If you've attended a local parade over the years, chances are that you've seen one of Pete Draia's cars. In particular demand is his 1958 Nash Metropolitan convertible, with a red-and-white two-tone finish that makes it a natural for YSU parades and Independence Day ceremonies. In fact, it would have appeared in this week's July 4th parade in Canfield, but for brake repairs couldn’t be completed in time.
Heaven knows the car's owner and driver was ready. At 89 years old, Mr. Draia takes every opportunity to share his automotive enthusiasm with others.
"They draw a lot of attention," said Mr. Draia of the '58 and its twin, a 1961 hardtop coupe in yellow and white. The pride in his voice is understood when looking at them today in contrast with their condition when he purchased them. The '58 was such a basket case that his late wife Ethel told him to just get rid of it when he brought it home in 1982. She had a point -- the floor and rocker panels were rusted to oblivion, and the rest wasn't much better. The '61 wasn't nearly as bad, but still required a thorough refurbishing.
Thankfully, he saw the potential in the wretched little ragtop and is glad that he saw it through to the gleaming little parade-magnet that it is today. "I got a nice car out of it," he says with a smile. Mrs. Draia approved heartily of the effort as well, and the couple drove it to parades and car shows all over the area until she passed away five years ago.
The word "cute" is hard to avoid when describing the cars. With a wheelbase of only 85 inches and overall length of 12 1/2 feet, Metropolitans were dwarfed by the chrome-laden, tail-finned beasts of 50 years ago. Built from 1953 to 1961 in England by the Austin Motor Co. for Nash (later American Motors Corp.), they were motivated by a 91-cubic-inch four-cylinder that produced 42 horsepower; later versions belted out 55 horses. Even with only 1,800 pounds to pull around, the performance was hardly startling. The upside of modest a curb weight, small engine and streamlined design was 35 mpg, which, Mr. Draia points out, was fantastic for its era and still quite good today.
The cuteness continues inside, where both Metros have been retrimmed in the same black and white houndstooth upholstery they were built with. Despite petite exterior dimensions, the interior is quite comfortable for two -- up front. The back seat, however, is suitable only for small children, pets or grocery bags. In fact, the back seat's main purpose was to provide access to the trunk; the Metropolitan wouldn't gain an outside trunklid until 1959. The pert little tail on each was finished with a Continental-style spare tire, which saved room in the trunk.
Mr. Draia has always loved cars, and purchased his first for $5 down and $5 per month in 1938 with money he earned delivering Western Union telegrams. It was an equally diminutive 1934 American Austin. (So small in fact that it was once kidnapped from its curbside parking spot in downtown Youngstown by students from the then-Youngstown College and carried into the lobby of the Palace Theater.)
During the war, he began work as a machinist, a career which allowed him to provide a good life for his family over the next several decades. Such responsibilities precluded any serious car collecting, but he was able to purchase and drive a succession of fondly-remembered cars over the years, from 1930s Buicks to a 1972 Porsche 914. Today, in addition to the Metropolitans, his collection includes a 1965 Ford Fairlane 500 Sport Coupe and his most recent addition, a 1928 Chrysler 62 Sedan.
The red '65 Ford, with its square-jawed good looks and muscular 289 V8, is as distinct from the Metropolitans as the green '28 Chrysler, with its running boards, wooden-spoke wheels, suicide doors and horn that goes "ahh-oooga", just like in the old movies.
Knowing this, it’s no surprise to learn that Mr. Draia is a charter member of the Mahoning Valley Olde Car Club. The club will present its 32nd annual “Cars in the Park” classic car show from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Sunday, Aug. 1 at Boardman Park. Proceeds will benefit the family of two-year-old Brett Wilcox of Austintown, who is fighting leukemia. Of course, Pete Draia will be there.
“It’s a good hobby,” he says. “I’ve got some nice cars here, and I like them.” So does everyone else who gets to see them.