By Nick Charles
December 21, 1998 12:00 PM

In 1993, Brian Menzies’ life seemed close to perfect. Happy marriage, beautiful 4-year-old daughter and a good living selling used cars. Then one morning he had an epiphany. “I grew up in the ’60s and ’70s,” says Menzies, 45, and back then, he recalls, his generation spent less time talking about comfort and making money and more time talking about how to “love your fellow man. I looked in the mirror and realized I’d become the thing I despised in my youth.”

Many baby boomers would have taken a couple of aspirin and gone back to bed. Menzies had a different reaction: He began looking for a way to use what he knew—the used-car business—to do something positive. Two years later, when he and his wife, Denise, had saved enough money to build their dream house, they made a life-changing decision. “My wife was the one who said, ‘Use the money for charity,’ ” says Menzies. Recalls Denise, 37: “I said to him, ‘You know that idea you had? I just wish you’d go ahead and do it. What are we waiting for?’ ”

Menzies’ idea was simple: Instead of selling cars, he would give them away, to poor people who desperately needed them to get to work around Orlando, Fla., where he lives. “Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day; teach him to fish and you feed him for life,” says Menzies. “But first he has to get to the river.” In 1996, Menzies founded the nonprofit Charity Cars and closed his lot; to date he has given away more than 150 used autos. “God bless him,” says Quincey Singleton, 51, a former welfare mother who, thanks to the 1988 Buick Century she received, has been able to commute to a job as a security screener at Orlando International Airport. “I’m a new person, and there’s no way I will quit work.” Robin Carter, 33, a single mother of five, tells a similar tale. Not long ago, between shuttling her kids to daycare and getting to work as a housekeeper at a Hampton Inn, she spent more than four hours a day on buses. The ’85 Buick Century that Menzies gave her has cut her travel time to under an hour and, she says, helped her get a promotion. “They are angels sent from God to me,” she says of Menzies and his staff of 14.

Not everyone who applies gets a car—or keeps it. Candidates are referred by government agencies, churches or potential employers. Approved applicants receive a vehicle, a six-month AAA membership and payment of their first month’s insurance premium. In return, they must sign a contract promising to begin work within 30 days, keep up insurance payments and maintain a good driving record. After three years the car is theirs.

“I can’t tell you how many people have asked me, ‘What’s your angle?’ ” says Menzies. It isn’t money. Most of Charity Cars’ vehicles are well-worn; Charity fixes the best and sells the rest to raise money for its operations. (It also receives cash donations.) Menzies, who went into debt to start the program, now draws a $62,000 salary, and Denise, who manages car donations, earns $30,000. Their combined pay amounts to far less than Brian alone used to earn, and both drive cars borrowed from the Charity fleet. Materially, says Denise, “I’ve given up a lot, but it doesn’t compare with the rewards I feel.”

“When I first met Brian, I thought he was crazy,” says Gary Smith, president and CEO of Smart Choice Automotive Group, a dealership organization that donates 200 cars a year. “We checked him out thoroughly. He’s on a crusade.”

Menzies’ motivation, in part, is that he has known hard times himself. Raised in Hauppauge, N.Y., one of four sons of a police lieutenant and his wife, Menzies quit college and, in his twenties and thirties, worked a series of so-so jobs. A first marriage didn’t last, but a taste for liquor did. By 1984 “I was a total alcoholic,” says Menzies. “I asked God to deliver me out of that.” With his own salvation, he says, came a feeling that he should try to help others. Recently, Menzies started a second Charity Cars in the St. Petersburg-Clearwater metro sprawl and plans to open others in Fort Lauderdale and Jacksonville. Though no longer a wealthy man, he doesn’t question his choices. “I always asked, “What am I going to do when I grow up?’ ” says Menzies. “Now I know.”

Nick Charles

Don Sider in Orlando