Still Dreaming: Car Connoisseur John Staluppi
He may have sold his extensive collection, but he’s far from finished
PALM BEACH, Florida — "We're very selective on the cars here. I don't like any pieces of s***, excuse my language," John Staluppi, a reasonable approximation of a sturdier Robert De Niro, says in his Brooklyn accent. "I'm not that much about history and all that stuff. I'm more about I want the car to look nice, drive nice."
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 18-car 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 fuel-efficient 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.
This new collection is going to have hardtops and station wagons—I used to love the old Woodies.
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."
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.
Best of Sale John Staluppi Cars of Dreams
Palm Beach 2018, April 12-15
1970 Plymouth Superbird
Sold for: $286,000
Lots of Superbirds were driven hard and put away wet when they were just "used cars," but this example seems to have been spared that sort of misery. The original numbers-matching 440-cubic-inch six-barrel engine and 727 Torqueflite transmission are installed, and the nose cone, often replaced with an aftermarket one due to damage, is factory original.
1969 Pontiac GTO Judge Ram Air IV
Sold for: $178,200
Subjected to a full frame-off restoration and powertrain rebuild, this documented, factory-produced Judge is one of just 549 built with the desirable Ram Air IV engine and Muncie M21 four-speed, short-ratio manual gearbox. Said to be factory-correct down to the little details—like GM-branded hoses—this surely must be one of the best available, hence the strong sale price.
1957 BMW Isetta 300
Sold for: $57,200
Isettas are probably best known in the U.S. thanks to their association with television character Steve Urkel from the '90s sitcom "Family Matters," but as classic microcars gain traction in the marketplace, their values are on the rise. An outlier in the American-centric Staluppi collection, this Isetta 300 seats two and has a rear-mounted 0.3-liter engine. This was fair market value for a nicely restored car.
1957 Cadillac Eldorado Biarritz
Sold for: $170,500
Staluppi had a hard time parting with this one, and it is easy to see why. The original 365- cubic-inch V-8 sits underhood, and the rest of the car was treated to a cosmetic restoration including 24-karat-gold-plated emblems. With plenty of ownership history and documentation on the car, this one will undoubtedly be tough to replace. You couldn't restore this Cadillac to this level for the price paid.
1915 Ford Model T Circus Wagon
Sold for: $110,000
For the collector who has everything, may we suggest this very early circus wagon? Said to have appeared in Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey circus events, the wagon has been treated to a better-than-original restoration with gold-plated trim, solid brass cage bars, and Amish-made wooden spoke wheels. If you wanted one, here it was.
1962 Chevrolet Corvette
Convertible (Not for sale)
You never forget your first Corvette, or at least John Staluppi didn't. After making the mistake of selling the car once, the opportunity to buy it back presented itself. Staluppi took it and ran. This one won't escape his possession again.
1969 Chevrolet Camaro Indy Pace Car Convertible
Sold for: $110,000
1969 was a unique year in Camaro history, with sporty, restyled sheet metal that lasted for just this single model year. This Indy Pace Car edition (Z11 package) includes the rear spoiler, rally wheels, and a ducted hood. The car is also equipped with the RS package and a 396-cubic-inch V-8 with four-speed manual transmission. An investment-grade Camaro at a fair price.