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    Swooning over a classic beauty in metal and chrome

    If you've got deep pockets, a classic car dealer can help you drive away in an authentic icon of American culture.

    [Times photo: Scott Keeler]
    Al Wiseman sits in his 1932 Duesenberg Custom Dietrich Dual Cowl Sweep Panel Phaeton, manufactured in Auburn, Ind.

    By ABBIE VANSICKLE
    © St. Petersburg Times
    published January 12, 2003


    TARPON SPRINGS -- To hear Al Wiseman speak about cars is like hearing a gourmand describe a favorite culinary creation.

    "Look at this one," he says, grazing his finger along the flawlessly shiny exterior of a red 1931 Cadillac All-Weather Phaeton in his private, not-for-sale collection. "Done to perfection."

    Glossy green, shimmering mauve, sexy silver. Each of Wiseman's cars' chrome is so spotless it could be mistaken for a mirror and its engine polished so it's cleaner than most people's silverware.

    They're beauties. He knows it.

    In a pair of brown loafers, the 64-year-old Tarpon Springs multimillionaire and owner of the 1995 Batmobile glides across the black-and-white checkered porcelain tile floor of one of his private showrooms. "Al's Playpen" reads a gold knocker on the door.

    The aircraft mogul, who made a fortune from jet engine sound-suppression devices, is part of a cluster of classic car dealers in northern Pinellas County. His dealership, Classic Corvettes and Collectables Inc., in downtown Tarpon Springs, sells more than 200 cars annually.

    An increasingly lucrative and competitive business, classic car dealing thrives on America's love for cars and nostalgia. From celebrities such as John Travolta, who bought a white 1964 Corvette from Clearwater's Golden Classics dealership, to retiring baby boomers, people are flocking to area classic car showrooms and visiting Web sites, eager to get their hands on a piece of history.

    Although the large dealerships have been around for decades, Internet auction Web sites and listings have opened the door to small dealers, forcing well-established dealerships to rely less on their showrooms and more on the Web.

    Local dealerships are working to stay afloat and to adapt to a global marketplace. Many now post virtual tours of their showrooms online, offering to ship the vehicles to buyers around the world. Wiseman said his dealership's Web site gets more than 2-million hits per month. There are close to 10 classic car dealerships in North Pinellas as well as at least 8 businesses specializing in classic car restoration and repair. Florida has one of the highest concentrations of classic cars for sale in the United States, according to Kelvin Etchison, events editor for Cruisin' Style Magazine, one of the South's largest classic cruise magazines with a circulation of 75,000.

    "Unlike other states, in Florida we don't stop cruising during the winter," Etchison said. "This is the second largest classic car state when you look at number of car shows and cruise-in nights."

    Automotive research specialist Ty Bennett of Kruse International, one of the nation's best known classic car auction houses, said warm areas such as Florida, California and Arizona are reaping the benefits of increased investor interest in classic cars as people from around the world buy dealers' cars either in person or via the Internet.

    "It's a concrete investment," Bennett said. "It's hard to take a stock certificate through the drive-through."

    Investor interest is bringing a lot of business to area dealers. Former drag racer Dan Newcombe, 54, owner of Clearwater's Golden Classics dealership at 1928 Gulf-to-Bay Blvd., put his property on the market for $1.85-million, and is poised to retire off the small fortune he's made from classic cars. His Clearwater retirement home has a 30-car garage.

    Newcombe said he's sold more than 25,000 Chevelles in his career, which range from less than $15,000 to $39,000 each, since he opened his first classic car dealership in Canada close to 30 years ago.

    He plans to continue selling cars, concentrating on Internet sales. A couple of years ago, he sold less than 5 percent of his sales via the Internet. Last year, Web sales accounted for nearly 70 percent of his sales, he said.

    PJ's Auto World, 1370 Cleveland St., Clearwater, is doing so well they're opening a new store on Gulf-to-Bay this year.

    "Our customers are not just buying a car, they're buying a dream," said Bill Grant, PJ's Autoworld general manager. "They're looking for a piece of American auto history."

    Grant said sales have boomed with the help of the Internet. They get orders for cars from countries across the globe.

    "The world is your showroom now," he said.

    Cupping his hands around his eyes to get a peek inside Wiseman's showroom, Peter Smith finally got a look at the 1971 Corvette he'd come so far to see.

    Smith, a New Jersey resident, brought his Harley Davidson motorcycle down to Tarpon Springs to get a look at Al Wiseman's showroom. He said he'd seen the dealership advertised in car magazines and had taken a virtual tour of the showroom online.

    He paid the $8 showroom fee and walked slowly from car to car. He said he's looking to buy a classic automobile because it's an investment he can take out for a spin.

    "Right now it's a safer investment than the stock market," Grant said. "Buyers can usually expect a 30 percent appreciation rate every five years they own the car."

    This appreciation rate will increase even more in a few years, he said, as more and more classic cars disappear.

    As cars are lost to scrap metal yards or deconstructed and used for their parts, the number drops each year. But their popularity grows as Hollywood films such as The Fast and the Furious and Charlie's Angels romanticize the cars and as aging Americans, yearning for their youth, look for cars from their past.

    Newcombe compared the cars to traditional holiday songs, such as Silver Bells and White Christmas.

    "Like those good ol' Christmas songs, classic cars just have magic about them," he said. "People always prefer the originals."

    Area dealers do their best to portray a sense of magic and simplicity in their showrooms and on their Web sites.

    Oldies songs, such as American Pie, are piped into the dealerships. Drive-in diner trays complete with hot dogs are hooked onto cars at Classic Corvettes. Coca-Cola memorabilia and antique slot machines are scattered throughout Golden Classics. Life-sized Blues Brothers cut-outs stand guard in PJ's Autoworld. A street sign tempts browsers with "Memory Lane."

    Humor and fun also are vital to selling classic cars, Newcombe said, pointing to a sign resting on a light blue Camaro.

    "An antique auto is like another man's wife," it read. "Look and admire, but do not touch."

    The carefully orchestrated atmosphere brings browsers back to a simpler time, Newcombe said. A feeling of innocence and clean fun helps to sell the cars, he said.

    "It doesn't matter if it's racing cars or show cars," he said. "These cars were made in an era where life was simple. Everything was easier then."

    -- Abbie VanSickle can be reached at (727) 445-4224 or at vansickle@sptimes.com .

    Most-requested restored classic cars and their average prices:

    1. 1966-1972 Chevelle SS (Super Sport) $32,000 to $39,000

    2. 1967-1969 Camaro SS (Super Sport) $32,000 to $39,000

    3. 19641/2-1966 Mustang convertible $23,000 to $30,000

    4. 1968-1970 Plymouth Roadrunner $22,000 to $27,000

    5. 1965-1970 Pontiac GTO $29,000 to $45,000

    -- Source: area classic car dealers

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