Interview Gregory George Moore IMAGES Antonio Jaggie
There's something mythical about Classic Car Club Manhattan for car and motorcycle enthusiasts. You've heard stories about it, and have likely seen what they're up to on social media, but it's not quite real until you've experienced it in person.
Co-founder Michael Prichinello quotes Henry Ford, who said, "When we built the Model T, we didn't drag out all the horses and shoot them," to reinforce their belief that cars — and the experience of driving them — are not going anywhere despite the breakneck pace of technological advancement. And Classic Car Club Manhattan is betting on it.
Residing on the Hudson River between Greenwich Village and Hell's Kitchen is a 10,000-square-foot, picturesque spot on Pier 76. Anyone with even a shred of appreciation for the artistry, engineering, and design that goes into an automobile will be awestruck by what Classic Car Club has created. The original idea focused mainly on classic autos but has evolved to encompass modern supercars, vintage motorcycles, culinary arts, events, travel, racing, and more. The club embodies an ethos of shared experiences through the automobile and the freedom it enables. There's always something worth experiencing happening there — good conversation, interesting people, or simply eating a fine meal while sitting next to a McLaren.
We've been fortunate enough to get to know the people behind Classic Car Club Manhattan, so we were excited to sit down with co-founder Michael Prichinello to learn the history behind this automotive hallowed ground.
How did Classic Car Club Manhattan begin, and how is it connected to Classic Car Club London? I've been fortunate to visit both, and they're very different from each other.
The Car Club was started in 1995 in London by Phil Kavanagh, with his brother Dave. Their father started a construction firm in London, and Dave and Phil wound up working there and improving it and making it a success. They wanted to reward themselves for a few years of work really well done. They had found this ... I think it was a '63 E-Type Jag. That whole story evolved into them buying a fleet of cars and making them look like extraordinary cars for ordinary people.
They started with 17 cars and a place in London where there were guys doing crack in the back alley. The room looked open so they disconnected the batteries and opened all the doors, and it just became this legend. Classic Car Club London still operates a lot more like the original inception of the idea. They have a club room and stuff now, but it is very much like motoring for classic cars. In New York, we've taken that model and evolved it quite a bit; we've included supercars.
But the real evolution in New York, I think, is the community. I don't want to say we stumbled into it, but I don't know if at first glance we knew how big the community version of it would be. But down on Hudson Street, we just said, "Well, we'll just leave the doors open 24 hours a day, or at least give them 24-hour access with a card." But we had a small little lounge area and a bar that was free. Then we just started doing these happy hours on Thursdays; we'd have 300 people show up to happy hour. It was fun. New York and London and big cities are generally like, "This restaurant caters to this person and this type of person." Then you come to the Car Club and it's just people who love cars and they're all very different, and it makes for an interesting conversation.
There's a fraternal nature to the club, because these days, we produce literally 300 events a year. That can be anything from a really nice whiskey tasting at the Car Club to an exclusive dinner, to a rally through Europe, to racing on our motorcycle team, our cycling team, or our automotive team. There's a lot of camaraderie around it. That's really been the big difference. In London, we've just kept it very original to what it was. As a member, you can use cars in either location.
How do you pick the cars that you want to be in the Car Club?
Zac and I put all of our money in and we got some funding. We had all this money to go buy cars — which is the greatest job ever, especially before you're jaded. We were like, "Well, what do we get?" There were many options, and you have to think, what do people want to drive? What are things that are a total mystery to them — that they didn't even know about — that are cool? What's going to survive? What's going to be mechanically sound?
We wound up just making a list of all the cars that we had posters of on our walls as kids, and those are all the first cars that we bought, which was really fun. Then we added a few modern ones: the STI was one. We had a modern M3 in the first fleet. We had an Aston Martin V8 Vantage, which was gorgeous. It was a terrible car. It would go out and members would come back and say, "Wow, it's amazing!" We're like, "Yes, it is amazing," and then we'd put it on the lift, take it apart, and put it back together, because that's what it required.
We had a 308 Ferrari. We had an '82 Rolls Corniche II convertible, a '65 Mustang, a mix of all that stuff. Then maybe two years later, we added all the supercars to the fleet as well. We did some counting not too long ago and I think that we've owned more than 380 cars over the years. A few days ago, we took delivery of the new Corvette C8. I didn't get to drive it yet; Phil drove it and says it's a real bit of kit. This week, we take delivery of our new Ferrari F8 Tributo. We just got an email this morning that our Taycan is in. I'd think it's a time when people wouldn't be buying $350,000 cars, but this is what we do for a living. You've got to keep on doing it.
The Porsche Taycan sounds like an insane car. Speaking of electric vehicles, what are your thoughts on them?
At the Car Club, we're doing a project just because the perception of electric cars isn't always so great. We've had electric cars in the fleet: Teslas, and a lot of electric hybrid cars. We have the NSX and McLarens and all that, but we bought a really beautiful, perfect condition 1984 Z28 Camaro. We're in the process of rebuilding it as if 1984 was 2020. So we're going to remodel the body a little bit, but we're also making it mid-motor electric. It'll be about 700 horsepower.
Okay, so y'all are building cars as well. What projects are you working on beyond the electric mid-motor Camaro?
We always have a project brewing. This is where Zac shines, and we've built a number of BMW 2002s with E30 M3 drivetrains, BILSTEIN suspension all around, and fender flares. We've built a number of ’60s Broncos, and we do a new five-liter conversion on them. Most of our cars that are old — especially the American muscle sort of stuff — they're not as good as people remember them.
We try to put technology where it could make the ride better, but not make it something different. We try to make it what people thought it was, or how people remember it. I watched this interview with Gene Simmons from Kiss a while ago; he was talking about when they did their reunion tour. He said, "We had to do this elaborate pyrotechnics show and everything, because that's what people remembered from our tours from the ’70s. But we never had a pyrotechnics show in the ’70s." Over the years, they've built them up in their head, and it's the same with cars. Members will say stuff like, "My uncle had that car — it was so fast." It was actually terrible, but we'll do a tighter geometry steering box; it's lots of that kind of subtle stuff to make them feel better.
We have this really beautiful 1963 convertible Stingray. If you drove it in its original state, it's really agricultural, like a tractor. We did a new LT conversion to it, but we put in really big Hooker headers, a big cam so it has the loopiness that you remember, a massive aluminum racing radiator, which stays cool. We took out that really heavy leaf spring and put in a carbon fiber one. It probably has 200 more horsepower than it originally did, but it's reliable. You don't have to constantly correct the steering wheel to go straight down the road, and you would never know those things are there; they're just in the background, cleaning up the experience. All of the good parts of a '63 Corvette survive, and the things that make it just terrible are eliminated.
What is your background and how did you become a partner in the Car Club?
I've always loved cars. When I was seven, my parents and my sister and I flew to San Francisco and spent three weeks and drove the PCH all the way down to Mexico. We happened to be there during the Concours d'Elegance, just coincidentally. We stopped in Carmel. This is before Google and the internet, and before Lamborghini made 3,000 cars a year — back when they made 200 a year and they were terrible, but beautiful.
We pulled into town and we were in a Buick Regal or a Cutlass rental car — it was, like, silver with a red velvet interior. We were the only crap car on the block. Everything was an Italian supercar. They obviously had an event going on, and it blew my mind. My synapses were fried. From there I've just always been into cars, and when I turned 16, my parents sent me to Skip Barber Racing School for two days. I guess they could see I kind of liked all that.
I wound up as a marketing/branding guy. I ran a firm that did all the PR for a lot of the big internet companies at the time. I was friends with a guy named Simon Williams, who owned a company called Sterling Brands, which is the biggest independent branding firm in the world. He said, "I want to introduce you to this guy named Phil. He runs this Car Club in London, and he wants to do it in New York, and he's looking for someone — a marketing guy — to help see the idea through and figure it out and understand the market." I thought, "Yeah, I'll meet that guy." I had dinner with Phil and he was just trying to find some people to invest or learn the market a little bit and I was like, "I'll give you all the money that I have. If I help somebody else do this, I'm going to be really disappointed."
Zac was a lighting designer for architecture. So Zac was young and flying around the world and designing the lighting capacities for every Jean-Georges restaurant, museums, and airports. He was in London working with an architect for a museum on another continent, I can't remember where. On the way home — being a car geek — he's just looking for anything that was auto-themed on the in-flight entertainment system. Virgin happened to have a documentary on the Car Club in London.
When he landed in New York, he called the London club and he's like, "I want to do this in New York." He got Nigel, who said, "Well, Phil's in New York looking for someone to do it." He connected them and they met. The story is that when I met Phil, I had my Moleskine book and the pages had no lines; Zac had the same book, but he had the grid paper version. This is very much exemplary of our two different styles. Phil was just like, "These two guys both have some sort of ability that's interesting — what happens if I put them together?"
I had a coffee or something with Zac and just got on with him and then we cracked it out. We incorporated the company in 2004, signed the lease on that first space on Christmas Eve, and we were opened by April. The first car to go out was a 1984 Diamond Edition 911. We sent it out and our door wasn't even built yet — we had to knock a hole in the building and the door was just plywood, just wide enough to fit a car. We watched it go down the street and were like, "I hope it's going to come back!" Now we send out hundreds of cars a week.
What's the future of Classic Car Club? What do you envision?
We're working on launching a club in LA, which is slow because we can't really get on planes, but we're still moving forward on it. We're working on the design of that right now. We're working on buying a large property in upstate New York as well. We're looking at 20 to 30 acres and building a whole destination. We'll build a motel there for members and others. We're trying to give as many people as possible an authentic Classic Car Club experience. We'll have enduro tracks and enduro trails. It will be next to a race track, so it'd be a place where you can just come in and drive a beautiful car on great roads up there or drive on a track if you want.
We started as a private club so people could drive cars. We're limited geographically. We're in New York; you're not going to be a member if you live in Miami or LA or Ohio or Oklahoma. And there are more cost-effective pursuits than driving Ferraris. But we think the club is fairly priced. We've built a brand that people want to be a part of, and it's not so exclusive that only a few people can experience it. We're really welcoming to anybody who has interests like we do. You want to go ride a GS through Europe or you want to race on a racetrack or any of that? We would love to have you.
The goal is to give more people Car Club experiences; ultimately our thing is to revitalize the Americana car culture that's gone a little bit. What if we bought up the old hamburger drive-ins around America that are failing because they don't have the funding anymore, and celebrate what they did with a bit of Classic Car Club design and focus on detail? I think about things like that. I'd like to have more motels where the rooms come with the car, and the cars are adapted to the region that they're in. Maybe out West we'd have big muscle cars for the straight roads, or in Italy, something different, because the roads are different.
It all just comes down to the love of driving, and how do you allow more people to have an exceptional automotive experience that they couldn't have on their own? Money will get you a lot of things, but there's something different about the events and the rallies that we produce, because it's not about the money. It's about the experience and the love of driving. I'm not trying to do something that we replicate every year just to make money. Let's go race Baja — what is that like? We want to create experiences.