Is Your Refrigerator Running?

Vintage Appliances restores and rebuilds the classics that once populated our kitchens.

January 1, 2015

Issue 10: January/February 2015OrangePurveyors

Driving through a section of industrial buildings on Tucson’s south side, I passed a fenced-in yard filled with row after row of old stoves, heaters, and refrigerators. In the front of the yard was a single story, ranch-style building with a small sign next to the front door: Vintage Appliances.

The door opened at my knock. Before I could say a word, Pete Philip—6 foot 4 inches, wearing a cowboy hat, jeans, and boots—said: “Come on in and take a look.”

Pete Philip, the manager of Vintage Appliances, took over the business when founder Rich Allen passed away.

Pete Philip, the manager of Vintage Appliances, took over the business when founder Rich Allen passed away.

There it was, a 1950s Kelvinator refrigerator. The kind I grew up with: rounded top, chrome handle, and about 5 feet tall, completely restored and painted blue. Inside, the refrigerator was immaculate, cleaner than our family’s fridge ever was. Feeling nostalgic, I pictured a glass tray filled with Jell-O, and a pitcher of Tang, calling my name.

The refrigerators and other kitchen appliances of our childhood may be gone, but they haven’t been forgotten. Vintage Appliances saves, repairs, and restores the kitchen appliances of yesteryear.

Vintage Appliances is one of the largest restorers and manufacturers of antique stoves, refrigerators, and custom iceboxes in the world, with an inventory of more than 800 vintage and antique appliances, including baseburners, oak heaters, gas heaters, and cook stoves.

Classic appliance restoration is comparable to classic automobile restoration. Appliances are completely taken apart, sandblasted, plated, reinsulated, dents and dings fixed, safety valves installed, new parts fabricated, pinstriped, and painted. Vintage Appliances also ensures that restored antique appliances adhere to modern safety standards. For example, early electric refrigerators often used ammonia as the coolant. That poisonous liquid has to be drained and replaced with a modern refrigerant.

Rich Allen founded Vintage Appliances two decades ago. “He was a man of many talents—a housing developer and an appliance repairman—and it was as a repairman that he saw a niche market for antique appliances,” said Pete Philip, the manager. “Allen was a good friend of mine and when he passed away, I agreed to manage the business. We have six employees who work as technicians, repairmen, and restorers. We find most of our appliances on the Internet, or people call us. We don’t advertise much … Our customers appreciate what we can do.”

Chris Ratliff, one of six employees, works on restoring vintage parts to make a modern appliance.

Chris Ratliff, one of six employees, works on restoring vintage parts to make a modern appliance.

Hollywood agrees. Two refrigerators from Vintage Appliances were used in an Indiana Jones movie. An antique icebox was recently repaired, restored, and sent to the home of George Lucas, the director of Star Wars. And they just shipped a retro-’50s refrigerator to a customer in Scotland, who grew up watching American movies and wanted his home kitchen to reflect that era, Philip said.

“We also supply the appliances used in many professional plays staged in downtown Tucson,” Philip said.

In the work area out back, restorers José Romero and Miguel Maldonado are working on an early 1900s McCray icebox that was found in an old barn in Yuma. The icebox is about seven feet tall and was once considered state-of-the-art, Philip said. A complete restoration includes installing stainless steel lining, insulation, new shelves, door hinges, and electric lights as well as refinishing the exterior wood. A high-efficiency compressor, condenser, and fan motor will be placed where the block of ice used to go.

While Vintage Appliances focuses on restoring and repairing antique iceboxes, it also manufactures new iceboxes by customer request. Philip says the company recently made two custom iceboxes for a small brewery in the Northwest to display its beer.

In another work area, Leo Maldonado does the paint and body work. “I learned to do this kind of work by working on cars. I had my own car body shop for six years. The bodywork on an appliance may take one to two weeks. It depends. A complete restoration of an appliance may take up to three months, sometimes even longer,” Maldonado said.

Potential customers should realize that a completely restored vintage or antique appliance can be costly. Prices for stoves range from $4,200 to $265,000 and prices for refrigerators range from $2,000 to $60,000.

Do you have an antique or vintage appliance at home or in the garage and want to know its value? Vintage Appliances also does appraisals.

The retro kitchen is making a comeback, and it’s easy to see why. In the hallway at Vintage Appliances is a completely restored 1955 Kelvinator Foodarama. Big, sleek, contoured, and colorized, this double-door refrigerator is eight feet wide with a freezer compartment that can hold 166 pounds of food. When it was first released, it was offered in eight colors with a breakfast cubicle for eggs and bacon, a dispenser rack for frozen juices, an unrefrigerated banana bin, and a butter-conditioning cubicle. The Foodarama would have looked at home on a 1950s automobile showroom floor—the only parts missing would have been tail fins.

A restored refrigerator, in all its chrome-colored glory.

A restored refrigerator, in all its chrome-colored glory.

Outside, the fenced-in yard is filled with scores of classic refrigerators with names like Whirlpool Supreme, Crosley Shelvador, and the Philco Coldspot. Many of them are weathered from years in the Arizona sun, but walking among them is a study in modern industrial design, with their elegant pinstriping, chrome door handles, and rounded, contoured edges. Fortunately, they have been saved from destruction. ✜

Steve Renzi is a freelance writer who once had a job delivering refrigerators, sometimes helping carry them up a flight of stairs. Writing is easier.


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