March, 2017 - Jim Donnelly
And to think, it all started with a die-cast model.
And to think again, it all started in India, a nation whose billion-plus souls include its share of car enthusiasts, even though that may not be immediately obvious to the casual observer. India is one of the world's fastest-growing markets for automotive ownership. So it should then come as little surprise that some people who come from there are really, really into cars. And that, in turn, brings us to the life story of Peter Kumar. He is one of the nation's premier dealers of collectible automobiles, all coming out of his showroom, Gullwing Motor Cars, located in the Astoria neighborhood of Queens in New York City. It's been a remarkable life's journey for Peter, who was born in New Delhi in 1965. On his desk, in an office that overlooks the sales floor, sits a die-cast replica in 1/18th scale of the business's namesake car, we figured made by either Maisto or Revell of Germany. Yep, it's a Mercedes-Benz Gullwing coupe. We have a hard time imagining that anyone else could enjoy business success from a childhood inspiration, but Peter wasn't like most other kids.
"My father had an auto parts store in India where I used to work," Peter explained. "And my uncle, who paid for my ticket when I came from India, had a Mercedes-Benz dealership in England. Also, my father lived in England for three years, and in 1963, he was employed by the Ford Motor Company. Automobiles have been part of our family for 50 or 60 years."
Peter ended up making the trip overseas from the subcontinent as a young man. Once in England, he worked at his uncle's Mercedes-Benz showroom in London, cleaning cars from his dealer stock. To this day, Peter remembers that the first car he ever cleaned was a Mercedes-Benz, though not a Gullwing. That work experience both preceded and precipitated his arrival in the United States. His uncle also had a used-car lot in Miami, and after gaining some chops working for him in London, Peter booked a flight to Florida in 1984. While working for his uncle there, Peter experienced an epiphany. He was walking through downtown Miami and passed a classic-car retailer that specialized in old Mercedes-Benzes. A Gullwing held the central position of honor in the showroom. "It was right then, seeing that Gullwing, that I decided I wanted to become a classic car dealer. That's where it happened," he said.
At the time, Peter was specializing in buying and selling cars priced from $500 to $1,000: Ford Pintos, Volkswagen Rabbits, that sort of thing. First, however, he relocated to New York City, which has its own collector-car community. That was in 1988, and he took over a used-car lot in Great Neck, on Long Island, east of the city, and transformed it into a showplace for pre-owned Mercedes-Benzes, adding that "We just loved New York. It was a great place to be." By late 1989, the dealership had transformed itself into a headquarters for late-model Benzes, which became the basis for Peter's first sale of a true import classic. That, too, was a Mercedes-Benz, a 230D four-door sedan.
As Peter puts it, "I'm a little crazy. I just love classic cars. I started out with Mercedes in Great Neck and I just began buying and selling old Jaguars, Austin-Healeys, buying and selling constantly, all the way back to 1988 and through the years, working 16 and 17 hours a day. Like I said, I'm crazy, especially about the classics."
Astoria is a tightly compressed, ethnically diverse neighborhood that borders LaGuardia Airport, famous for its Greek-American population, bisected by the Grand Central Parkway in Queens. By 1991, Peter was looking for a new location to replace the Great Neck lot, which had a showroom that the business had already outgrown. "I already knew then that we didn't need a showroom, but instead, a big warehouse," Peter recalls today. "I wanted to carry 60 or 70 cars in my inventory instead of just 20 cars, which was what we were limited to by space. So we found this warehouse in Astoria and moved in. We've been here ever since."
Gullwing Motor Cars has sold, by its proprietor's estimate, at least 5,000 collectible automobiles since the big move. Its customer base includes the New York metro area, to be sure, but also encompasses the entire United States, Europe, Africa and Asia. A typical workday at Gullwing begins with Peter at his desk in the office by about 7 a.m., already looking for interesting cars in good condition to acquire. One of them that was on the crammed display floor recently was a 1970s-era Ferrari 365 GTB/4 Daytona coupe, which Peter located just a few miles from his home on Long Island. Peter went to look closely at the Ferrari, liked what he saw and grabbed it. Or more correctly, he made an offer on the car, and by the time he got back to his office in Astoria, had a telephone message accepting the deal. This kind of thing happens a lot to him, and to Gullwing. During our recent visit to the warehouse, Peter had already cut deals on four cars for his inventory, and it wasn't even 2 p.m. yet. He also bought a 1989 Porsche 911 and an E-type Jaguar OTS.
Some cars fly out of his inventory to new homes almost as quickly as they arrive, but that's the exception. Peter told us that late in 2016, he had about 30 cars that had been in his stock for a year and were still seeking the right deal. Others go quicker. The average tenure in the house for a stocked automobile generally runs about a month, he explained.
The remainder of his workday was spent on the phone, looking up owners who've offered cars to sell or are looking to buy. Peter's a common sight in the passenger terminals at New York's three major metro airports, flying to California frequently to scope out desirable vehicles or often heading back to Florida where other sellers beckon. "I can take a call at 2 o'clock and, by 5 p.m., I'm at the airport, heading someplace to look at a car," he added. At least for the moment, there's no overseas travel for shopping trips. The 50 states have more than enough offerings to keep Peter busy checking over cars to buy.
In terms of workplace challenges, one of the biggest, Peter said, is convincing a seller of his or her car's true value in the aftermarket at both the wholesale and retail levels. Gullwing Motor Cars uses no outside appraisal service; that's a task that Peter accepts as his own, gaining serious practice in the course of buying 500 to 700 cars every year. "I learned it myself, over the years in the business," he reminisced. "Going from Ford Pintos to $10 million Ferraris. It was a long journey. It comes by experience, not by reading a book. I started out selling cars for $300. I think the cheapest car I ever bought was $50. It was an Oldsmobile, a 1972 convertible, I think."
Peter is a longstanding advertiser in Hemmings Motor News and had been a lead sponsor of our annual Concours d'Elegance in Saratoga Springs, New York, for several years. As the years roll on, Peter hopes to expand locally, but emphasized that he's very happy with the present Astoria location. He's married, has three children, and bets that his 17-year-old son will follow him into the business at some point. "He's definitely a car freak, but not like me," Peter beamed. "I eat, sleep and breathe cars. I'll tell you a funny story: When my daughter was born, in 1995, I wanted to give her the name 'Gullwing.' And my wife thought I was crazy."
Which brings us back to the slightly battered, 1/18th-scale Gullwing replica. Peter says he got it in 1985, while working a second job in Miami delivering pizzas. It was the same color, silver, as the full-size one he saw, its doors majestically raised, in the classics showroom that he passed. "Same car, same color, so I bought the toy. That's when I fell in love with that car. I told myself that one day, I would be dealing with cars like this and I would call my company Gullwing Motor Cars. In 1993, I bought my first Gullwing, thanks to Hemmings Motor News, where it was advertised for $80,000. I ended up paying $100,000 for it, and I sold it. But today, I still have the toy."
This article originally appeared in the March, 2017 issue of Hemmings Sports & Exotic Car.
, Gullwing Motors
, Mercedes-Benz 300 SL
, Hemmings Motor
News, pebble beach
, Peter Kumar
, vintage cars