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Four generations of buying and fixing cars in Newton

Posted December 4, 2008 07:02 AM

Few people can attribute their successful career to a job they had in middle school, but for Sam Hurwitz, that’s precisely the case.

Hurwitz, co-owner of the Old Time Garage, located in Newton and Needham, began repairing cars when he was 14. He started in the space where his Newton Lower Falls garage is now. Nearly three decades later, he also runs a thriving business buying and selling used automobiles. He and his brothers Billy and Kenny are the fourth generation to make a living in the auto business.

Hurwitz, age 44 and himself the father of four, credits his late grandfather Charles for many of his accomplishments. The two traveled remarkably parallel paths, which Hurwitz said he didn’t fully realize until after his grandfather’s death eight years ago, when he discovered an audio diary in his grandfather’s dresser drawer.

The 32 minutes of tape is a biographical timeline that follows his grandfather from high school through his days at the Brighton auto-repair shop and car dealership that he owned for decades.

‘‘Here I am now — traveling to Florida and Connecticut to buy cars for a better value during these poor economic times — and this is just what my grandfather did right after the Depression,’’ said Hurwitz. ‘‘Who would have ever thought that we’d see days like that again?’’

The family’s first generation in auto repair and sales began in the late 1900s with William Hurwitz, Sam’s great-grandfather. He was a horse dealer and stable owner, and did carriage repair. When automobiles gained popularity, he changed his business plan to accommodate mechanical horsepower.

Charles worked with his father for a few years, then started a wholesale used car business during the Depression. He called it Highland Motors, for the Highland telephone exchange in Roxbury Crossing, where it was located. In the mid-1950s, his son Matthew opened Mat’s Good Gulf, a small gas station and repair shop in Newton Corner. Mat wound up leaving to earn a degree in mechanical engineering from MIT. His sons, however, preferred to work with their hands.

For the most part, Hurwitz puts in a 70-hour work week. Every Wednesday he heads to the Southern Auto Auction in Windsor, Conn., where he spends the day buying used autos to sell. Fridays are spent at ADESA Boston, an auto auction in Framingham, and once a month Hurwitz flies to Orlando, Fla., to attend the Manheim Central Florida Auto Auction.

‘‘The prices in Florida are lower; the cars there have no rust due to the weather conditions; and, overall, the mileages are lower,’’ said Hurwitz.

On average, Hurwitz said, he sells around 30 cars a month. Many of the new owners stay on with him for service.

‘‘If you sell between 300 and 400 cars a year and retain 50 percent of them for return maintenance, you’re increasing your client base exponentially,’’ said Hurwitz, who does not advertise. All customers come by word of mouth.

Despite the economy’s continued nosedive, Hurwitz said, people still need their cars, but he has seen an increase in customers who have fallen on hard luck.

‘‘We have a running clipboard of people who are on payment plans here,’’ said Hurwitz. ‘‘But we’re really only [accommodating] those who we’ve known for 20 years and are going through tough times.’’

Hurwitz says he generally begins his days at 4:30 a.m.

‘‘There’s another whole world out here before the sun comes up,’’ he said. Early risers, he said, regularly come in for repairs and maintenance before heading to work.

On Sunday, he does paperwork at 5 a.m. before heading to the gym and then home to spend time with his family. His four daughters range in age from 9 to 15. All take karate, and some play soccer, dance, and are involved with gymnastics. All four girls also ride dirt bikes.

Hurwitz has been riding motorcycles since long before he could drive. Soon after he started, he began building them and drag racing. His best time in the quarter-mile he said, stands at 7.2 seconds at 190 mph, which he did on a 1500 cc Motorsports Suzuki.

For a few years, Hurwitz traveled across the country running the circuits with around 14 races a year. These days he tends to stay in New England. His last professional race was the AC/Delco Nationals in LasVegas in 2003, where he ranked 8th. Other accomplishments include ranking 7th nationally in the 2000 AMA Prostar competition in the Mountain Motor Pro Class and winning New England Dragway’s Quick 8 series of bike shows four times — from 1999 to 2001, and then again in 2004.

‘‘Anything can happen with motorcycles, but I grew up racing them, so they don’t scare me,’’ said Hurwitz. He does, however pay a premium for life insurance.

‘‘I’m worth more dead than alive,’’ he joked.

But life wasn’t always so smooth for Hurwitz. He was 13 years old when his mother, Evelyn, was diagnosed with ovarian cancer. Knowing that she was terminally ill, Evelyn began to teach her three sons to care for themselves, like how to cook and do their own laundry.

‘‘Sam was a young boy thrown into the adult world overnight when our mother died,’’ said his older sister Debra, who works at UMass Medical School. ‘‘He never complained and just kept moving ahead — soaking up information, learning from the mechanics and others around him, and teaching himself.’’

Every day after school, Hurwitz and his brother Kenny, who is one year older, would walk or take the T to the service station, work until 9 p.m., then head back to their Auburndale home where, for the most part, they took care of each other.

‘‘My grandfather stepped into play when my mother died and was always around,’’ said Hurwitz. ‘‘He took me to get my driver’s license, made sure that he came to my high school graduation — he was always there for me.’’

Hurwitz met his wife, Sandra, when he was 18 years old. The two married years later and will celebrate their 20th wedding anniversary in March.

‘‘I’m the maintenance-free husband,’’ joked Hurwitz. ‘‘I got so used to doing everything for myself while I was growing up.’’

-- Susan Chaityn Lebovits

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