Take 5 With John Staluppi
Take 5 With
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.
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.