehicle. I assume it is a second-hand story passed along at a sale, but then he pauses and smiles. And that’s when he says, “Let me start over from the beginning. Somewhere around 1910, my grandfather stowed away on a ship when he was just twelve years old. He ran away from Italy to come find his older brother who was already here in the States. He just ran away,” he says. “He just left. Nobody knew where he was.”

When the ship arrived in New York, the young stowaway somehow found his way to New Mexico, where his older brother had a blacksmith shop. “His brother gets him a job in the coal mine,” says Recchia. “But in the coal mining industry it was almost set up so you couldn’t make money. They would charge you room and board and then you’d have an account at the local store and at the local pub. You’d make money, and then go have a good time, and you were always in debt to them, so you could never leave.” Yet the young boy did not travel thousands of miles only to be indebted to a coal mine. So Recchia’s grandfather made a pact with a friend to save money and to get out. “They saved and saved and saved,” says Recchia. “My grandfather worked in the mine for about ten years when he heard that in Detroit, Ford was hiring for five dollars per day. They had saved up enough money between the two of them to buy an Indian Motorcycle. They drove that Indian Motorcycle from New Mexico up to Detroit. There were no freeways back then, just bad dirt roads. They made their way playing guitar and singing for money in the little towns along the way.”

When they finally made it to Detroit and to the promise of five dollars per day, they were told that Ford was not hiring. It had been ten years of work, ten years honoring a pact, ten years of commitment to save for a vehicle to drive them to a dream that didn’t even exist. “My grandfather ended up getting a job at a cement company instead of Ford,” he says. “And then one day, my grandfather meets the boss’s daughter, my grandmother. They married, had my dad. My dad grew up with a love for cars and then passed that on to me.”

I ask him why he loves old cars, and he briefly speaks to the investment aspects. I ask if that’s it, if it’s simply about the money. He laughs and quickly answers, no. He talks about the cool-factor, the uniqueness of each vehicle, and then he once again returns to the story. He points to the old truck that serves as the Trade Center’s billboard. “I’ve had that truck for about twenty years,” he says. “I was driving by and saw it, and on the truck there was a note that read, ‘Hi my name is Bubba. I started my life in 1957 in Detroit, Michigan.’ The note went through the whole story of where he worked, where he went. So just like that, all of a sudden instead of the truck just being a mode of transportation, it becomes a friend of yours. It becomes a story. At the end of the note it said, ‘I’ve grown tired over the years.’ So Bubba came here, and Bubba is now our spokesman.” He nods to various cars and again says, “They all have a story.”

The business of these vintage vehicles may be the buying and selling and makes and models, it may be movies and actors and props and lights. Yet here there seems to be more, a story that needs to be told from the beginning, a story that stands behind Recchia with the same stubborn dignity and style of the old rounded truck shells. This place is the story of a 12-year-old stow away and a 12-year-old bicycle salesman. This is a story of a father’s love for cars and a father who creatively taught his son that a broken car isn’t a throw away car. Rather, things can be repaired, restored, and valued for more than new. Here, the cars mirror life — the hard work and joyrides, the breakdowns and repairs, and the dirt roads to dreams that never really existed only to find dreams we never expected — a man traveling for a decade and for thousands of miles to find the boss’s daughter. “Each car has a story,” he says again. “Every one of these cars has character, and I’d much rather have that than brand new.”

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