In the summer of ‘64, Ted and Ellie Kaminsky were zipping through the boroughs of New York City, turning corners and heads in their brand-new, bright-red Pontiac GTO.
Unlike anything else on the road then, the GTO, with its Tri-Power 389 V-8 engine and sleek design, was the iconic vehicle of the muscle-car era. With the radio cranked up, the young couple liked to listen to the hit songs of the day through the car’s innovative Vibrasonic sound system; among their favorites was none other than Ronny and The Daytonas’ hit “G.T.O.,” whose lyrics gleefully outline the car’s game-changing specs and the coolness it reflected on its owners. The chorus cheered on the Kaminskys with, “C’mon and turn it on, wind it up, blow it out, GTO!”
The celebrated vehicle, which the Brooklyn couple bought for a whopping $2,360 that year, gave them everything they wanted in a ride. Well, except for air-conditioning — but that was OK because it just meant cruising with the black vinyl top down.
“People used to actually stop in the street to admire it,” recalled Ellie Kaminsky, 80. “I remember when I drove it, people would always tell me, ‘Oh, you look so good behind the wheel of your GTO.’ It was a standout.”
Ted Kaminsky, 85, still brings it up any chance he gets, with excitement and some melancholy. “That was my favorite car. I wish I had it today.”
The Kaminskys reached the end of the road with their beloved GTO after about six years. In that stretch, the pair moved themselves and their son from Canarsie, Brooklyn, to Massapequa Park, had two more children, went on family road trips, parked it in front of countless drive-ins and settled into the 1970s.
By this point, the GTO was undergoing extensive repairs and had been sitting in the garage for a while when Ellie read in the paper that a car exploded in someone’s garage. A rush of concern over their car’s proximity to their children’s bedrooms convinced them to get rid of it. (Not an hour goes by today, Ellie said, when she doesn’t kick herself over this.) Other flashy wheels would sit in their driveway over the years — a Chevy Nova, a Ford Mustang — but the Pontiac never quite left their rearview.
“Yeah, they talk about that every day,” their youngest son, Steven, said with a laugh. “I always look, but they’re hard to find [and are costly] … I would love to get my dad a GTO. That would be a dream.”
The memories of those early days flickered often in the Kaminsky home, but perhaps never as intensely as when Ted finally got his hands on his old car again around 2000.
Reunited with the GTO
After lots of searching, he, with the help of his wife and son, tracked down the exact original at a hobby shop in Nassau County. Ted brought it home, sprayed the body with lacquer that was the closest match to the original red, and then, after it dried a day later, got to work on assembling the rest of its numerous, intricate parts — from the engine to the suspension.
He held the GTO of his dreams, admired it alongside Ellie, then placed it on a shelf in his workshop alongside other miniature classic cars, as well as ships and planes.
This was early on in his model-making, a hobby he picked up to pass the time as a restless retiree — having concluded his career in 1998 after more than 40 years as an electrician with this International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 3 in New York City. In those days, he would be out the door by 5 a.m. to spend his workdays in subway tunnels and on high-rises, aiding in the construction of buildings like the World Trade Center and the Jacob K. Javits Center.
Retiring after four decades, he suddenly found himself at home, battling boredom. Though he maintained his lifelong devotion to physical fitness, complete with a home gym and regimented workout schedule, he wanted something else to keep him busy. That’s when he grabbed a retirement gift that had been collecting dust: a model kit for an old ship.
“That started me, like a drug,” said Ted. “As I was doing it, I thought, ‘Oh this is pretty good, I like this.’ It wasn’t that easy, and I had to take my time, paint different things and work with smaller pieces.”
After building more boats and ships and then delving into aircraft, he shifted his focus — via a magnifying glass and an overhead light — solely to cars, making everything from the Fords of the early 1900s to such pop-culture wheels as the Batmobile — although the retro rides of his youth make up a large chunk of his collection.
To visit his workshop and office is to journey through a small-scale version of the local car shows that Ted and Steven attend together. Or a museum of the American automobile.
In “Ted’s Hobby Shop,” as the sign Steven made proclaims inside the former home office, there are rows of meticulously crafted vehicles across dozens of shelves, each labeled with the make, model and year — a ‘49 Mercury Coupe, a ‘63 Corvette Stingray, a ’67 Dodge Coronet, a ‘70 Plymouth Barracuda. The tools of his trade, including scissors, a pocketknife, tweezers, a toothbrush and cement glue, are scattered across his work table.
‘In another world’
While he mostly adheres to the kits’ instruction manuals, Ted sometimes gets creative, either by reconfiguring the engine or putting together his own windshield. His preferred kit brand is Revell, and he gravitates toward Level 5 models, the hardest and most complex ones.
“Once he did the cars, he never looked back,” said Ellie, who helps her husband pick out the vehicles and their colors, searches for them on Amazon, lays out the model pieces for him and is always the first one to see the finished product. “He’s off in another world when he’s doing his models,” she said.
Since Day One, Ted, with his wife’s help, has kept an organized log of each one he’s worked on. His first was also the first car he ever had, a 1957 Ford Fairlane, and last month, on his birthday, Steven took him to Nassau Hobby Center in Freeport where he picked out and later completed his 200th car model, a 1951 Chevy Sun Cruiser Convertible. In fact, he’s made a model of every car he’s ever had.
“I think it’s that his love was always for cars more than anything else, and it’s definitely given him the feeling of when he was growing up as a youth — they’ve brought a lot of those times back for him,” said Steven, who grew up to be a personal trainer based on his father’s influence. “My dad puts 100% effort into everything. Looking at it from the fitness side, I think it’s important for all the senses. He’s so sharp.”
Ted agreed: “It’s a great hobby. It takes a little thinking, it keeps me alert, and when you have a finished model, you can be proud of it.”
His affinity for modeling puts him in good company when he travels to Nassau Hobby Center and Willis Hobbies, in Mineola, two of many shops where Long Island tinkerers flock for their next projects. Both businesses have been in operation for decades — Nassau Hobby Center was founded in 1946 and Willis Hobbies in 1949 — and have seen the rise, peak, dip and upswing of modeling popularity across several generations.
While there have always been the modeling die-hards, mostly older folks who have been making models since they were kids, the shops saw an influx of customers across all age groups during the pandemic. With everybody stuck inside, there was a boom in at-home activities.
Getting ‘the itch’
And the surge has been steady, with Willis Hobbies selling close to 1,000 models a month — cars, tanks, planes, ships, trains and more — with the kits ranging from $10 to $600, according to its owner.
“I feel like it reopened a lot of people’s eyes to modeling,” said Jay Siegel, who described Willis as “a toy store for all ages.” About car model hobbyists, he added, “I see a lot of retirees who come in and say, ‘Now I have time and can sit down at my kitchen table and work on this thing as long as I need to.’ Most of them are very into the specific vehicle they love and want all the years and models, and the custom versions.”
Over in Freeport, Chris Hirschberg, who has served as the third-generation owner of Nassau Hobby Center since 2016, says he’s been building models and around model-makers his whole life. “A lot of people get models of the first car they ever had, and it allows them to recreate it. Or there are people who can never buy a Ferrari, but hey, you can build a Ferrari and customize it however you want to … and buy it for 40 bucks instead of 100 grand.”
A lot of people, he added, see hot rods at local car shows and “get that itch” to build models of them “It definitely brings families together,” Hirschberg said.
For Steven Kaminsky, the trips to the hobby shops and his father’s foray into car modeling have bonded him and his parents even closer.
“It’s been a fun thing we’ve been able to do together,” Steven said. “Our antennas are always up; whenever we get an email or see something about a new car model available, I’ll be like, ‘Dad, I got an hour off, let’s go to the hobby shop.’ And then he and I will go to car shows and that’s where he gets a lot of ideas and says ‘wow, that would be a great model to do.’
“And my mom is a big help, so he really enjoys that it’s something we all share together,” continued Steven, who’s been known to snap photos of cool cars he sees on the road to show to his father.
“We saw a beauty the other day,” Ted said, referring to a Lamborghini they saw parked in town. “I thought, ‘that would be a good one.’”
Hobby shops on Long Island
Here’s a sampling of shops where you can find model kits and more to fuel your hobbies.
A Store of Fire and Dice, 486 Merrick Rd., Lynbrook; 516-812-5099; facebook.com/astoreoffireanddice/: Specializes in trading cards: Pokémon, Magic, Yu-Gi-Oh.
A&S Sports, 825 Carman Ave., Westbury; 516-414-4323; facebook.com/AS-Sports-LLC-113135665370599/: Specializes in sports memorabilia, sports cards (baseball, basketball, football, hockey, wrestling, racing and soccer) and nonsports cards; Pokémon, Magic, Yu-Gi-Oh, Dragon, Garbage Pail kids and more.
Bay Shore Hobbies, 2054 Sunrise Hwy., Bay Shore; 631-968-8547; facebook.com/Bay-Shore-Hobbies-165398776203/: Specializes in model kits, radio-controlled vehicles, model trains, trading cards: Pokémon, Magic, Yu-Gi-Oh.
Brothers Grim Games & Collectibles, 1244 Middle Country Rd., Selden; 631-698-2805; facebook.com/BrothersGrimGames/: Specializes in Yu-Gi-Oh, Pokémon, Magic, Dragon Ball Super, Board Games, D&D, Warhammer, and board games and miniature games.
Fantastic Toyage, 5288 Merrick Rd., Massapequa; 516-882-9250; fantastictoyage.com: Specializes in collectibles, model kits, model trains, trading cards, sports and nonsports trading cards, comic books, books, magazines, action figures, die-cast cars, dolls, plush animals, games, board games, Pokémon, Yu-Gi-Oh.
Hobby Lobby, various locations, hobbylobby.com: Features home and seasonal décor, tableware, floral, art supplies, craft supplies, yarn, fabric, jewelry-making and scrapbook supplies, hobby materials and more.
Men at Arms Hobbies, 134 Middle Country Rd., Middle Island; 631-924-0583; facebook.com/Men-at-Arms-Hobbies-Inc-139655196076758/: Specializes in plastic models kits, board games, puzzles, books, modeling supplies, miniature games.
Michael’s Arts and Craft Store, various locations; michaels.com: Features home décor, seasonal décor, tableware, floral, art supplies, craft supplies, yarn, jewelry making, scrapbook supplies, hobbies and more.
Nassau Hobby Center, 13 W. Merrick Rd., Freeport, 516-378-9594; nassauhobby.com: Full line hobby shop — model trains, model kits, remote-controlled vehicles, puzzles, paints, Legos, action figures, slot cars and more.
Scrap-A-Latte, 879 Little East Neck Rd., West Babylon; 631-482-9190; scrapalatte.net: Specializes in scrapbooking pages, cards and mixed media, stamps, dies, classes and more.
Trainland, 293 Sunrise Hwy., Lynbrook; 516-599-7080; trainworld.com: Specializes in model trains, model railroad equipment and accessories.
Willis Hobbies, 300 Willis Ave., Mineola; 516-746-3944; willishobbies.com: Full line hobby shop — model kits and supplies, radio-controlled vehicles, model trains,paint, architectural supplies, puzzles, slot cars, tools, books, magazines, Bruder trucks for kids, kites, drones.
Trainville, Hicksville; 516-433-4444; trainville.com: Online presence or by appointment at one of their shows or at the warehouse in Hicksville; specializes in model trains, railroad equipment and accessories, slot cars, model kits.
Harry’s Depot, 117 Oregon Ave., Medford; 631-475-9056: On ebay: Scale Model Railroad Hobby; featuring Brass models, “scratch” building and detail parts.
Compiled by Dorothy Guadagno-Levin