Back in the '70s, Saul Schapiro was a hippie with a long ponytail. A fixture on South Street, he opened several clothing stores, including Skinz, which catered to punk rockers with a penchant for sartorial outrageousness.
Today, Schapiro's graying hair is neatly barbered. He no longer lives over his shop on South Street. Instead, he lives on a farm in rural Parker Ford, Chester County. He conducts all his business via the Internet, and what he's selling is at the opposite end of the spectrum from rags for hipsters.
Then again, maybe not. What he was promoting then and what he's promoting now have one salient trait in common: style.
Schapiro, 59, sells parts and accessories for the late, great Jeep Grand Wagoneer, the first luxury SUV. Created by the legendary automotive designer Brooks Stevens, the Wagoneer retained the same basic look for a remarkable 28 years. Along the way, it became a classic, as familiar as a Coke bottle.
"It's a stand-alone icon, a piece of art," says Schapiro. "It's as American as apple pie and it's a Jeep, and that's a lot of good stuff."
The DNA may be the same, but the Grand Wagoneer's descendants that now clog the nation's highways are bland and undistinguished by comparison. They lack character and charisma. If the Grand Wagoneer was John Wayne, today's knockoff SUVs, for all their high-tech refinements, are Jake Gyllenhaal.
The first Wagoneer was introduced in 1962 - "shaped like a shoebox, and as solid as a Sherman tank," one critic noted. It became "Grand" and a full-fledged woody in 1984. By the time the last one rolled off Chrysler's assembly line in 1991, the Grand Wagoneer had developed a devoted following.
"They're passionate about them. That's the key word," Schapiro says.
The Grand Wagoneer was just what they wanted: It was rugged, brawny and outdoorsy, yet elegant enough to take to the country club. It had four-wheel drive and could venture off road. It could carry plenty of cargo and haul heavy loads and trailers. It had class and snob appeal, especially among those who judge an item's worth by its resistance to fashion and change.
In the late '80s, its glory years, it became a preppy totem, ridiculously evident in such WASPy roosts as Nantucket, Martha's Vineyard, Mount Desert Island and, of course, the Main Line, particularly the country-squire provinces west of Devon. In the autumn of its life, the Wagoneer not only remained timeless but also became stubbornly retro. It was one of the last vehicles produced with a carburetor, and its artificial wood trim and paneling recalled the vintage woodies of the 1930s and '40s.
"It reigned as the last of the American big-iron behemoths," writes automotive historian Jim Allen in his book Jeep. "And for those who missed the good days, it was a step back in time."
All this spoke mightily to Schapiro when, in 1991, he purchased his first Grand Wagoneer - used, of course.
"The owners were sweet old people who really loved the car and wanted to make sure it went to a nice home," Schapiro recalls.
That was the first inkling of what Schapiro in time would recognize as a universal truth: People don't buy Wagoneers; they adopt them.
"For a lot of people, they're usually not a primary vehicle," Schapiro says. "People hold on to them. They keep them in the garage or barn. They're genuinely in love with them."
This despite the fact that Wagoneers are notoriously rough-starting in the cold, vulnerable to corrosion and rust, and equipped with a bibulous 360-cubic-inch V8 that gulps a gallon of gas to lumber a mere 12 miles.
As Schapiro began caring for his Wagoneer, he became more versed in its quirks, flaws and weak links. Resolutely self-reliant, he coddled and fixed the venerable ark himself. In the process, he became adept at locating parts and developing cheap and practical solutions to common problems.
He launched his business, www.grandwagoneers.com, in 2001. For the first several years, he not only supplied parts for Grand Wagoneers but also restored and sold them, a couple dozen all told. One of his customers: Karl Rove's lawyer, who bought two, one for his home in Washington, the other for his dilatory domicile (as they say in the Social Register) on - where else? - Nantucket.
For Schapiro, part of the fun was acquiring the vehicles. Shunning auctions, he always bought directly from private parties.
"I loved going out and meeting the people. They're a special breed. And they loved the fact that I was going to bring [their Wagoneer] back to life and sell it to someone who would really cherish it."
Nowadays, Schapiro concentrates on parts. He has accumulated a substantial inventory of original and new old stock components from dealers. In some cases, he has had rare parts that are no longer available remanufactured. Or he has devised ingenious improvements - stainless-steel straps for supporting the gas tank, for instance - that are fabricated by local machine shops.
His specialty is what he calls DIY kits . The kits are designed to enable owners to remedy such routine woes as rippled wood-grain molding, a kaput rear windshield wiper, and balky four-wheel-drive or cruise-control mechanisms caused by leaky vacuum hoses.
There's also a spiritual benefit. "When you work on your own car, it changes your relationship to it. You take pride in the work and feel like you've created something."
Schapiro processes about eight to 12 orders a day. They can be as small as $20, as large as $1,000. Most are in the $300 to $400 range. Orders come from all over the country and around the world.
"Japan, Australia, the Netherlands, France, Italy, Great Britain, South America - I'm surprised by how many people have these cars and how many are still on the road."
Business is steady, he says. "It can't support me and Donald Trump, but it's better than working in a cubicle." At night, he cheerfully answers from 30 to 60 e-mail queries!
"I give people free advice and that earns me customers," says Schapiro, whose office chair is made from a Grand Wagoneer seat. "I ship them parts and instructions fast and keep their cars running and that keeps them customers."
His Web site includes a department titled "Praise and Adoration" featuring testimonials from rapturous Wagoneer owners. An example:
"I love my woody so much I bought one for my wife and am going to do all the things you teach us to do on your website . . . What would we do without you?"
The comments are gratifying and motivating, Schapiro says, and they illustrate a point: What makes Wagoneers so grand is not only how they look but how they make people feel.
"Every time I see one on the road, I'm happy," Schapiro says. "I just like to see them in original, good running shape. Everyone I see driving a Wagoneer is happy."