I spent a little time with long-time friends John and Joel Weinberger and asked them to talk, father and son, about their shared passions of racing, and the business of cars.
Long before John asked me to take over as Regional Director of the Ferrari Club in 1998, I had traded one Ferrari in for another, a very small trade. John always made me feel like my business was keeping him afloat, which was laughable, but that’s just the kind of guy he is, always making people feel that their conversation was the most important thing he could be engaged in.
(Next month in part 2, John and Joel talk about their first races, favorite tracks, and cars they want to own)
Q – SO GUYS, WHAT WERE YOUR FIRST CARS?
JOHN: I’m dating myself but it was a 1927 Whippet Essex, forerunner to the Pontiac. It developed a rod knock, I sort of fixed it, then had an emergency repair with my pants belt. Ran fine for about 5 miles until my belt broke. Fixed it again and traded the car for a wrist watch.
JOEL: A Honda Civic that I bought with my own money when I was 16. Later I couldn’t con my dad into buying me what I wanted so I saved my money and bought myself my first real sports car, a Datsun 240Z.
Q – There’s a story in there somewhere, of going from Whippets and Datsuns to Ferraris… HOW DID YOU END UP OWNING A FERRARI DEALERSHIP?
JOHN: I started as a mechanic, owning a little Triumph service business, then expanded to a Triumph sales dealership. About that time Triumph merged with MG, then merged with Jaguar, and then Toyota asked us to sell their cars, and we just sort of acquired them all.
A friend who was the Midwest Sales Rep for Porsche asked us to deal Porsche and we jumped at the chance, buying two cars.
We had all the British cars so I begged Rolls Royce, and after a decade they called and we bought a couple of Rolls Royce and we were now a dealer for them.
DAVE: John, I kind of see where you are going here…
JOHN: Nobody else was doing it, and we just kept accumulating…Fiat, Maserati, Pugeot, DeTomaso, Lancia… people thought I was crazy… until the 1973 oil embargo. I was selling all these cars with little motors and everyone else was selling gas guzzlers.
Classic Motors Would Become Continental Autosports
But things starting to go to hell in 1973 when Fiat, MG and Lancia sales collapsed because of the U.S. EPA laws and the expense of crash testing.
My friend Bill Knauz called one day. He was selling BMW and Ferrari up in Lake Forest and told me Ferrari wasn’t going to build the Daytona or Dino any longer for the same reasons. He was quitting and asked if I wanted to be the sole Ferrari franchise in Chicago, … and I said why not?
Ferrari sent out an engineer, and an engineer in Italian parlance is a mechanic. So he goes to interview Joe Marchetti first. Now Joe owned the Como Inn, dealt in used Ferraris, and was, well…Italian…so I figured I didn’t have a chance.
The next morning the Ferrari rep comes to see me. I showed him my shop, told him we didn’t sell many cars, but we love to take care of our customers. In the end, the Ferrari rep, a mechanic himself, didn’t want us to sell a lot of cars, but rather take care of Ferrari customers, and I was awarded the Chicago franchise.
Joe Marchetti didn’t talk to me for 5 years. We grew to be great friends later, but for a while I worried about waking up with a horses’ head in my living room.
Q – THEN THINGS WENT WELL?
JOHN: Honestly no, not for a while. In 1975 we only had the 308GT-4 to sell. Not a pretty car, I went out to a warehouse in Pennsylvania were Ferrari had a couple of hundred just sitting around. We bought four cars in good colors, black, silver, red, white…brought them home and sold them quickly.
Back to the warehouse for more and now we had to take some yellow and purple cars that didn’t sell and times were tough.
But next year in 1976 we got the 308GTB, and the car sold itself. I’m sure Bill Knauz would have loved to have the franchise back when that car came out, and the only sales dips we had were with the 348 and Mondial.
Business picked up again with the 355 and there hasn’t been a dog since…So I really owe my Ferrari dealership to a phone call from Bill Knauz…
To Read PART TWO of the Interview… CLICK HERE