Collecting cars is like creating your own personal amusement park

Photography Courtesy Victor Rugg

Story by Victor Rugg

Did you ever hear anyone say a car is just a car? It just gets you from one place to another, so why bother with antique or sports cars?

My reply: “When you went to an amusement park, did you just go on one ride? Did you have fun and wish it would never end?”

Every day I take out one of my cars, it feels like I am in my own amusement park–and since I have owned 131 cars so far, I have had lots of rides to choose from. 

I grew up on a small farm in Bay Shore, Long Island. We had an International tractor and rider mowers. That is how I learned how to drive and fix broken equipment. 

As a small boy, my father would point out every unusual car we’d see and give a full description. From time to time, he would take me to car museums and dealerships and teach me about cars. This spiked my interest, and I started to read car magazines. 

At the age of 10, I gravitated toward my next-door neighbor Mack, who was restoring old Cadillacs. My father was an industrial engineer and wasn’t home much, so it was natural for me to seek out another male figure who held the same interests as me. At first, he just had me clean parts, but by age 13, I was doing bodywork, brake jobs, and assisting in engine rebuilds.

My first car, a 1953 Ford convertible with a manual transmission, cost me all the money I had at the time, which was $150. In 1960, my folks saw I had a real interest in cars, and bought me a starter Craftsman mechanic tool chest filled with tools. I quickly became the family’s mechanic.

My neighbor helped me restore the Ford. We did everything for it. I tried drag racing the car, but would blow the transmission every time.

As time went on, my taste in cars changed. I had several cars in college, including Corvettes, a Pontiac GTO, a Cutlass convertible, and others. Buying, fixing, and selling cars helped me with school expenses. When I sold my 1968 Corvette in 1969, I was able to put a down payment on my first house.

I have experienced so many great joys from being involved in the hobby, including meeting some of the most interesting people and driving some of the best cars. 

On October 14, 1987, Rob Rubin took me for a ride in his 1962 GTO Ferrari No. 3607GT for three laps around the Bridgehampton race track, which he owned. It was, and still is, the most exciting drive I have ever had in an automobile.

There I was, in an aluminum car with an aluminum engine, and I felt like I was part of the car. No wonder the last one sold for $70 million. I met Ralph Lauren in Sag Harbor, and we talked about his amazing collection. 

In the mid-’70s, I restored two 911s with my friend Dave Metz. He taught me to have an appreciation for Porsches. I have owned 25 Porsches, of which 20 have been 911s. Today I have a 2011 911, a 2013 911S, a 1963 356, as well as an Aston Martin, a 135i BMW, and an Audi allroad.

In 1968, I was a mechanic working for a local Ford dealership, and I spent five years in the Air Force motor pool. This gave me the knowledge I needed to buy, sell, and fix cars. I was a new car salesman at a local Chevrolet dealership and owned my own car leasing business. 

The first new car I bought was a 1967 Ford Mustang Fastback. It's still in the family. Owning and driving Porsches both on the road and on the track has taught me how overbuilt they are for the road. 

I am a professional photographer, and a few years ago, Joey Atterbury, the race car driver, bought my 1988 BMW M5 at the Rolex and asked me to photograph the race for Mitchum Motorsports. I learned just how connected the mechanics are to the driver as I followed them all over the country, covering the races. I have my time trial license, so this was special.  

If you can fix a car, you can also fix most things in your home or boat. I sailed from Tortola to Venezuela and back to Palm Beach in 1998-2000. Being a mechanic pulled me through. A car or boat has electrical systems, plumbing, heating, refrigeration, and both small and large mechanical issues. 

Most of my cars are sold to relatives and friends. My wife always complains that I sell them cheaply. I like the hunt; I don’t get any joy in selling, so I always price them under the market, and then I can move on to the next one.

If you are buying a car and you call to get information and you ask, “Can you tell me something about your car?” and they say, “What would you like to know?” say “No thank you” and hang up. If they tell you they love the car and have lots of service records, etc., that is one you may want to buy. Do not trust Carfax, as they are only as good as what has been reported to them. Always get a PPI. I do free pre-PPI inspections as a way to give back. 

I have learned humility as we don’t own our collector cars; we are the custodians for future generations. I am very grateful for having experienced all these cars and the friends I've made along the way.

Owning 131 cars has taught me a lot, beyond the wonderful opportunity of experiencing all of them.  When you make that first call have a pen and paper ready. List the most important questions you want answered, then listen carefully to why they are selling the car but don't let it cloud your judgement.

It’s very important that you don't make an emotional decision. If you are satisfied with the answers to the point of seeing the car then let the car do the talking. Cars talk to me, and they don't lie.

Have I made poor decisions when buying a car? Yes, but I learned from those emotional decisions.

What happens is you get caught up in a car you have been looking for a long time and the price is right. So you fall for the story and you don't check as deeply as you should.

If you’re just starting out putting a collection together or just buying your first car bring a list with you of the most important things to check. It’s important to know your cost of ownership.  The best is when you can buy from the original owner. He or she will have the maintenance records and maybe the original window sticker and bill of sale.

Most important you get the history from the horse’s mouth. Second and third owners can only tell you about their ownership experience.

Always get a professional opinion if you’re not sure. Today, with the internet, you can pull up reviews of cars you’re interested in and go to forums.

Some cars you might think are great have had a few bad years. It’s good to have a budget. It’s easy to buy a car but keeping it may be a challenge. Know all your costs first, like storage, insurance, maintenance, and loan payments. You don't want to get your dream car and then have to give it up. Always buy a car you can drive and enjoy. Let’s face it, looking at it is one thing, driving it is another.

There are lots of tools out there to help you make the right decision. Always buy the best car you can buy with the best records. 

If you are thinking of putting a car collection together or maybe just buying your dream car, my experience has taught me that it's best if you keep your emotions out of it. Thoroughly check the car out. Get a PPI.

Some people do more research buying a stereo than they do a car. Know as much as you can about the car before you buy it. You’re on your computer anyway, so use those search engines to find reviews by both individuals and professionals. Read magazines like Classic Motorsports to give you a more in-depth knowledge of the hobby.

Buy a car you can drive as even a garage queen needs to be exercised. Sure, you would love to have something perfect, but a good driver may be more fun to own in the long run.

We hear only too often, “I have to keep the mileage down to keep the value up.” Then buy a Picasso if you’re just going to look at something.

One of the best parts of ownership is the camaraderie that exists in the automotive community. Join as many car clubs as you can. National clubs are fine but the guys and girls in your neighborhood can be the most satisfying and the most helpful.

Make going to car shows as much of an educational experience as possible. Find cars you are interested in and chat up the owner. First-hand knowledge is the best. 

Take the time to learn how cars work because when you do, the entire experience takes on a new dimension.

You will have more fun with your car when you do as much of the work on it that you can. You will actually bond with the car and respect it more and have fewer problems.

We all love horsepower and lots of low-end torque but that isn’t everything. English sports cars are so much fun because you always feel like you are going a lot faster than you are. This is also true of my 356.

You don't have to go fast to have fun and these cars may be more in many people’s budget. If you ever drove a Morris Minor or the original Mini Cooper, you know what I mean. 

Remember, we are the caretakers, it’s our job to pass these vehicles on to future generations. Learning can be so much fun especially when it’s something you are interested in and you actually use.

Be grateful every day, and share your knowledge with others. This is the ultimate gift of the automotive experience. The love of the automobile and everything that goes with it will be the most fun you will have with your clothes on.

Fill your amusement park with as many rides as you can, as each one is special. Are you ready? Let’s keep on truckin’.

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Tomwas1 New Reader
3/9/24 10:39 p.m.

Great info throughout your article... I worked for a living until retiring 6 years ago... But was always flipping cars and buying and driving what I enjoyed owning. In my 20s I had a 70 mgb roadster, 1938 Buick and 1952 Buick special sedans all at the same time. Got into rear drive 2 7 and 940 four cylinder rear drive volvos, some of the best cars ever bui!t. Even had 3 780 turbo 4 Bertone coupes... Actually lost track of volvos I owned at 100, was buying and selling at least 6 of them per year. Had three cool I64s my first year flipping them... Got involved with Datsun/Nissan zcars, owning 18 s130 and z31cars, last one was a z33 roadster, fantastic car. Had a 90 c4 vette, 04 Chrysler crossfire. probably on my 28th or so BMW, including 2 e36 m3s. Four e34 sedans, multiple other e36s, 7 e30s, 5 of those being convertibles. Even a grey market 745 turbo sedan.. Just sold my 99 e39 528msport sedan due to a friend, a previous BMW purchaser, offering me a gorgeous 98 328 sedan he built into an msport of sorts over the last 5 years and completely going through the car and all the typical BMW wear items.. Also have an 09 mustang convertible purchased in Oct from the 2nd owner with 94k miles. Great Vista blue, 4.0 v6 pony package car. Last year for the 05 to 09 retro introduction and truest to the oldies stang... My pride and joy is a 1963 Mercury comet s22 convertible exactly like my first car at 17 that my brother had given me upon his entering the marines. I spotted it on Craigslist it had been sitting in a Manhattan parking deck for 10 years just off of times square... Got that one 16 months ago with 60k miles and it now has 70k.. 170 cu in 6 cylinder and two sp Merc o matic transmission. Can't get out of its own way but what a joy to cruise in... Thanking God I'm 72 and still able to enjoy my cars and hobby I've had a blast at for so many years now...

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