Within the sea of curiosities that is the Davenport swap meet, Jon Szalay’s booth is perhaps the most curious. A crude robotic head for which you can make the jaw work and the eyes move right and left; a heavy electrical gizmo that was once used to cut layers of fabric (below left), but you’re not quite sure what; an ancient motorcycle carburetor that looks like it might be better suited for making sausage; dilapidated mechanical toys that still function as well as they did when made more than a century ago. And buttons and banners and photos and all kinds of odd things big and small that can command your attention for hours. People walk up, see something that triggers a personal memory from long, long ago, and smile. Or laugh. Or even shout. Jon Szalay preserves memories.
Szalay (pictured right) was born in Perth Amboy, New Jersey in February, 1963. Frank, his father, ran a small engine repair business, sold lawn mowers, and had a franchise as a Bronco minibike dealer. Szalay says, “I was one of six children, and we were aboard Broncos from the age of 6 or 7. I learned about mechanical things in dad’s shop, including an appreciation for small engines.” This learning would serve Jon well in later years, but it was not the most powerful influence in the formation of his career. He explains, “One of the big events in my life was reading Eric Sloane’s “A Reverence for Wood.” Written in 1965 and now out of print, Sloane’s book fired in Szalay a passion for wood working and a love of early American furniture and wooden artifacts. By the age of 12, he was restoring furniture, professionally. Szalay relates, “I loved this work, and I was very motivated. I knew it is what I wanted to do to earn my living.”
When the Szalays moved from Perth Amboy to South Jersey, Jon found himself in an area that thrived on tourism. He developed a good business of restoring and repairing furniture for dozens of local antique shops, and building cabinetry for the kiosks on the board walk. He recalls, “Some of my high school teachers were my best customers. When school was out for the summer, many of them were involved in small businesses catering to the tourist trade. I built a complete set of showcases for a math teacher.”
By 17, Jon had earned enough to buy his own building, an abandoned bank (pictured left) that had been built circa 1915 in Barnegat, on the South Jersey shore. Szalay explains, “This bank had been abandoned a long time, and one day it came up for auction. My dad and I decided to check it out, and I ended up buying it for $37,000!” He adds, “I couldn’t even sign the papers. Dad had to do that for me, but I paid for it and it was all mine.” The interior was a wreck, and Jon set about making it habitable. He relates, “We turned the president’s office upstairs into a living area. It even had a fireplace. There was a lower level that I turned into my shop, and the lobby became a showroom for my work.” Jon wasn’t even out of high school when he moved into the bank. He jokes, “I finished high school in 1981, then the only other classes I ever attended were at the University of Hard Knocks.”
Szalay got more involved with antique motorcycles in the 1980s. “Dad dragged me to a flea market,” he relates, “and I really liked some of the bikes there. But I didn’t feel I could afford a big Harley or an Indian.” Rather, Jon was drawn to small, rare, and early engines. He says, “In the early years, when a motorcycle fell apart, the farmers kept the engines. That’s what survived. For the really old stuff, the late 19th century stuff, usually the engine was the only thing left.”
Jon began to use his fabricating skills to recreate accurate motorcycles around such engines. One example, a gorgeous 1901 Thomas (pictured left), was selected for one of the Guggenheim The Art of the Motorcycle Exhibitions. He has restored several Thomas’s and currently has a 1912 Thor, a 1912 Emblem twin, a 1909 Colorado—the only one known to exist—and two pre-1915 Indians as works in progress.
From his restoration of these early machines, Szalay has spun off yet another specialty business . . . carburetors (below right). “Missing or irreparable carburetors are often what stands in the way of finishing one of these machines. So I started making early and functioning replica carburetors.” To build carburetors, Jon had to develop his own sand-mold and casting process. “I will only start with an authentic, original carburetor to make my molds. I can do aluminum and bronze, but I am still trying to learn to do cast iron.” His production includes racing carbs for eight-valve Indians, and Orient and Curtiss carbs, in addition to the aftermarket Pokorney carb used by Thomas and other early brands.
As much as Jon loves early Americana, including motorcycles, he does not regard himself a bigtime collector. “I am a restorer,” he says. “I restore other people’s property, and if it is mine I will eventually sell it.” This is the perfect mentality for the kind of professional who has become known as – thanks to a hit television show – a “picker.” In fact, Jon Szalay and television picker celebrity Mike Wolfe have been friends for more than ten years, long before Wolfe became famous and “picking” became a household term. Jon says, “He’s a great friend. When he is working on the East Coast, he sleeps on my couch. And when I go out west for the Davenport meet, he and I would go picking up and down the Mississippi River.”
Playing on the fact that he built his business in a defunct bank, Szalay calls it First National Antique Restorations. However, over the ensuing three decades, he has become so skilled and well-regarded that his clientele is indeed national. He holds membership in the leading professional guilds, and is currently doing work for clients as far west as Minneapolis. He says, “The bad economy has slowed things down a bit, but I still need about four of me to keep up with my commitments.”
Szalay reports that it is not unusual to put in 16-hour days, which is too easy to do when your job is just through a doorway from your home. “But,” he says, “I love it and I am still very motivated.” He continues, “You walk into the shop in the morning and see five or six different projects. There’s a stain that you put on a desk the night before, and you can’t wait to see how it has turned out. Or a carburetor casting to break out of the mold. Or a piece of furniture you have glued that are ready for the next step (pictured left). You can just go from one fascinating project to the next, and it never gets old.”
But you would be wrong if you conclude that Jon Szalay is nothing but work. Late in 2010, for example, he managed to break away long enough to participate in the famous pre-1916 Cannonball Motorcycle Rally with a 1911 Harley-Davidson. Expecting that the odds were against a 1911 completing the 3,000-mile route (the motorcycle of choice was the two-speed 1915 Harley), Szalay outfitted his van with a mini machine shop, including a lathe. It proved a smart plan, because he spent many sleepless nights making parts for his bike—he broke two rods—and the bikes of other contestants. Szalay explains, “I was out of spare rods, but I found a fork lift rod that was exactly the right length, but everything else was wrong about it. It was a big, beefy thing that I had to shave down, and I had to make a bushing to down-size its lower end.” He continues, “I made it all the way to Santa Monica, but I don’t think I got a night’s sleep during the whole run. Usually you were up all night just trying to make the bike run all of the next day.” He concludes, “It was the most grueling yet exhilarating experience I have ever had.”
Szalay’s description of the Cannonball sounds more like a nightmare, but a true devotee of early Americana like Jon considers it a dream. He asserts, “The dream’s not over! I’m getting ready for the next cannonball. The bike I plan to ride is in my shop right now.” Then, with a smile, he adds, “Well, its only a frame right now. Actually, its still half a frame.” While Szalay continues long days to preserve other people’s memories, today he has at least begun to find time to make some of his own.