Love of small-powered cars spars a museum
A 1955 Thunderbird Junior, the small kind a kid could travel in, was the dream that started John Cerrito’s pursuit of the impressive Mighty Midgets Mini Cars Inc. collection he has in Bellport today.
“That’s all I could think about,” he said of his resonating passion, mini cars offered on children’s shows and by auto dealers hoping to lure parents into buying new cars. “Some were promotional cars,” he explained of the thinking behind the sales pitch. “The kids would get excited about scrambling into the smaller-scale models that could actually run.”
Someday he was going to build one. And he did. Cerrito wound up assembling that Thunderbird for his first son. It was one of several he built and amassed, selling some over the decades, while enthralled in a 50-year love affair.
There are currently 75 vehicles that are gas-powered, half-scaled fiberglass replicas of cars that transcend time in his 6,000-square-foot building on Station Road. They range from 1910 Model Ts to glam versions like the red 308 GTS Ferrari that Magnum, P.I. drove in the popular 1980s show, or the elegant Gatsby-style French Delahaye from the late 1920s. He has muscle cars, too.
And they all have stories.
He is open right now on Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays from noon to 4 p.m., but the grand opening for the Mighty Midgets Inc. museum is scheduled for Saturday, Dec. 10 at 11 a.m.
Local resident Jim Grucci stopped by during the Advance interview. He owned a GEM car in Pennsylvania, he said. “Do you make your own molds?” he asked, while Cerrito greeted him. “They have them on golf carts in Florida,” he said, referring to vintage-type carts.
“Mine are miniature cars,” Cerrito answered before Grucci added he’d be returning.
Cerrito is a retired West Islip music teacher and director of adult education, who lives in Hauppauge. His showroom evolved after daily cleaning and painting, including murals on the walls and bringing the cars in, placing them in period-themed sections.
“It was a mess,” he said of the two-year transformation, looking around his neat retro reception room. “I had to renovate it with heat, a new roof, floor, new handicap bathroom.”
The cars range from $3,000 to over $50,000. (Don’t worry. Lots of cameras and his alarm system are wired into the Fifth Precinct.)
The amenities, he said, bump up their worth. “Does it have disk brakes? What kind of motor does it have? The Herbie Love Bug has an Mp3 stereo. The Ferraris have Momo steering wheels,” he said. “The Ferraris’ wheels are made of aluminum. If you decide to put in a motorcycle engine, that costs $800 to $1,000. Just to make a model could cost $10,000 from scratch.”
Greater Bellport Coalition chair John Rogers said Cerrito began searching for a place to show off his cars in Bellport two years ago. “He came to a coalition meeting and we looked at locations, in the village, on Montauk Highway and Station Road,” Rogers said. “We were pretty enthusiastic about helping him.”
Rogers added he was hoping to connect Cerrito with the South Country School District. “Maybe he can get some of the students to work with him on his cars,” he said of a possible future collaboration. Cerrito, a certified teacher and administrator, said he had spoken to Rogers about getting involved with the students.
“There’s a lot we can do with the educational aspect of it,” he said.
Cerrito’s collection begins with Model Ts; the first three models span from 1910 to the 1928 Model A Ford (he made the 1932, 36 and 37 Fords) and for interest, he has painted backdrops to help display them, including a nod to the area.
He made a car for each one of his children; his daughter Kathleen, a Suffolk County police officer, credits driving one of his cars at an early age, with the passing of her motor vehicle license test first time out, he said. (He fashioned a circular, paved driveway for them that circumvents his fenced property.)
He has eight children from a blended marriage and 16 grandchildren. He sure was busy.
“I used to take them to the car shows,” he explained, adding that Kathleen was 5 when she ambled onto her seat. He would make about 10 to 12 cars a year.
Of those on display, a third are scratch-built, a third are restoration and a third are purchases.
Like the baby LeMans. “Rich people buy them for their kids,” he said of a smaller version of the cars driven in the celebrated annual French endurance sports car race. Cerrito’s baby Le Mans is a Ferrari 330 P2.
While the story about how he purchased the 308 GTS Ferrari is a bit abbreviated here, it’s a lesson in persistence. He’d admired it for quite a while and first saw it on Montauk Highway in Southampton in a car dealership, then in a small garage. He went back to the garage, but it was no longer there. The garage own,er wouldn’t divulge the name of the person who owned the vehicle, so Cerrito gave him his card and asked if he would give him his name and phone number. He just wanted to look at it.
It didn’t happen and Cerrito went back to the garage owner a year later. This time, his request worked. The owner called him; he had bought it for his son and built a small roadway on his property so he could enjoy it, but now he was grown.
The owner offered to sell it to Cerrito. There were a few bumps in the road on this one because he couldn’t afford it, but the owner was a decent guy who admired an earnest car lover. Cerrito wound up getting a loan and purchased the car.
What got him to this point?
“I’ve had these cars for almost 50 years and the collection got so large, it got to the point that I would either sell them or do something with it,” he said, crediting his wife with pushing the idea. “So I bought a building.”
His museum is all about the vehicles. “I want to promote the cars,” he said, “which is my love.” He has even made the entry fee reasonable at $5; children under 5 are free. It’s a nice, educational visit for parents and grandparents with their kids and grandchildren on a weekend.
Rogers, who has been in contact with Cerrito on and off for two years, said he would reach out to local officials for the official grand opening on Dec. 10.
Mighty Midgets Mini Cars Inc. is located at 287 Station Road in Bellport. Phone: 631-803-8588. It is open Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays from noon to 4 p.m. Entry fee is $5; children under 5 are free.
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