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Piston Scholar Zachary Wiernusz Upholds His Family’s Classic Cars Tradition

Twenty-one-year-old Zachary Wiernusz loves classic cars. From an early age, he couldn’t help but follow his passion to work on them. After all, his great-grandfather and grandfather were car nuts, and his dad continued the tradition, mostly as a hobby. 

By Judy Strpous

March 26, 2024

All in the Family

While Zach’s great-grandfather was a master mechanic for a local dealership in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania, where Zach was born, his dad Brian was a corrections officer by profession, now retired. “Before that, he was in the military, so he always had a love for cars, but it was something he would do in his spare time,” said Zach.

“My dad used to have a 1969 Pontiac Le Mans wagon that he tried to get running and driving again. This was when I was 4 or 5,” said Zach, who was awarded a Piston Scholarship in 2023. “He asked if I wanted to hold the flashlight for him while he was working. Then he would try his best to explain to a 5-year-old how something worked, which was really hard when I didn’t even understand how the world worked yet.

“I wish I could tell you when I finally understood. You can never know everything, but I have a greater understanding now that I’ve been working on cars for some years.

“Sometimes my dad would see a good deal, buy it, and then flip it to make a little bit of a profit, and then get something he really wanted. He did everything from bodywork, engine, transmission, chassis work. The only thing he didn’t really do was fabrication, but I don’t really fabricate either. I’m not good at it.”

Chasing an Education…from Place to Place

In his application for a Piston Scholarship, Zach explained he attended a vocational high school for auto mechanics, where he obtained a basic auto mechanic education.

“I also worked as an apprentice in a classic car garage. From these opportunities and working with my father restoring our family’s classic cars (a 1972 Pontiac Le Mans, a 1970 Pontiac Grand Prix and a 1976 Pontiac Grand Safari) and performing maintenance on our daily drivers (a 1997 Mustang GT convertible, a 1968 Pontiac Bonneville, and a 2001 Dodge Ram Second Generation 24-valve Cummins), I feel I gained a good base knowledge. But I knew I needed to gain more knowledge and experience through additional education.”

Currently residing in Mountaintop, Pennsylvania, Zach took one semester at McPherson College in Kansas, before deciding to stay closer to home. Zach now attends Pennsylvania College of Technology, in Williamsport, a 90-minute drive from his home, where he’s enrolled in the Automotive Technology Program. He will graduate this August.

“I like working on engines a lot,” said Zach. “I also like working on transmission and suspensions. Penn College has a very good program where it further allows me to expand my knowledge and experience because we actually have live work labs where we’ll take in faculty and students’ vehicles and we perform maintenance on them.”

A Quick Look At Imports

Although his interest and experience are firmly with American cars, “my first car was actually a 2013 Volvo S80 and there was some stuff that needed to be done to it,” he said. “But it was so in-depth with technology and I didn’t have the experience to work on it, so we took it to a Volvo dealer.

“I definitely have a respect for all vehicles – foreign, American, whatever. But I definitely would not want to work on a newer Mercedes. I could work on an older Mercedes or anything pre-1990.”

An Eye for American Classics

It was his great-grandfather who most likely instilled that passion in him. “It was a simpler time back in the Fifties, especially for cars,” Zach explained. “They were much easier to work on then, and he just loved how they looked, how they sounded. Theoretically, it was like a big Lego set. You put everything together but you had to actually make sure it worked, ran, drove, stopped. He just loved getting his hands dirty.”

The oldest car that Zach has worked on so far is a 1932 Chevrolet sedan. “It’s been sitting in a barn for quite a long time now, since the ‘80s,” he said. “We wanted to get it running and stopping well enough to get it on a trailer so it didn’t roll off. We have to take the engine out. It’s very tired. It needs a rebuild.”

Health, Family, and Determination

Despite dealing with certain medical conditions for most of his life, and having a strong desire to live near his parents, who are both disabled, Zach hopes to save enough money to travel and find work where it’s warmer, after graduating. “Up here in the Northeast, there aren’t many shops,” he said. “I’d like to go to Tennessee or even Georgia. I would like to find an independent shop that at least gives me experience to work on everything. I try to do research on the side, looking at old articles, shop manuals, to at least try to familiarize myself with more foreign vehicles.”

The only other hurdles he’s faced, he said, were the times he had to help his parents. “Both of my parents are retired. Financially, it took me a little bit to help out around the house, get some money accrued, go to school and take care of my parents.”

“My mom Jean is a Mustang girl,” Zach added. “She has a 2006 Mustang, but she really, really wants a 1970 Boss 302. I’m hoping to get one for her.”

The Piston Scholarship and a Dream Come True

Receiving the Piston Scholarship helped Zach’s dream come alive. “The Piston Foundation definitely helped a lot financially with allowing me to pursue my goals, to help my education and allowing me to continue my schooling. If it wasn’t for Piston, I probably would’ve had to drop out halfway through and not be able to continue my career goals because finances are just very tight.

“Getting the scholarship means there are people out there who want young people – and even older people – to genuinely succeed. They look out for people and help them, especially people who are in worse condition than I am.”

What advice would he give parents of other young car restoration students? “I’d tell them to be supportive,” Zach said. “It’s not an easy field to get into, by any means. It’s definitely stressful at times, especially when you have a rare car that you’re working on and you can’t find any information on it. You’ve got to just keep digging.”

As for any guidance he’d give to young students? “The amount that you put in is how much you’ll get out,” he said. “You can’t slack off. You have to either give it your all or nothing at all.”

His final word? “We want to keep the collector cars alive. We want to keep everything alive, not just let it rot into the ground or rust,” said Zach, whose daily driver is a dark red 1997 Ford Mustang GT. His favorite car? A 1970 Pontiac GTO Judge with a four-speed transmission. Or maybe a 1950 Cadillac Coup de Ville.

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