As the proprietor of one of London’s most famous pizzerias, Marco Molino is a busy man. But it hasn’t stopped him building an amazing collection of tasty American classics, as Nigel Boothman finds out…
If Marco Molino went to see a doctor specialising in classic car addiction, the man in the white coat would spot a lot of familiar symptoms. Does he look at old cars in Classic American when he can’t get to sleep? Check. Has he often owned more cars than he has room to store? Check. Has he taken a friend to view a car and ended up buying another one himself? Again... check. Marco has even bought a car, immediately found an even better example and then bought that as well.
He has the means to chase these dreams because he’s worked hard for a lot of years in a famous family business. Marco’s father, Mario, came to London from Naples in 1962 and in 1965 joined with a gentleman called Peter Boizot to open a pizzeria. This was the start of the Pizza Express chain... which is how we Brits got our first taste of pizza.
Mario and Peter disagreed over Peter’s enthusiasm for live jazz in the restaurants, so in 1972 Mario amicably pulled out of the chain and kept one of the branches, the one in Gloucester Road – which became Da Mario Kensington.
And it still is. This branch became so successful it enabled Mario to later purchase the freehold to the entire building. Mario passed away in 2008 and Marco took over, since when he’s put his own stamp on the place and seen customers flood in.
“2008 was also when the car thing started,” says Marco. “I’d wanted something with a big V8 since watching The Dukes of Hazzard as a kid, but all I managed was a HarleyDavidson that I bought in 2003 because it sounded like a V8!” The first purchase was the 1969 Corvette, a 350/350 model – that’s cubic inches and horsepower, if you believed the factory spec. Only one of those numbers turns out to be accurate... “I had it on the dyno and it makes more like 300bhp,” says Marco, “but I still love it. It’s even better since it went to Corvette Kingdom (www.corvettekingdom.co.uk) to have a five-speed transmission in place of the old four-speed, which made it rev quite high on the motorway. It’s also had rack-and-pinion steering installed, so it steers and handles properly too.”
Then came a craze for Jeeps, partly inspired by Daisy Duke’s pretty CJ7 Renegade. As Marco says, original ones are hard to find as so many were either customised and modified or simply beaten up and run into the ground. But he found a good one – a white 1986 Laredo with 120,000 miles, unmodified and in nice condition. “I shipped it over and thought it was great, but then I saw another one online, for sale in Texas. It had only 10,000 miles on the clock and was factory original. So I bought it, which meant I had to sell the other one. It went to a guy in Twickenham.” The Texan Laredo is a bit of a powder puff. As well as surviving in amazing condition it’s got the unusual option of cruise control, which Marco says was a crazy-expensive box to tick; something like $2000 at the time.
“I also have an ’81 Renegade away in the workshop, having a V8 fitted,” he laughs. “It’s going to be a bit of fun... not everything has to be totally original.”
At this time, Marco was living in Kingstonupon-Thames and had only a single-width garage. “Things were a bit snug in there with the Harley,” he recalls. “I was looking at it one day and realised that if I knocked the back wall of the garage down, I could extend it into the garden. So that’s what I did...I built the extension with a log cabin kit!”
“IT’S GOING TO BE A BIT OF FUN... NOT EVERYTHING HAS TO BE TOTALLY ORIGINAL.”
That made room for two, but things would soon start getting out of hand. Marco describes how he was lying awake one night, looking at cars online, and saw a blue 1967 Ford Mustang GT convertible. So began a tricky tale of chasing down the car’s owner after the dealer became cagey – a rip in the soft top had caused the owner to take the car back and the dealer wouldn’t pass on a phone number. Marco had to find him by other methods, which he managed to do.
“The owner was going through a divorce and we did a deal. It was a lovely car, but he’d put Cherry Bombs on it which made it incredibly loud and rude. So I got a proper stainless exhaust made straight away.”
Another fateful web search ended with Marco persuading some friends in Sarasota, Florida, to go and look at a 1950 Cadillac Series 62 convertible with a local dealer. They gave the car a cautious thumbs up and it duly arrived in the UK, where it proved to be the delightful six-seater land yacht Marco had hoped for, albeit in need of a little work here and there. It’s one member of the collection that Marco would consider for wedding hire and it would certainly make quite an impact. It’s practical too – how many 70-year-old classics can you think of with a power roof? Being able to protect the bride in case of a sudden rain shower is certainly a big advantage!
The next bug that bit Marco was the idea of restoring a Corvette. This obsession grew until he found himself on an exploratory trip to Holland, visiting six different dealerships. He kept his sensible head on, right up until he visited one in Eindhoven. “There was a 1958 ’Vette that was already restored, but it was €70,000,” says Marco. “I couldn’t afford that and I told the dealer as much, but he just suggested I put a deposit on it and call him when I had the rest.” This got Marco thinking. And once you add up the likely real-world cost of a restoration, you always get an answer that’s going to frighten the bank manager. “After I’d calculated the costs of parts, labour, chunks of storage and the purchase of the original vehicle, I reckoned it would have cost me about £90,000 to restore one,” he says. “So I put down the deposit and eventually got the car home.”
Sensible head? Maybe he never took it off. At least until the following visit, that is...
“Er, yes,” admits Marco. “I went back a year or two later with a friend who was really impressed by my description of the seller, who was a great guy to deal with. He asked me to take him over to see a 1963 Corvette split-window coupé and even offered to pay my petrol. So we went, and while he was talking to the dealer about the Corvette – which he didn’t end up buying – I saw this fabulous pair of Mustangs.”
One was a Shelby GT500 and the other a 1967 GT390, a four-speed model in Wimbledon White. The dealer noticed his interest and told him to forget the GT500 when the GT390 was a nice, original car for a third of the price. “I said I’d got no money – I hadn’t come there to buy a car,” says Marco ruefully. “And he just said that if I wanted it, I could shake his hand and pay him whenever. That trip ended up costing me £50,000.”
Things at home were getting a little crazy. With cars in storage and no room in the garage, plus a restaurant serving something like 3500 covers a week, Marco was also expanding into buying back the flats above the restaurant, something his father had started, but not completed. All this meant that it was time for a move in his personal life and in August 2018 he found an unusual house for sale, 10 minutes from Farnham in Surrey. “It was designed to look like a Tuscan villa and it really does, but there were three other features that convinced me,” says Marco. “There’s a 1000sq ft kitchen that’s going to become the hub of a cookery school, and outside there was a stable block and a six-car garage!”
With the car accommodation problem solved, Marco had a dangerous dose of freedom. And his first big Condor moment happened at a classic car show in London, where he saw a lovely Camaro SS, freshly restored overseas and wearing a huge price tag – almost £150,000. Marco turned around, and there behind him was a stunning 1955 Ford Thunderbird wearing a ‘for sale’ sign… with a price that was a fraction of the Camaro’s. The car was being looked after by a dealer and he and Marco discussed a price and ended up agreeing, only for the car’s owner to come back to meet them and announce he’d had a change of heart.
“I persuaded him to go ahead and sell it, and eventually we agreed on a deal,” says Marco, “especially when we found out we were practically neighbours. He has first refusal if I ever decide to sell it.” If the car looks familiar, it should do – it was a Classic American cover star in 2018. It conjures up all kinds of Grease-related images for Marco, who has put it to the top of the list, naming it as the one car he’d keep if all the others had to go. “It’s the history and the nostalgia. I’m one of those guys with a house full of Americana – I’ve got a 1974 Playboy pinball table, a 1920s pool table, a 1950s juke box and so on. And the Thunderbird complements all of that. Even the name sounds cool!”
We haven’t even mentioned the Cobra – a high-quality GRP reproduction with a stroked small-block V8 that Marco had seen advertised in Scotland. He promised himself he wouldn’t buy it unless it was one of those built with extended pedal wells by a chap called Dave Brookes, allowing for 6ft 3in Marco to drive it comfortably. And guess what? It was. So down it came to England, mint and muscular and wearing a new custom-made hardtop.
“You couldn’t build it for the price, and now that I’ve had some heat guards made to fit over the side exhausts, you can’t burn your leg on it either,” says Marco. “But I’m a bit of a purist and the more I learn about Cobras, the more interested I am in an aluminium-bodied continuation model from Shelby American, or a hand-built toolroom replica of the kind Dave Brookes is now building.”
With the potential for a 12 metre by 24 metre American style car-barn replacing the old stable block, Marco may not have finished collecting cars just yet. But when we ask him if he’s looking forward to seeing them featured in Classic American, he sounds a little sheepish. “I actually had to cancel my subscription,” he says. “I kept seeing cars for sale I loved and it was giving me ideas. It was costing me too much money!” Unfortunately both Da Mario restaurant and the cookery school are closed due to Covid restrictions as we put this issue of Classic American together, but you can see Marco in action showing many of his secret recipes on his YouTube channel – search for ‘Villa Molino Cookery Club’. ★