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Motor Man Reaches The End Of The Line

by Thomas MacMillan | Dec 16, 2013 5:15 pm

(5) Comments | Commenting has been closed | E-mail the Author

Posted to: Business/ Economic Development, Labor, Dixwell, Whalley

Thomas MacMillan Photo As he contemplates closing up his sprawling 80-year-old family-owned engine repair business, Pete Nizen III pointed out some of the patients awaiting attention—a 1938 Mercedes crankshaft, a 1939 Mack truck engine, a 1954 firetruck engine.

Nizen’s shop, increasingly inhabited by these remnants of another time, has itself become an anachronism, out of place on what was once New Haven’s “automotive row.”

There was a time when you could step out of Nizen Motors, just off Whalley Avenue on Sperry Street, and walk to nine other machine shops. Two of them were even bigger than Nizen’s, where Nizen’s grandfather employed 24 men in the early 1970s.

In those days, the 10,000-square-foot shop was constantly humming with two dozen guys running a fleet of machines from morning to night—grinding, boring, resurfacing, polishing. At one point, Nizen’s had the contract to overhaul all the engines in UPS’s Connecticut fleet of delivery trucks.

Since then the work has slowed. The workforce has dwindled. Many of the machines have gone quiet. Nizen now labors alone in a darkened, cluttered shop, with classic rock blasting from a little boom box.

Now, he, too, is on the way out.

Nizen, who’s 52, has accepted an offer to sell the building that his grandfather built in the 1940s. The potential buyer, St. Luke’s Development Corporation, plans to level the shop and turn the site into a parking lot for a new mixed-use building on Whalley Avenue. That plan is predicated on zoning permission from the city, because the area is still zoned for automotive uses, not apartments. 

If the deal goes through, Nizen will have six months to move his shop to a new location he has lined up in the town of Bethlehem in Litchfield County. Nizen said he’ll downsize his operation; he no longer needs 10,000 square feet of shop space. And he’ll be closer to many of his customers, who increasingly are classic car enthusiasts looking to revive decades-old engines.

Nizen’s dwindling business and changing clientele result from at least two factors, Nizen said. Advances in auto technology mean that engines last much longer than they used to, and need less attention. And, as in other industries, auto service has become a matter of replacing broken parts, not re-machining them.

With that view of the business, Nizen said he’s not sure he wants to see his sons follow in his footsteps, and those of his father and grandfather. Nizen Motors, which began on the trolley cars of 1930s New Haven, may stop with Pete Nizen III, the end of the line.

Mounties Get Their Man

“Well, since you’re interested,” Nizen, bearded and bear-like, said as he hoisted a white cardboard box onto the oily countertop inside the front door of his shop. Smoking a Marlboro light cigarette, Nizen began pulling out old photos and newspaper clippings documenting the history of the family business. He placed them down next to a cylinder head on the table, black with grease.

Nizen unfolded a yellowed piece of newsprint showing the 1920s-era line-up of the Simplex Piston Rings basketball team. He pointed out his grandfather, Pete Nizen Sr., the founder of Nizen Motors.

Nizen Sr., an Ohioan born in 1903, worked as a foreman for Simplex Piston Rings manufacturing. He also headed up the company basketball team. The Piston Rings won a national championship in 1927, Nizen said. As the family story goes, the team was later sold to another company, which dropped the “Rings” and created the Detroit Pistons.

Nizen Sr. (at left in photo) supervised Simplex factories in Ontario. He eventually ran afoul of the Mounties when the Canadian cops tried to enforce labor and immigration laws on him. After the Simplex president bailed Nizen Sr. out of the Canadian clink, he offered him a choice: Nizen Sr. could work for the company in Texas, South America, or New Haven.

Nizen Sr. chose the third option. He ended up riding trolleys up and down Whalley Avenue, selling Simplex products to the auto businesses on what became known as “automotive row.” In 1933, Nizen opened his own shop, on Whalley Avenue near the corner of Sperry Street.

Three years later Nizen Sr. hired his first employee, Frank Bellucci (at right in photo above). Bellucci ended up staying with the business for 50 years.

In 1946 Nizen Sr. built a new shop on Sperry Street. In 1949 he expanded it to 10,000 feet and had 12 guys working for him. New Haven at that time had a thriving car culture; Nizen’s sponsored cars that would race in West Haven, and a 1953 auto trade show (pictured) filled the Goffe Street armory.

Nizen’s continued to grow, hitting its peak in the ‘70s. In the 1980s, Pete Nizen Jr., Nizen III’s dad, took over. Nizen Sr. continued to work at the shop until he was 82 years old.

Blood, Engine Oil

Nizen III grew up in Hamden, graduated from Hamden High, then enlisted in the army. He spent four years in Germany repairing tactical microwave systems as the Cold War approached its end.

Returning to New Haven in 1984, Nizen still didn’t know what career to pursue. His dad invited him to work in the shop. He started out sweeping floors. He ended up staying 30 years. When Nizen Jr. (pictured in album photo) died six years ago, Nizen III officially took over the shop.

“I guess it’s in my blood,” Nizen said. “I enjoy it, taking something that doesn’t work and making it work.”

Over the years, Nizen has had a hand in making all kinds of engines work again. He leafed through a photo album of Nizen Motors’ greatest hits: A 1911 Cadillac, a 1932 Ford, a ‘29 Packard, even a 1942 M8 Greyhound armored car, complete with a mounted 37mm gun. And it hasn’t just been cars; Nizen Motors fixes engines of all kinds. Nizen showed off photos of an enormous bulldozer engine, a wood-chipper engine, various boat engines, generators—all repaired by Nizen Motors.

“I even worked on that thing,” Nizen said, pointing to a photo of an old narrow-gauge locomotive that had been used in Hawaiian pineapple fields before ending up with a collector Connecticut.

Fixing collectibles, once a novelty at Nizen Motors, has now become a mainstay of the business.

“One of the things that has hurt the machine shop industry is that cars now go 200,000 miles without a hitch,” Nizen said. “In the ‘70s and ‘80s, if you had 100,000 miles on a car and tried to sell it, people would laugh at you.”

Nizen said a modern tractor trailer engine can run for 1.8 million miles with only routine maintenance.

Nowadays engines last longer because metals are better, fuel delivery systems are better, antifreeze is better, Nizen said. Even engine oil has improved. In the ‘70s, you could hold up a bottle of unused engine oil and not be able to see light through it, he said. Today’s oils are cleaner and easier on engines, he said.

Less engine trouble means less demand for engine rebuilders. And when people do have a major problem with their engine, they’re more likely to simply replace the whole thing.

There was a time when a new car would come with a thick service manual, detailing how to rebuild your engine. Now, if your Honda dies, you can either spend $3,000 rebuilding it or go the junkyard and get a new engine for $600, Nizen observed.

That trend began 30 years ago, Nizen said. “In the ‘80s, the economy was booming, so nobody was rebuilding,” Nizen said. If something broke, people would just buy a new one.

Nizen Motors’ business slowly declined over the years. It’s now is one of the last engine rebuilding shops standing near what was once New Haven’s automotive center.

“Look around,” Nizen said. “There’s no automotive anything. It makes me kind of apprehensive of bringing my kids into the business.”

As it is, a parking lot may soon be all that remains at the site of a once bustling inter-generational family business.

“I’ll have to have them put up a plaque,” Nizen said. “‘Former site of Nizen machine shop.’”

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posted by: Gretchen Pritchard on December 16, 2013  5:20pm

Interesting story.  Good luck to Mr. Nizen up in Litchfield County—sounds like a great business plan.

But man, should he be smoking in a shop full of petroleum fumes?

posted by: HewNaven on December 16, 2013  7:07pm

Great story. There must be a million stories like this in our city. Keep ‘em coming!

posted by: John Cox on December 16, 2013  10:16pm

Great story!  The Nizen’s folks were true craftsmen and real problem solvers.  Years ago, when I was a “poor starving college student” (pscs), I bought a used 1964 Datsun 1500.  It was a fun car but, unfortunately, the previous owner did not understand the importance of motor oil.  After less than10,000 miles, the engine seized. Given my status, “pscs”, I removed and disassembled the engine to determine the cause.  The crankshaft was toast—unbelievably scored.  In those days, most mechanics didn’t know what a Datsun was let alone agree work on one.  I brought my crankshaft to Nizen’s, explained my plight and they jumped on it, seeing a truly unique challenge.  A few weeks later, they called me back.  They had skillfully machined the part and, without the benefit of the internet, tracked down the bearings I needed to make the engine work again (complete with instructions in Japanese).  I forget what they charged me, but it was nominal.  Because of their help, the car ran well for many years.  This group defines the term professional.  Best of Luck with what sounds like a great plan!

posted by: Stylo on December 16, 2013  11:37pm

Very cool. Sadly the location works against him these days. People with money/old cars don’t want to go into that neighborhood. I feel like he could do better in a lot of areas, not just Litchfield County. I see tons of classic cars out and about in Milford.

posted by: Bill Fioretti on December 17, 2013  3:11pm

Revealing article. Could be subtitled “A story of decline in old New Haven.” Change at the expense of enterprise.
Anyway, besides being a great machinist I know Pete as a great friend.
In fact, I knew Pete’s father and grandfather as I’ve been a satisfied patron of Nizen’s since the 1970’s. Their skills and insight were exemplary and they could always be counted on to locate that special engine part other machine shops couldn’t or wouldn’t.
Despite the changes, Pete carries on in his families tradition. 
That’s exactly why as a restorer of classic automobiles my relationship with Nizen’s continues.
We will face the changing landscape together.
From Bill Fioretti and your friends at Mostly Mustang’s, inc. in Hamden.

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