Preservation Trust

Since age 15, Markowski’s love of cars has never waned

by Phyl Newbeck

performance0918Pictured with a 1972 Lamborghini Miura S at Restoration & Performance Motorcars in Vergennes are Peter Markowski (right), president, and his son Stephan, vice president.

At Restoration & Perfor­mance Motorcars in Vergennes, owner Peter Markowski gets to spend a lot of time with Ferraris, a car he has loved since his youth. While many teenagers lust after classic cars, Markowski actually owned one.

The oldest of eight children born to a dairy farmer and Army nurse in the town of Florence, he was only 15 when a neighbor sold him a Ferrari Barchetta for $500. The neighbor owned 17 cars, including several Packards, none of them in working condition.

Markowski may have been young, but he already had a solid work ethic from mowing lawns, plowing snow, and working in a body shop. It took him two years to get most of the cars (but not the Ferrari) in working order so they could be driven and sold to a collector in Niagara Falls, New York.

Markowski believes he inherited some of his mechanical skills from his father, who owned the first diesel tractor in Rutland County. “My dad was very progressive that way,” Markowski says, noting that one had to be mechanically inclined to work their sidehill farm, which had lots of trees and not much meadow.

“We had a shop at the farm,” he says, “and I used to make my own toys. I’d go to the store and see something I wanted, and then I’d go home and make it.”

Markowski and his brothers sharecropped on two other farms, but eventually his father needed additional income, and 53 years ago, he started an excavating company. Markowski spent his weeknights and Sundays keeping the dump trucks in working condition. “I enjoyed it,” he says. “I always wanted to know what had gone wrong and how to fix it.”

It didn’t take him long to determine that the Ferrari engine had been destroyed by running without oil. A New Hampshire Ferrari owner he had befriended, and who became his mentor, dissuaded him from putting a Ford V8 engine into it. Recognizing that he needed appropriate parts, Markowski found a Ferrari distributor in Greenwich, Connecticut, who had 11 boxes, probably 5 feet cubed, of old parts.

The distributor told Markowski that if he was willing to unpack the boxes and shelve the mostly unlabeled items, he could take what he needed. Markowski spent weekends in Connecticut, sleeping on tires in the warehouse, as he organized the inventory and selected the items needed to make his Ferrari run. Roughly 10 years after he purchased it, he was able to get the car on the road.

Despite his success with automobiles, Markowski experimented with other occupations. He started his collegiate career at Alfred State College in New York, majoring in survey and civil engineering with thoughts of using his degree at his father’s excavation company. While there he drove a truck, installed swimming pools, and met his future wife.

His wife, Liz, started her career as a nurse but later became an entrepreneur and now jointly runs Sweet Charity with a group of 14 women known as the Women of Wisdom. Sweet Charity is a Vergennes resale shop that benefits Hospice Volunteer Services of Addison County and other local philanthropic projects.

Liz isn’t the only one engaged in charitable endeavors. Mike Donnelly, a member of the Ferrisburgh Fire Department, says Markowski is always willing to step up when the department has a fundraiser. One night, Donnelly mentioned that the department was looking into buying a trailer for staging events and the next thing he knew, Markowski had donated one.

Gerianne Smart of Vergennes also praises the Markowskis’ charitable work. “I’ve been involved with the Vergennes Opera House as a volunteer,” she says, “and Peter and Liz have been humongous supporters and it’s not just financial contributions.” She notes that Markowski helps out with the Opera House’s Ladies’ Car Rally and has been a season supporter of the Opera House for years. “What’s unique about his involvement,” Smart says, “is he isn’t a downtown business, and this is not his clientele. He does this because he understands the connection between a vital downtown and the arts.”

Markowski’s college career was temporarily suspended by a year and a half in the Army teaching soldiers to operate heavy machinery at Fort Dix, New Jersey. When he got out of the service, he entered The University of Vermont where he took pre-vet classes. He was able to use his training for eight years in the Vermont Air National Guard, where his job as a vet specialist sent him to various airports to check on the food, water supply, and air quality for animals.

Still holding onto the Ferrari, Markowski worked a number of jobs including mortgage banker, truck salesman, and bowling alley pin-setter. The Ferrari served as a magnet for people who wanted him to work on their cars, and he received numerous requests from owners of classic automobiles. Although Markowski had a good job selling heavy trucks in Middlebury, the allure of working on those historic vehicles was too strong and he opened his business.

Initially, he and his wife lived in town, but their daughter, Meggan, had a horse and disliked being an absentee horse owner. It was a high point for interest rates when they purchased their Vergennes property 35 years ago. “We nearly went bankrupt doing it,” Markowski says, describing the land as “essentially a dump with washing machines stacked up in the weeds.” Using timber from the old farm in Florence, he built his house and, in 1986, built a barn after almost burning down the house while working on a car in the basement.

Meggan now has a horse farm in Montana. Markowski’s other children are Eben, an artist, whose work is on display at Burlington International Airport; Judd, who works with his father-in-law at an excavation firm; Stephan, who works with him at RPM; and Jake, an adopted son, who has moved back to Montana with his grandparents.

The company has seven employees including Markowski and Stephan. Meggan is responsible for the company logo. At one point, Markowski thought about including his name in the title since it would still have the RPM acronym — appropriate for the auto business — but he decided to stick with a name with international appeal. The majority of his work is restoration and repair with an emphasis on cars that have been poorly restored by others.

Jim Ortuno of Shoreham Upholstery is one vendor on whom Markowski depends. “Jim and his crew are meticulous. They work to reupholster the cars to correct historical specifications.” Another important business contact, he says, is Francis Lalumiere Machine & Repair in Addison, whom he calls a machining wizard.

“We know how to make things work,” he says, crediting Stephan for casting and molding parts that are no longer available. Most of the cars at RPM are Italian, but there are also some German and American models. “It’s all mechanical stuff,” says Markowski. “We haven’t invented a new mechanical system since 1917. Friction is friction and the laws of physics do not change.”

Markowski admits he spends a lot of time thinking about the cars he restores. “My evening walk is coming out to the garage and poking this and prodding that. I keep a notebook by my bed every night and sometimes in the morning I have as many as nine notes on the pad.”

He spends about 20 percent of his time on the road, either buying cars and parts in Europe and the U.S. or picking up and delivering cars. Donnelly remembers a trip he took with Markowski to a Ferrari show in New Jersey. “I knew he was well respected here both personally and professionally,” Donnelly says, “but the way they treated him there, I felt like I was with a rock star.”

Several years ago, Markowski approached Smart, who runs a public relations firm, for help with strategic planning. “I was able to witness the incredible work ethic and dedication he and his team put into what they do,” she says. “It’s more than the mechanics. On the customer relations side, they take as much pride in those cars as if they were their own.”

Markowski confesses that he is a bit bothered by the fact that his customer base is mostly investors, not drivers. “The average car we take care of might go 50 miles a year,” he says. “These things are meant to be driven and enjoyed.”

Markowski finally did sell his Ferrari. These days, in summer, he rides around in a 1956 Ford pickup. He has a Fiat 500, but the other family car is a Prius. He’s still partial to Ferraris, citing the 330 P4 as his all-time favorite. He enjoys having visitors come to the property to check out the cars he’s working on.

These days, he’s being bedeviled by a 1936 Ford, three Porsches that he describes as being “in various states of electrical disarray,” a 1960s Fiat, a back room full of Ferraris, and a Lancia. In addition, he has the engine from Elvis Presley’s Rolls Royce with plans to build a display around it.

“This work may be overwhelming,” he says, “but it’s never boring.”•