How Orinda Gained a Passion for Classic Cars During the Decades

(Sally Hogarty, Photographer)
John Vanek of Orinda Motors helped launch Orinda’s Classic Car Show event.

    Falling in love with a 1966 Mustang as a 5-year-old, watching in amazement as a 1957 Ford Fairlane 500 Skyliner retracted its hard top into the back of the vehicle, cruising down Richmond’s main street in a ’57 T-bird, these are a few of John Vanek’s favorite things.
    “Classic cars have always fascinated me,” said Vanek. “My brother Dave and I worked on cars together, and by 15, I worked in a shop fixing them. When Dave started racing, I became a member of his race team. As a 16-year-old, it was all pretty exciting.”
    Vanek followed his brother to the Z Doctor, a popular repair shop at the time, and worked there for 25 years until the business closed in 2004. Looking for a new position, Vanek applied at Orinda Motors (OM). That was 15 years ago. Since then he has turned what he loves to do – fix classic cars – into a popular component of Orinda Motors.
    “When I began at Orinda Motors in 2004, we didn’t work on classic cars. But I spoke with our owner Allen Pennebaker about including them,” Vanek said. “He had me and mechanic Greg Sisk, who both loved these cars and knew how to fix them, so Allen agreed to give it a go.”
    As part of the promotion for the new Classic Car Center, Vanek took out an ad in Drive Magazine. He reached out to OM customers to photograph their cars for the ad. Orinda resident Chip Herman responded.
    “We put Chip’s car and several others together on our lot to take the photo, and we remarked how it looked like a car show,” said Vanek. “I didn’t think any more about it until a week later Chip stopped by and asked if I really wanted to do a car show. He had just retired and was looking for a hobby and this seemed like the perfect idea.”
    In 2005, the Orinda Classic Car Show became a reality donating its small proceeds to The Orinda Association’s Seniors Around Town ride program. Since then, the event has grown into a much-lauded show throughout the Bay Area with proceeds benefiting not only Seniors Around Town but a host of local nonprofits.
    This year’s car show, which features a special exhibit of super and exotic cars, takes place Sept. 12. For more information or to register your classic car, go to
    The annual car show grew in tandem with Orinda Motors’ Classic Car Center. Specializing in 1950s through 1970s American cars, such as Ford, GM, Chrysler, Plymouth/Dodge, Orinda Motors has become a respected destination for these much-loved vehicles.
    “We concentrate on these big American cars because we have the expertise to fix them,” said Vanek. “Other shops specialize in other makes but at Orinda Motors, our crew in the Classic Car Center – Joel Patrick, Greg Sisk, Vincent Poehnelt, Xavier Francisco and project manager Hans Hiller – have a wealth of experience with these cars. And we all love what we do. That makes all the difference.”
    According to Vanek, classic cars are not easy to fix and looking for the right part takes a great deal of research. “It’s like putting together a jigsaw puzzle with some pieces missing. I feel like we’re historians at times but with the Internet and the power of Google, we can get the job done.”
    Vanek notes that new cars are a lot more predictable, but with classic cars, there’s a lot of roadblocks. “You have to really persevere. I call it Inspector Clouseau time.”

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