Restoring gas station memorabilia is a lifelong passion
The first inkling that the Rockledge home of Terry and Walt “Koz” Kostrzewa is not your average house is the mailbox, shaped like an old gas pump, glass globe and all.
A few steps up the pavered driveway and it is apparent this is a house of cars. Koz agrees.
“We built the house to accommodate the car stuff,” Koz said.
Space for eight cars allows Koz to pamper cherished vehicles such as the 1928 Ford Model A Roadster pickup his father long ago restored to like-new condition. The 1963 Falcon convertible is identical to Koz’s college car. An ultra-posh 1975 Dodge Tradesman 100 van, a project that took Koz 40, yes, 40, years to complete, is nothing like a typical tradesman’s mode of transport. The 1957 Ranchero glimmers in perfect condition. The combination car/truck, a ground-breaking design for Ford, is considered the precursor of the modern luxury pickup.
“It took almost four years to find the right one, and another 40-year restoration was out of the question!” Koz says.
While the automobiles are impressive, they are a minor part of a collection that encompasses original Art Deco gas pumps from the 1920s and numerous examples of the glorious and colorful metal signage that once graced gas stations and car dealerships decades ago.
There are 1950s bikes that look as good as they did under the Christmas tree all those decades ago and a host of other transportation-themed items, including original Dodgem bumper cars, bulk oil cans, oil company weathervanes, unique Cocoa Cola dispensers, old gas station restroom signs, Burma Shave road placards and even vintage condom machines from gas station restrooms. If it is remotely connected about the joys of taking to the road, chances are good Koz has restored it.
There is often some emotional connection with the items. Take the Dodgem bumper cars, for example. These quintessential carnival rides were invented by a pair of brothers in Koz’s home state of Massachusetts. Regardless that the earliest of these goofy vehicles depended on a highly counterintuitive steering system that often propelled riders onto the floor, they were an instant favorite with crowds. Koz remembers fondly many a good time aboard them growing up in the Bay State.
Although Koz has been interested in cars since he can remember, he credits his mother for steering him toward the collecting end of the hobby.
“During the 1980s, my Mom was complaining I was hard to buy for and that I needed to take up a collection,” Koz said. “Since I have been automotive related since I was 6, it seemed natural to start collecting automobile nostalgia.”
The memorabilia he could afford was not in the best of conditions, so he decided to restore the treasures he uncovered.
“When I caught the fever, I couldn’t let go,” he said.
For years, the Kostrzewas would wander back roads discovering forgotten items in old buildings or even in the middle of a pasture. Antique shows were another outlet for discoveries. The more weather-worn the item, the better.
“The challenge is to take something unrecognizable and put it back to the way it was when it was born,” Koz said.
Prices have skyrocketed as supply diminishes. Vintage gas pumps have become rare, although Koz occasionally hits a jackpot, such as the pump he found just a couple of blocks away in a Rockledge garage.
Restoring these vestiges of the past is painstaking work, but can reap significant financial rewards.
“Restored gas pumps can range anywhere from $3,500 to as much as $18,000, depending on the era and rarity of a particular model,” Koz said.
To add a restored bumper car to a vehicle collection, a collector will have to shell out approximately $5,000 for a roller and up to $9,000 for a motorized version, depending on how many bells and whistles are desired and how fast it goes.
The collection became a thriving business when Koz opened a restoration business known as Past Gas in Cocoa in 1986. The shop has since become a go-to shrine for collectors from around the world. In addition to private collectors and restoration buffs, customers include restaurants, nightclubs, movie/TV production companies and interior designers.
Koz rarely travels in search of memorabilia anymore. Instead, the items come to him, for he has earned a reputation for impeccable work.
“He does outstanding restoration work with meticulous attention to detail,” said Ed Dedick, operations/restoration manager at the American Muscle Car Museum.
Several of Koz’s gas pumps and memorabilia such as the impeccably restored 1952 Rollfast Hopalong Cassidy fat tire bicycle are part of the collection at the Melbourne museum.
“We get things in original tired condition and turn them over to Walt,” said Andrew Mackey, the museum’s event coordinator.
“He’s passionate about restoration.”
Some of Koz’s own treasures, including a glimmering white Good Humor ice cream cart, are on loan to the museum.
Car memorabilia is not confined to the garages at the Kostrzewa compound. The family room, the stairs, the pool enclosure, the outdoor kitchen, and pretty much any available empty space, all exhibit a bit of history on wheels. Fortunately for Walt, Terry appreciates the collection.
“I love all the memorabilia and the fun we had going to shows and roaming the countryside collecting it,” she said.
“Each one brings back memories.”
Koz has no interest in ever treating the restoration bug, for this is his highway to the past.
“The passion never goes away,” he said.
Site sought for record run
Walt “Koz” Kostrzewa might go into the history books as the man with the fastest bumper car, if he can put his 1987 Dodgem, a car he purchased in Jacksonville and souped up into a racing machine of sorts, through its paces.
His goal is to reach 100.4 miles an hour, enough to break the current record of 100.336. All the prep work is done, including low-speed testing at the American Muscle Car Museum in Melbourne. Now all he needs is a straightaway three-quarters of a mile long. There was talk of using a landing strip at Kennedy Space Center, but this might be more dream than reality. An airport landing strip would work, but it’s hard to get approval to use an operational strip.
If anyone knows of a likely site, contact Kostrzewa at www.pastgas.com with the information.
Maria is a prolific writer and proofer for Space Coast Living and an adjunct professor at Florida Institute of Technology’s Nathan M. Bisk College of Business. When not writing, teaching or traveling, she can be found waging a one-woman war against her lawn and futilely attempting to maintain order among the chaos of a pack of extremely clueless wirehair dachshunds and an angst-driven basset hound.