After 52 years on a quiet Wynwood side street, King Automotive, a family-run repair shop owned by Leon Wegman, will close its doors today. Wegman recently sold his property in the booming arts neighborhood for more than 100 times what he paid for it decades ago.
King Automotive was one of the last holdouts in a rapidly changing Wynwood, a reminder of the not-so-distant past when warehouses and blue-collar businesses defined an area now full of national retailers and bars and restaurants. But Wegman says he was ready to move on.
“I’m 76 years old and probably should have retired ten years ago,” Leon says. “But I had to wait until the property value was good again."
Wegman's repair career started when he enlisted in the Air Force in 1952 and took an aptitude test that would define his future. With the mind of a mechanic and the skills of an engineer, he was assigned to automobile repair.
“My mother made me promise I wouldn’t be an airplane pilot,” says Leon, sitting at his office desk in King Automotive. “Looking back, at least I can say I kept my word.”
After leaving the Air Force base in Homestead in 1958, Leon moved up to Miami and began working for the Railway Express Company fixing cars. He became a dedicated mechanic, spending his only free time doing side work at King.
“When I first met Leon, all he had was a partner, a toolbox, and a burning desire to fix cars, “ says Harley Schmudley, an auto-parts salesman who has known Wegman for more than 30 years. “He had no short-term or long-term plan and no extra money in his pocket. He wanted to fix cars, but has since then accomplished so much more.”
After less than two years working part-time at King, Leon took over the shop with his partner and began to build a business of his own. With a carefree attitude and a commitment to his trade, he worked with what he had to start a trustworthy enterprise, bartering with the property’s owner to save on his expenses in rent.
“The guy who owned this place before me had a bunch of delivery trucks that needed to be fixed, so it worked out perfectly,” says Leon. “We repaired what he needed free of charge, and he gave us a place to fix cars." Though King Automotive began as a joint venture between two mechanics, Leon eventually bought out his partner and turned his repair shop into a family-run business: His wife, April, became
“When we went home, we had a clean conscience,” says Brian, who has worked with his father for over 35 years. “We knew that we had helped people more than we had ripped them off. Not many places in Miami are that way, and not many people are either.”
In recent years, property values in the neighborhood have skyrocketed. Last year, a neighboring plumbing supply business sold its land for an eye-popping $41.5 million. Wegman recently sold his smaller plot on NW 28th Street to the investment company Block Capital Group for $5.8 million. Leon bought the space back in the '60s for only $35,000.
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Despite having worked for King Automotive since high school, Brian is not interested in taking over the family business once his father retires. Instead, he is looking to change industries completely and move up the coast of Florida in the upcoming years.
As for Leon, he hasn’t given up on fixing cars just yet.
“No matter how many years I’ve been in the business, there’s nothing like hitting a key and hearing an engine run," he says. “After this is over, I’m going to buy a little building and start a hobby shop: I want to keep working on cars.”