Still Dream­ing

Car con­nois­seur John Staluppi just sold his ex­ten­sive col­lec­tion, but he’s far from fin­ished

Automobile - - Classic -

We’re walk­ing through an en­thu­si­ast’s par­adise that Staluppi, born in 1947, calls his Cars of Dreams, built into roughly half of a non­de­script West Palm Beach, Florida, strip mall he pur­chased pri­mar­ily to house his ex­ten­sive col­lec­tion of au­to­mo­biles. A ca­sual passerby has no idea of the four-wheeled trea­sures in­side the roughly 60,000-square-foot space. With its Coney Is­land theme, ac­cented by a Brook­lyn Bridge and Man­hat­tan sky­line mo­tif along the back wall, this isn’t just a place to gawk at old cars—there’s an en­tire town to ex­plore.

Hit the board­walk and play car­ni­val games, or grab a bite to eat at a func­tion­ing Nathan’s hot dog stand. Stroll along the mu­seum’s tree-lined streets, past the mock drive-in theater, prison, and fire sta­tion (com­plete with an ac­tual LaFrance fire truck) and into the old-time Oldsmo­bile deal­er­ship, stocked with pe­riod-cor­rect Olds mod­els. A full-scale ’50s-style diner, named af­ter Staluppi’s late dog, Dillinger, is open dur­ing the hand­ful of char­ity events this place opens its doors for each year. This is his pri­vate won­der­land, a world Staluppi has cre­ated to cel­e­brate his love of cars and his child­hood home.

Staluppi’s dream was born of ne­ces­sity. When he moved into his West Palm Beach es­tate, he quickly found there was one part of the home that didn’t mea­sure up. “I had a 10-car garage, but I said, ‘This is not work­ing,’ and built an 18car garage for my house,” Staluppi says. “I kept pack­ing cars in, and ev­ery time I wanted to go for a ride in a car, I’d have to move five cars just to get to it.”

Once he moved his cars out of the garage and into the mu­seum, he kept pack­ing them in, even­tu­ally ac­cu­mu­lat­ing roughly 150 in all. But by the end of the week, just a hand­ful will re­main. Staluppi is sell­ing nearly the en­tire she­bang—145 cars—at the an­nual Bar­rett-Jack­son Palm Beach auc­tion.

To­day, the Bar­rett-Jack­son crew is on hand to tag, prep, and ul­ti­mately move each car from this plush town­scape to the lo­cal fair­grounds where the auc­tion will oc­cur. The smell of ex­haust hangs in the air from cars start­ing and rolling out of the mas­sive build­ing onto wait­ing trans­port trail­ers. When it’s all said and done, Staluppi’s cars will gen­er­ate $13.96 mil­lion at auc­tion, in­clud­ing buyer’s pre­mium, typ­i­cally around 10 per­cent. Staluppi’s cut will be the ham­mer price, mi­nus Bar­rett-Jack­son’s list­ing fees and seller’s pre­mium of 8 per­cent (if you do the math, that’s a lit­tle more than $1 mil­lion). He’s still left with a huge chunk of change, the kind of money Staluppi once only dreamed of earn­ing.

In his teenage days, Staluppi worked 9-to-5 as a me­chanic at a Brook­lyn-based Chevro­let dealer, do­ing his share of drag rac­ing on the side with cars he built him­self. “When I was at Chevro­let, I worked on all the high-per­for­mance cars,” he rec­ol­lects. “The 327 had just come out, then in ’65 the 396 and the 454s came out. So I re­ally got into the muscle cars—that was re­ally my era.”

With some fi­nan­cial help from his work­ing-class par­ents, he went on to pur­chase a small gas sta­tion, then a Honda deal­er­ship back when the Ja­panese com­pany’s only prod­ucts were mo­tor­cy­cles. Staluppi be­gan adding Honda deal­ers, fill­ing his show­rooms

with lit­tle N600 mi­cro sedans when Honda of­fered cars for U.S. sale. His tim­ing couldn’t have been bet­ter. When the af­ter­shocks of the 1973-74 OPEC oil em­bargo led to higher gas prices, Honda’s fu­el­ef­fi­cient cars and mo­tor­cy­cles started fly­ing out of Staluppi’s show­rooms. The wind­fall en­abled him to ex­pand into Oldsmo­bile and Nis­san deal­er­ships. Although his em­pire has shrunk since its peak at 40 deal­er­ships, Staluppi says the fam­ily busi­ness (his son owns fran­chises in Las Vegas) still con­sti­tutes the third-largest pri­vate deal­er­ship group in the coun­try.

Although sales of con­tem­po­rary cars have long but­tered Staluppi’s bread, they don’t do much for him. “Clas­sic cars just have the look,” he in­sists. “You look at cars to­day, it’s hard to tell if it’s an Audi or a Mercedes other than hav­ing the big badges. There aren’t a lot of con­vert­ibles out there to­day; most cars are four doors. If you look at these old cars, with the big bumpers and the chrome, they still have that sen­ti­men­tal value.”

THIS NEW COL­LEC­TION IS GO­ING TO HAVE HARDTOPS

AND STA­TION WAG­ONS—I USED TO LOVE THE OLD WOODIES.

That is why, de­spite sell­ing nearly ev­ery car from his col­lec­tion with its fo­cus on Amer­i­can con­vert­ibles pri­mar­ily from the 1940s to 1960s, this space will no doubt be packed with cars again in the not too dis­tant fu­ture. This is the sec­ond time Staluppi has sold an enor­mous group­ing of ve­hi­cles to fix­ate on a new theme. Although the fo­cus will re­main on Amer­i­can iron, he plans some sig­nif­i­cant changes.

“I’m not a big for­eign car guy,” he says. “Fer­raris and all that, I had a cou­ple of them. … They don’t do nothin’ for me. Maybe I would buy some old Rolls-Royces or the old Bent­leys. I’ve got to find the right ones, with the tires on the fend­ers. This new col­lec­tion is go­ing to have hardtops and sta­tion wag­ons—I used to love the old Woodies. This time we’re go­ing to do a lot more resto­mods. I like that they have fuel in­jec­tion; car­bu­re­tors are a pain in the ass. We have a few cars that weren’t started for a long time and the car­bu­re­tors were all gummed up … oh my god.”

Even though he’s been here, done this be­fore, Staluppi is still sen­ti­men­tal about sell­ing the col­lec­tion he spent sev­eral years build­ing. As he wan­ders the rows of ve­hi­cles, check­ing in with Bar­rett-Jack­son’s team on its progress, it’s ap­par­ent this is a big life event.

“I was re­ally get­ting melan­choly the other night,” Staluppi ad­mits. “Some peo­ple sell their cars be­cause they need the money. I just wanted to have a change. But as I’m go­ing through it, I’m think­ing, ‘What am I do­ing?’ If the place was big­ger, I’d just go out and buy an­other 150 cars and have 300 cars. But I don’t want to just have 300 cars in a ware­house. I want it to look nice.”

Af­ter a life­time of buy­ing and sell­ing for a liv­ing and a hobby, there is at least one car, his first Corvette, Staluppi re­fuses to part with. Or rather, he won’t sell it again.

“When I was still a me­chanic at the Chevy dealer, they got this black ’62 Corvette in, and I was go­ing crazy,” he says. “I went to my fa­ther and said, ‘I re­ally want this car. You’ve gotta help me out.’ He took out a sec­ond mort­gage on the house ’cause we didn’t have a lot of money. It was $3,100, and the house was only worth $18,000. I got the Corvette, and it was the first re­ally new Corvette I had.” By the end of the ’60s, Staluppi sold the Corvette, but more re­cently, his then-99-year-old fa­ther told him, “Johnny, when your mother died, I was clean­ing out some stuff, and I found the reg­is­tra­tion for your first Corvette.”

“I said, ‘You’ve got to be kidding me!’ I tracked down the car in Michi­gan and bought it,” Staluppi says with an ear-to-ear grin.

These days, the col­lec­tor has branched out from au­to­mo­tive ven­tures into com­mis­sion­ing some of the fastest lux­ury yachts in the world. One of those cre­ations, a 140-foot boat named The World Is Not Enough (all of Staluppi’s boats are 007-themed), is ca­pa­ble of hit­ting some 80 mph on open wa­ter. But Staluppi isn’t fin­ished tin­ker­ing with cars. His lat­est project is a 1958 Cadil­lac El­do­rado Biar­ritz con­vert­ible he plans to mod­ify.

“I de­cided I want to put four-wheel drive in the car and also a fuel-in­jec­tion mo­tor,” he says. “So I bought a used Es­calade, and a guy is putting the car on the Es­calade chas­sis. I’ve got a home in the moun­tains, and I want a car that I can drive there with four-wheel drive. It’ll be the only ’58 Cadil­lac with four-wheel drive!”

There will be plenty more cars to come and plenty more dreams worth chas­ing—and per­haps, even­tu­ally, yet an­other big auc­tion when Staluppi once again feels a change is in or­der. AM

By RORY JUR­NECKA photography by JADE NEL­SON

John Staluppi is an ac­tive Bar­ret­tJack­son bid­der and at­tends nearly ev­ery auc­tion.

Corvettes loom large in John Staluppi’s le­gend. He sold 17 of them at this sin­gle auc­tion and bought one more for char­ity.

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