Take 5 With John Staluppi

Take 5 With

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For nearly 15 years, TV view­ers of the Bar­rett-Jack­son auc­tion have come to know John Staluppi for his solid taste in post-WWII Amer­i­can collector cars and his pint-sized lap dog named Dillinger, who was trained to bark on com­mand. Even­tu­ally, the dog was plac­ing the bids while poised in the arms of John, wife Jeanette, or one of the Staluppi’s grand­kids. Nat­u­rally, TV au­di­ences ate it up and lit­tle Dillinger be­came “a thing” at Bar­rett-Jack­son for many years. With each win­ning “bark,” Staluppi ac­cu­mu­lated another ad­di­tion to his Cars of Dreams col­lec­tion of more than 125 top-tier ve­hi­cles. Sadly, lit­tle Dillinger has gone to TV dog heaven, but fear not, another Mal­tese pup, this one named Buddy, will take his place.

Lo­cated in North Palm Beach, Florida, the Cars of Dreams col­lec­tion is stored in­side a for­mer de­part­ment store with more than 70,000 square feet. We re­cently visited with Staluppi to learn more about his back­ground, his plan to “shuf­fle the deck” by sell­ing 125 cars at the Bar­rett-Jack­son auc­tion in West Palm Beach, Florida, and the plan to re­place the sold cars with a whole new stash of clas­sics.

Steve Mag­nante

HRM] Where are you from?

JS] I was born in the Ben­son­hurst neigh­bor­hood of Brook­lyn, New York. Af­ter a fam­ily move to Long Is­land, I then moved to Florida around 1977.

HRM] What was your first car mem­ory?

JS] My fa­ther had a 1950 Nash four-door, one of those up­side- down, bath­tub-look­ing cars. It was a stan­dard-shift car with the usual col­umn-mounted gear lever, and Dad took the fam­ily to up­state New York for a va­ca­tion one time. Some­how, I ended up alone in the car and was play­ing with the shift lever. When I got out of the car, I left it in Neu­tral. The next minute, the car comes rolling through the woods and my dad was say­ing, “Whose driv­ing through the woods?” Then he re­al­ized it was his car. I got in big trou­ble for that one.

HRM] I don’t see a Nash Am­bas­sador in the Cars of Dreams col­lec­tion—just lots of con­vert­ibles. What’s your fa­vorite car?

JS] I’d say my fa­vorite car is the first Corvette I ever bought, a 1962 in Tuxedo Black. We didn’t have a lot of money, but my fam­ily helped me buy it by tak­ing out a sec­ond mort­gage on our home. It cost $3,100 back then and was a demon­stra­tor model the deal­er­ship had for a dis­count ($4,038 was the base sticker price). I lived right around the cor­ner from the Brook­lyn­based Chevro­let dealer that had the car. So to an­swer the ques­tion about what’s my fa­vorite type of car, that’d be Corvettes at the core, but fol­lowed closely by Chrysler 300 let­ter cars.

HRM] Your col­lec­tion is known for a wide va­ri­ety of let­ter-se­ries Chrysler 300s. Tell us more.

JS] I have al­most one of ev­ery let­terseries Chrysler 300 here, ex­cept for the 1959 300E. A to­tal of only 690 1959 Es were built, of them only 140 were con­vert­ibles. Find­ing a good sur­vivor or even a solid restora­tion can­di­date is next to im­pos­si­ble. But that’s the fun of it. At present, I’m sell­ing just about ev­ery­thing you see here in the Cars of Dreams col­lec­tion. My plan is to fill this build­ing one more time. This go-round,

I’m aim­ing to have a truly com­plete col­lec­tion of Chrysler 300 let­ter cars— in­clud­ing the elu­sive 1959 “E”—in both body types: hard­top and con­vert­ible. I’m a lit­tle bit on the fence with the 1962–1965 300s. First off, Chrysler aban­doned the tail fins for 1962, but more se­ri­ously, Chrysler added a non­per­for­mance, non-let­ter 300 model that could be had with four doors. So to me, the 1962s aren’t as hard-core as the 1955–1961s. HRM] What was the first race car?

JS] That would be a 1955 Chevy. It was green, and I’m su­per­sti­tious. Too many times to count, any green race car I’ve owned would blow up on me. It’d break a rear axle, trans­mis­sion, or some­thing else. We gave that ’55 the name “Mis­ter Jinx.” Even­tu­ally, we got all the bugs worked out of the car and I ran it in C/Mod­i­fied Pro­duc­tion (C/ MP). That was around the mid-1970s, and the track we used was English­town in New Jer­sey. Vinny Napp was the track man­ager, and we ran it of­ten enough to hold the C/MP na­tional cham­pi­onship ti­tle for a while. We also raced at Westhamp­ton Dragstrip on Long Is­land and even as far away as Bris­tol, Ten­nessee’s Thun­der Valley, a great strip that’s still very ac­tive to­day. We had a lot of fun back then with Mis­ter Jinx. HRM] Did you do the driv­ing?

JS] Oh yes! Mod­i­fied Pro­duc­tion al­lowed a fair amount of changes, so the orig­i­nal 265 V8 was re­placed by a 327 with a Mickey Thomp­son cross-ram in­take man­i­fold. We had to re­main nat­u­rally as­pi­rated, but worked in the usual mod­i­fi­ca­tions like high com­pres­sion, a wild solid cam, hot­ter ig­ni­tion, and a four-speed man­ual trans­mis­sion. I ran a set of 5.38:1 rear gears and used to leave the line at over 6,000 rpm. It’d come out of the hole like a rocket ship.

HRM] Be­yond the Cars of Dreams col­lec­tion, suc­cess is ob­vi­ously part of your life, how did it hap­pen?

JS] I started as a me­chanic in Brook­lyn, then I opened up a gas sta­tion. Then a Honda mo­tor­cy­cle deal­er­ship fran­chise be­came avail­able to me in Queens, on Queens Boule­vard. I was also a big mo­tor­cy­cle rider and we sold a lot of Honda ’cy­cles in the mid- to late-1960s. By the early 1970s, I was also sell­ing the Honda 600 minicar in fair num­bers. But it was the ar­rival of the larger Civic in 1973 that was re­ally the be­gin­ning of true suc­cess. Sales were strong enough to al­low the ad­di­tion of more Honda deal­er­ships, in Long Is­land and other lo­ca­tions. Those lit­tle Civics sold very well and I started mak­ing the real money. That al­lowed me to re­pay my debts to my par­ents, who funded my early ef­forts.

HRM] How many Honda deal­er­ships did you grow to, and did you add other brands as well?

JS] In the 1970s, I had five Honda car deal­er­ships and three Honda mo­tor­cy­cle deal­er­ships, and then my first do­mes­tic brand was an Oldsmo­bile store. It was lo­cated in Brook­lyn, and the suc­cess of that led to me get­ting some Chevro­let out­lets. By the late-1980s, I had 42 car deal­er­ships and was the largest pri­vately held car dealer in the world.

HRM] When you’re buy­ing, what do you look for?

JS] I’m all about the hunt. I al­ways buy cars I used to work on or knew about when I was a kid. When I buy, I seek the finest-look­ing ex­am­ples and typ­i­cally avoid un­fin­ished projects. I pre­fer fin­ished cars be­cause it is all too easy to fall into the trap where you in­vest more than you’ll ever get back. Sure, if you can do the work on your own and have the nec­es­sary skills to do good work, you can turn out a fine ex­am­ple. But when you add up the hours charged by any pro­fes­sional restora­tion busi­ness, a sure re­turn on in­vest­ment is rare. This is a la­bor of love. Peo­ple who re­store th­ese cars spend thou­sands of hours on them, and find­ing miss­ing parts is another side of it that can get costly, so I’m at­tracted to fin­ished cars.

HRM] Once th­ese cars be­come part of your Cars of Dreams col­lec­tion, are they treated differently ver­sus other car col­lec­tions?

JS] One thing that sets my col­lec­tion apart from many is the fact you can jump into any one of the cars on dis­play, drive it out the door, and go for a cruise. I keep a staff of full-time me­chan­ics led by Dave Crews, and there’s a multi-bay garage at the back of my dis­play room to en­sure each car is road-ready. If I buy a car and is­sues present them­selves, we cor­rect them. That way, when some­one buys a car from my col­lec­tion, they can buy it with good con­fi­dence. We ex­er­cise our cars, and that’s cru­cial in this day of re­for­mu­lated gas that goes bad and gums up car­bu­re­tors. By ex­er­cis­ing the cars, the seals don’t get dried out and it makes a huge dif­fer­ence com­pared to cars that might sit idle for years at a time in other col­lec­tions.

HRM] What cars are un­der­val­ued in to­day’s mar­ket­place?

JS] Big Cadil­lacs from the 1950s and 1960s. Cadil­lac is like a sym­bol, es­pe­cially with the El­do­rado and El­do­rado Biar­ritz. You look at the bumpers, the stain­less-steel roof ma­te­rial, the in­te­ri­ors with golden threads, I think th­ese cars are very much un­der­val­ued. I feel they will climb much higher as more peo­ple un­der­stand what they rep­re­sented. Tak­ing it fur­ther, I think all of the finned cars from the 1950s are poised to ap­pre­ci­ate. I’m also big on Chrysler finned cars of the Vir­gil Exner era. Not just the let­ter-se­ries 300s we talked about al­ready, but the Dodge D500s, Ply­mouth Furys, and DeSoto Ad­ven­tur­ers are re­ally im­por­tant cars that are blue-chip in­vest­ments.

HRM] What di­rec­tion will the next Cars of Dreams col­lec­tion take?

JS] At present, Cars of Dreams cel­e­brates the con­vert­ible body type. But for the next go around, I want more va­ri­ety. Yes, there will be con­vert­ibles, but I also want to go af­ter hard­tops and even some wag­ons. Then I can take it in a dif­fer­ent di­rec­tion. If you look around Cars of Dreams, the only rea­son you don’t see a con­vert­ible on dis­play is when the fac­tory didn’t of­fer it that way. An ex­am­ple would be the 1956–1957 Lin­coln Con­ti­nen­tal MKII. Ex­cept for two fac­tory pro­to­type con­vert­ibles in 1957, the MKII is strictly a hard­top. If ever there was a car that de­served to be of­fered as a drop-top, the MKII is it. And know this, if one of those fac­tory pro­to­type con­vert­ibles sur­faced, I’d pay the money for it! Another thing I want to point out is that there are two vin­tage fire trucks in the col­lec­tion right now. They ac­tu­ally run, and I use them for pa­rades. I had my shop in­stall air con­di­tion­ing in­side one of them be­cause it was so pop­u­lar, we de­cided to make it more en­joy­able here in the Florida heat. Com­mer­cial and emer­gency ve­hi­cles are in­ter­est­ing to me as well; I even have a Ford neigh­bor­hood ice cream truck I’ll be sell­ing.

HRM] When you say “col­lec­tion,” how many cars do you have?

JS] I keep about 130 cars here, plus another eight cars I keep at my home. Again, ev­ery one of them is ready for the road. Some­times for fun, I’ll in­vite four or five bud­dies to come by then ask them which cars they want to drive, and we’ll gas them up and at­tend a car show or cruise night.

HRM] What’s it like bid­ding on a car and sud­denly there’s a TV cam­era pointed at your face?

JS] I gotta be hon­est—it’s fun. Some­times when I’m bid­ding, it be­comes like a war with me. Some­times my wife, Jeanette, will be there with me while I’m bid­ding, and she’ll be ask­ing, “Are you crazy?” Then my cell­phone will go off with calls from friends who see me on TV bid­ding who want to chime in on the ac­tion. The best is when my grand­kids are there say­ing, “Pop­pie, we’re not go­ing to let that guy beat us?” Some­times, it’ll cost me be­cause the ego gets in front of the brain. When there’s a car on the docket list that catches my eye, I make sure to get a close in­spec­tion in the days be­fore it hits the block. That’s one of the reasons I like Bar­rett-Jack­son— they stage the cars un­der the tents and in the lines for sev­eral days be­fore they sell. This gives am­ple op­por­tu­nity for close in­spec­tion. But over­all, I look for­ward to ev­ery Bar­rett-Jack­son auc­tion. I love it. It’s fun.

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