Nick Czap for The New York Times
OF all the tools at his disposal, Jaan Hjorth reserves special affection for a 1942 Monarch model EE lathe. The behemoth device, a mad array of levers, dials and hardened cutters, is so versatile that Mr. Hjorth calls it “the tool that can make itself.”
More to the point, it can whittle a clamp for the ignition coil of a 1958 Lancia Appia, mill a tiny cam for the door lock of a ’65 Lancia Fulvia, or, as needed on a recent afternoon, bore a hole in the tip of a plunger assembly from the thermostatic actuator of an Alfa Romeo fuel-injection system.
In a far corner of his repair shop here, Mr. Hjorth, lanky and tall, his heavy-metal-length blond hair tied back for safety, secured the plunger in the lathe’s chuck, tightened a bit into a drill-like proboscis and set the machine in motion. As the bit entered the plunger’s tip, tiny brass filaments twisted out and fell onto a mound of shiny aluminum shavings below, remnants of an earlier endeavor.
Employing a ton-and-a-half apparatus to pare a few milligrams of metal from an object no bigger than a spark plug might seem like overkill, but in Mr. Hjorth’s world, precision is of the utmost importance. There are no warehouses brimming with thermostatic actuators for vintage Alfas or ignition coil clamps and door lock assemblies for Lancias; when these parts melt or fracture or otherwise cease to function, Mr. Hjorth must painstakingly refurbish and restore them or, frequently, recreate them entirely from scratch.
The work is exacting and time-consuming, but like many craftsmen, Mr. Hjorth, 54, seems to derive as much satisfaction from the process as he does from the end result. This is evident in his reverence for the utility and workmanship of the antique tools that crowd his shop as well as his admiration for the ingenious — and often idiosyncratic — engineering built into the midcentury Italian cars, and Lancias in particular, that are his specialty.
Born in Hollywood, Mr. Hjorth (pronounced yaawrt) spent much of his childhood in Europe, and in his teenage years moved to Piedmont, a small city east of San Francisco Bay. It was in this period that he developed an affinity for Italian cars, and on discovering that Italian cars spent much of their time in the shop, maneuvered his way into a job at a garage called Fredz Autogofast in nearby El Cerrito.
Initially, the work was far from glamorous — for the most part, Mr. Hjorth recalled tedious chores like scraping off the remains of water pump gaskets. Eventually he took on a greater variety of tasks, relishing the work so much that in 1978 he bought the business, the sum total of which he described as “a Rolodex, a hydraulic press and an acetylene torch.” Shortly thereafter, he started his own business, which he christened Motor Pro Garage.
Mr. Hjorth gravitated to Lancias. Founded in 1906 and now a division of Fiat, Lancia built an early (and durable) reputation for graceful, technically innovative cars that performed well on the road and on racetracks.
“They were just the most interesting things out there,” Mr. Hjorth explained. “They were the best-made machines in the world from an aesthetic and engineering standpoint.”
Arguably, Mr. Hjorth owes the existence of his niche to the fastidiousness of Lancia’s engineers, which ensured that 50 and 60 years later their creations could be endlessly disassembled, rebuilt and rejuvenated.
“Take something like a Lancia ignition lock,” he said. “It’s like looking inside a piece of jewelry. Every last piece comes apart.”
Mr. Hjorth does most of his business from spring through fall, when the roads are dry. During those seasons the cars arrive at Motor Pro Garage in a growling, burbling procession. One Friday this September, a striking specimen appeared: a ’62 Lancia Flaminia convertible, a rare model produced in collaboration with a Milanese coachbuilder, Carrozzeria Touring.
The Flaminia’s owner, Gary Dowling, a film sound technician who lives in Angwin, a small town about 80 miles north of San Francisco, first made contact with Mr. Hjorth three years ago. At the time, Mr. Dowling was about to have his convertible’s upholstery restored and learned from an acquaintance that Mr. Hjorth owned a Flaminia coupe with an original, unaltered interior.
Mr. Dowling asked to see some photographs, which Mr. Hjorth gladly supplied. “When you find out someone’s a Lancia nut, you don’t want them to lose the fever,” Mr. Hjorth said. “So, sure, I’ll send you some pictures.”
Recently, Mr. Dowling, a competent amateur mechanic, was stumped by a peculiar problem. After an extended session of engine tuning, the Flaminia’s idle was rock solid, but at freeway speeds the engine bucked and surged. Once again, said Mr. Dowling, “all signs pointed to Jaan.”
In the driveway of the shop, Mr. Hjorth raised the car’s lightweight aluminum hood. He took a cursory look, blipped the throttle and listened as the engine returned to the steady drone of its idle. He loped into the shop and emerged carrying a suitcase-size instrument bristling with knobs and switches.
“The Hitachi oscilloscope,” said Mr. Hjorth, explaining the presence of a tiny gray television-type screen on the box’s face. “Boring, but bulletproof.”
He attached the device to the ignition wires, and while flipping switches and turning various knobs, peered at a series of jagged green lines jumping across the screen. “Hmm,” he said. “Your distributor’s not too happy.”
Mr. Hjorth deftly loosened a nut and pulled the distributor from the engine. Back inside the garage, he mounted it to the spindle of a 1956 Sun distributor testing machine, whose bright colors and Pop Art-looking logo called to mind a primitive arcade game. A quick spin revealed that one of the distributor’s two sets of contacts was incorrectly gapped. Mr. Hjorth adjusted the gap, synchronized the points and returned the distributor to its roost.
He then set upon the Flaminia’s Solex carburetor, peeling back its lid to reveal the naked float bowl. Finding nothing out of the ordinary, Mr. Hjorth unscrewed a brass jet and examined it under a loupe. “Don’t tell me this is your jet,” he said, with a note of exasperation.
He retreated to his workbench and returned with a miniature tapered reamer, the sort used by watchmakers, and proceeded to widen the jet’s orifice by 0.146 millimeter, proposing, as he did so, a curious theory that today’s gasoline is more viscous than the petrol of the 60s, and that symptoms like the Flaminia’s can often be alleviated by a slight bit of vasodilatation.
With the jet reinstalled, it was time for a quick spin, with Mr. Hjorth behind the wheel and Mr. Dowling in the passenger seat. On the test drive, the Flaminia seemed to be behaving, but Mr. Dowling’s trip home would be a truer test. In the meantime, Mr. Hjorth had another matter to attend to — reviving a rakish Zagato-bodied 1959 Lancia Flaminia Sport from a seven-year slumber.
A week later, Mr. Dowling gave an update on the convertible. The surging was reduced, he said, but not completely alleviated. “I think Jaan needs to ream the jet a little more,” he said.
His tone suggested patience rather than frustration, as well as an understanding, no doubt shared by Mr. Hjorth, that in dealing with Italian art it is better to cut too little than to cut too much.