Gentlemen, Start Your Engines!

By Larry Hertz
Bob Machinist ’75 & James Machinist ’05
Bob Machinist ’75 & James Machinist ’05

How two alums turned their love of classic automobiles into a “country club for car collectors.”

If you want to strike up a lively conversation with Bob Machinist ’75, ask him a question—any question—about the internal combustion engine.

Machinist loves cars and motorcycles. He’s raced, collected, and restored vehicles of all shapes, sizes, and ages. He’s got a 1972 Chevron B21 sports car that competed on the tracks of Le Mans, Daytona, and Sebring and a 1957 Ducati motorcycle he still races himself. He’s got a couple of Porsches and a few BMW motorcycles, and his collection changes all the time. He’s bought and sold his share of Ferraris and Aston Martins.

Machinist doesn’t just know cars. He knows lots of other enthusiasts who collect more vehicles than they know what to do with. So one day about eight years ago as he was leaving a track after a weekend of racing, an idea hit him: Why not build a climate-controlled, state-of-the-art garage where engine-crazed folks like himself can store their treasures?

About a year later, Machinist and his son James ’05 opened the Collectors Car Garage in Bedford Hills, New York, about 40 miles north of New York City.

Machinist calls his business “a country club for car collectors” and it’s an apt description. For a monthly fee of $500, you can store your car or motorcycle in the pristine, 135,000-square-foot garage. The building is fireproof, and its ventilation system contains scrubbers to minimize dust. It’s equipped with battery chargers for each vehicle and a patented interactive camera system that enables customers to view their cars via the Internet. The monthly fee covers the cost of a valet service, delivering your car to your home when you want to drive it. For an extra charge, detailing experts will spruce up the interior or exterior.

Some car clubs across the country have smaller, less elaborate garages for their members, but Machinist says no one else offers the space and level of service he does.

“Some clubs offer you maybe one space for one of your cars, but most collectors have lots of cars and no place to put them,” he says.

That explains why the Collectors Car Garage has 325 customers, and why he and James soon plan to open a second location on Long Island.

Which is not to say this venture hasn’t hit some speed bumps along the way.

“Just about every mistake an entrepreneur can make, we made,” Machinist says. “We spent a lot of time and money branding ourselves nationally—and that was a monumental waste. Why should we care whether someone in California knows about us if we only have a garage in New York?

“We also miscalculated our pricing, underestimated our ramp-up costs—you name the mistake, we made it,” he says.

There have also been a few disasters in the garage itself. Two years ago, firefighters were flushing a hydrant nearby and closed a valve too fast, flooding part of the garage. Fortunately, the water didn’t damage any of the cars.

Last year, the owner of a vintage Jaguar wasn’t so lucky. Some gasoline fumes had collected in the rear of the car over time, and when an employee started it, its trunk exploded.

“Making that phone call to that customer wasn’t the most fun I ever had, but it did teach me how to get yelled at and how to manage a crisis,” says James, who manages the garage while his father continues his day-job as an investment banker in Manhattan.

The owner of the Jaguar took the news pretty well, James says, in part because James was able to give the owner the name of someone who could repair the damage. He notes that knowing where to find the expertise vintage car owners require to maintain and repair their vehicles is an important part of the business.

“Most owners don’t have the time to develop this kind of knowledge,
and that’s a valuable service we offer,” he says.

Bob Machinist credits Vassar with enabling him to maintain his fledgling interest in motor sports when he arrived on campus as a freshman in 1971.

“I was part of the second coed class, and the college still didn’t quite know what to do with guys,” he says.

But when he and some of his engine-head buddies were looking for a place to store their motorcycles and mechanics’ tools, a Vassar administrator found some space in a barn for them. The Vassar Motorcycle and Mechanics Club was born.

While the recession forced him to scrap plans for three new garages four years ago, Machinist says the downturn in the economy has actually spurred new interest in vintage cars.

 “Over the past five years, the intrinsic value of collectible cars has grown faster than inflation, precious metals, or stock exchanges, and a lot of people would rather have an investment asset they enjoy than a stock,” he says.

He now has tentative plans to expand the business to sites in Florida and California, in addition to the one he’ll open on Long Island.

“I drive around Beverly Hills and I see a lot of real nice cars sitting under tarps,” Machinist says. “I know I’m in a business with a growing market.”