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.
Biography - Lunch with… superyacht owner John Staluppi
Words: Mark Chisnell
Photography: Ginny Dixon
Superyacht owner John Staluppi, in the diner at his old private vintage car museum.
Just like the cars he adores and the boats he builds, John Staluppi is a walking, talking embodiment of the ‘American dream’. Starting out as a petrol station mechanic in Brooklyn, Staluppi built a billion dollar business of car dealerships, before turning his hand to creating some of the most iconic superyachts ever built.
We meet at Staluppi’s offices in North Palm Beach, Florida, but – apropos the man – this is no ordinary office building. The shopping mall on US Highway 1 looks innocuous from the outside, but once you’re buzzed in through the front door you enter a dreamscape. The building is home to Staluppi’s classic car collection and museum Cars of Dreams. The cars were arranged in a Brooklyn, circa-1960s, scene, complete with drive-in and merry-go-round. Yes, that’s a merry-go-round. A big one. It’s quiet: the museum is only open three or four times a year for charity events; Shop with a Cop, Hospice Foundation of America and American Heart Association are those that benefit.
Staluppi arrives, dressed casually in a blue open-necked shirt and jeans; burger, fries and shakes are delivered to eat in the museum’s ‘diner scene’ and we settle down to talk.
Staluppi’s life story moves quickly from petrol station mechanic to station owner, after a loan from his father, an electrician with the foresight to see his son’s entrepreneurial talent. He took out a $5,000 loan on the family home and John was soon running a successful Sunoco concern.
John Staluppi’s Cars of Dreams Museum was only opened for charity events. Since this interview, it was sold.
The transformative step came not long after, when Staluppi convinced a then largely unknown Japanese firm called Honda that he was the right person to sell its motorcycles. Honda made the smart decision and soon handed him a car franchise as well and a decade later, Staluppi had close to 20 automobile dealerships.
He is now president of the Atlantic Auto Group, still with Honda, and at different times the biggest Hyundai and Oldsmobile dealer in the world, selling nine marques of cars from locations throughout Long Island, New York, and generating $2 billion in annual revenue. So much for the business, but where did the passion for boats come from?
Staluppi had an interest in the water right from the beginning. He was a lifeguard at a hotel pool when he was 17, but the event that got him interested in boats occurred equally early in his career, when he worked at a Chevrolet dealership. The owner, Dave Gerbitz, had an 8.5m mahogany Shepherd motorboat and Gerbitz got his young mechanic to replace the engines with those from a Corvette.
While he was doing the work, Staluppi was taken with boats and the parallels with his first love, cars.
‘Boats and cars, the difference is one has propellers and the other one has wheels,’ he asserts.
Building the business came first, however, and even his beloved 1962 Corvette was sold to that end. ‘But I got it back,’ he says, describing how he found and repurchased the car, now in the museum.
Taste for speed
Octopussy was subject of a wager with builder Frans Heesen as to how fast they could make it go.
When he finally took the step, Staluppi’s first boat was a 13m Ocean sport fishing boat, even though he didn’t much like fishing.
‘I liked the speed of it,’ he explains. ‘This fishing boat was the only thing at that time that did 30 knots.’
Staluppi raced dragsters in his teens, winning a Grand Nationals in Tennessee, and there’s a strong connection with speed right through his career – including an epic rivalry with John Rossatti, his business partner in the mall that houses Cars of Dreams. They’ve raced almost anything that goes fast: Porches, Corvettes, motorcycles, snowmobiles, cigarette boats…
The powerboat racing came to a fairly swift end after a couple of high-speed crashes. The first was a flip in California and the aftermath more unnerving still.
‘We were floating around out there in the middle of the ocean for about 20 minutes, and all I could think about was the shark coming to bite my leg,’ he recalls. ‘The couple of guys that were with me, one was bleeding and the other hurt his back.’
Staluppi’s lifeguard training came in very useful until the coastguard appeared. He built a new race boat and this one caught fire on Lake Pontchartrain, near New Orleans. Staluppi found himself back in the water thinking, ‘“You know what? Two times is a warning, three times you’re out.” There wasn’t going to be a third time.’
He had an 18m Viking by this stage, but after doing 80 knots in a racing powerboat, it felt a little tame, and he’d always wanted something better.
‘When you’re out there and riding around and see all these big boats go by, you always think, “Someday I want to have a big yacht.”’ And so the 36m, Denison-built, For Your Eyes Only was born. ‘I really wanted to have something different. I wanted to build the first boat over 100 feet (30.5 metres) that would go over 30 knots.’ The Bond movie-inspired name came because the concept seemed to match the ‘crazy gadgets, planes, boats and high-speed cars’, of the films.
Many will testify to Staluppi’s hands-on style when he builds a boat, and his attention to the detail of the engineering was evident right from the beginning. He realised that putting Detroit engines in For Your Eyes Only was a mistake.
‘Everyone was talking about water-jets and how much more efficient they would be when partnered up with MTUs.’ Staluppi did the research. ‘We pulled the engines out before the boat was finished and went to MTUs and water-jets. And I was the first one to bring MTUs and water-jets into the US in a motor yacht configuration.’
For Staluppi, 30 knots was never going to be enough. With the King of Spain and the Aga Khan looking to go faster, Staluppi wanted to do 50 knots in a much bigger boat – originally planned at 39m. He had already bought a power plant of three MTUs at 3,500hp each, before he even had a shipyard, but it wasn’t easy to find an engineer or a yard that thought it was enough power.
Staluppi kept looking and found fellow believers in designer Frank Mulder and entrepreneur turned shipbuilder Frans Heesen.
Fastest boat in the world
Moonraker, built in 1992, continued Staluppi’s twin passions of speed and James Bond.
Staluppi outlines the deal he cut with Heesen: ‘The boat has to do over 50 knots. If it does under 50 knots I don’t have to take the boat. If the boat does 51 knots or more, for every knot over 51 knots we would pay a $200,000 bonus.’
Heesen took on the challenge, building Octopussy in the Netherlands for a 1988 launch. Everyone worked hard at hitting the speed; Jeanette Staluppi’s first question when researching possible soft goods was, ‘How much does it weigh?’
When Octopussy was launched for sea trials, the coastguard cleared a runway.
‘I bought a radar gun, and we were on the boat for the first sea trial,’ says Staluppi. ‘Everybody was nervous because Frans Heesen could see his whole shipyard go out of business. He would own this boat if it didn’t do the speed. The boat does 50.5 knots, it was the first run. He was so happy.’
Staluppi still wasn’t done. ‘I said to Heesen, “Listen you could make this bonus. I would like you to cut the back corners, the chines off.” I felt the boat was running bow-down, so when the bow [went] down, there would be more drag.
‘Frans Heesen says, “No, no, no, I’m not going to do that.” I said, “Frans, you could make $200,000.” So he made me agree that if the boat went slower, I owned the boat. I said, “OK” and he cut the back of the boat off and we made 53 knots.
‘He was so happy because he got a $400,000 bonus. I was happy because now I owned the fastest yacht in the world.’
And that was something he liked a lot.
‘There’s only one fastest yacht in the world. When we pulled in there (to ports) everybody said, “That’s Octopussy.”’
The Staluppis cruised the Atlantic in her for a year and a half before selling – the competition was heating up again. ‘We got wind HH the Aga Khan was building a boat that was supposed to do 65 knots, and naturally I wanted to go faster. We built Moonraker. They [HH the Aga Khan and his boat] did 57-point-something knots and we built Moonraker and with that boat did 61 knots.’
Moonraker was launched in 1992, and the record was his again. But the Mulder-designed, Norship-built 36m Moonraker was a different boat for another reason. After Octopussy, Staluppi transitioned from building boats for a hobby into a more commercial outlook.
‘I decided to get into the boat building business, because we were familiar with it on the high-speed end, and I was selling the boats and making good money.’
It was 1998 when he formally started Millennium Super Yachts, and by 2012 John Staluppi had lifted his total to 18 boats. Nevertheless, he has a clear favourite, the aptly named The World Is Not Enough.
‘I wanted to build one more yacht which would set the standard, and make the (speed record) bar very high, very hard to achieve for someone.’
The World Is Not Enough was Staluppi’s last fast superyacht.
The World Is Not Enough was another collaboration with Frank Mulder, again built in the Netherlands, this time in a shipyard Staluppi had bought into – it has the Millennium Super Yachts label.
‘That boat was set to do 70 knots, but we could never get it to steer over 66 knots – as soon as it got to 65, 66 knots, it would either spin out to the right or the left. It was a massive spin-out, like being in a WaveRunner. We never ran that boat over 90 per cent power.’
Imagine what it’s like to wipe out in a 42m superyacht at just short of 70 knots. Staluppi admits it was ‘Very scary’. But even short of maximum power, The World Is Not Enough is a very impressive motor yacht.
‘Sport-fishing boats had started doing 42 knots, 44 knots, and some of the smaller boats did 50 miles an hour… We would go by those boats, I would have a cocktail in my hand, a nice martini and give the people a “how you doing?” Nobody could believe it.’
Staluppi believes that, pound for pound, it’s still the fastest boat out there.
It was Staluppi’s last really quick boat; since then, Millennium Super Yachts has changed direction.
‘We decided to build yachts for luxury, and the new boats we’re building for charter more than for resale. I see a nice business in the charter market.’
Staluppi’s Diamonds Are Forever is a step away from speed and towards luxury charter.
Since The World Is Not Enough there has been Casino Royale, a 49m Christensen, and Quantum of Solace, a 52m Benetti. The newest boat is another Benetti, the widely profiled 61m Diamonds Are Forever.
‘We’re intending to charter that boat three to four months a year. My ultimate goal, depending on the way the economy goes, is to have two or three of these boats for charter.’
The new business occupies a lot of Staluppi’s attention: ‘You have to be hands-on to make it work properly.’
He has two partners to help him run Atlantic Auto Group, which occupies about 50 per cent of his time, with the boats taking up the rest of a 14-hour day, six day a week routine. He also believes the marine industry has plenty it could learn from the car retail trade.
‘The boating business needs to learn how to handle customers like we do in the car business – more customer-friendly building of yachts would make a big change, and I see some of the brokers starting to use car dealer techniques.’
It’s not just the sales and customer relations that make a Staluppi boat special, though: the engineering that supported his early career is still very much his thing.
‘What we bring to a shipyard, no other owner can bring,’ he asserts.
In Staluppi’s boats the plumbing will work, the air-conditioning will vent and drain properly, and you won’t have to ‘rip half the boat apart to get at a pipe’.
But even if everyone starts thinking about it that way, there’s no doubt John Staluppi will still find the method to build remarkable, noteworthy boats.
Originally published: August 2012
UPDATE: Since this interview was first published Staluppi’s car collection was sold off, the vehicles going to different homes.