Cooper Classics’ Elliot Cuker On The Long Road Leading To Selling Iconic Cars
Photography by Cooper Naitove
As a part of the new Petrolicious Marketplace, we’ll be interviewing sellers, dealers, and collectors to give you an inside look at some of the key figures in the industry and introduce you to the people behind cars you’ll see listed on Petrolicious. We’ll also be discussing the classic car market, potential investments, and current trends.
During my last trip to New York, I met with Elliot Cuker of Cooper Classic Cars. Selected as an Avante/Garde Leader, Elliot’s been by far one of the most multi-functionary and curious figures I’ve met to date. His career spans from acting and films to politics and cigars, the undertone of which has always been cars. We had the following chat so I could try to make sense of it all.
STEVE MARTIN, A ROLLS ROYCE, AND A BRITISH NAME
Shayan Bokaie: So Elliot, let’s start with the cars. How’d this all start?
Elliot Cuker: What’s interesting is, I was never a car guy – I’ll come back to that. However, I’ll tell you about the first car I ever bought. I was in high school and I had a little Vespa and one day I was riding along and passed a used car lot where I saw this Nash Rambler, I guess it was called. It was a tiny little car and I fell in love with it. I was only 16 but the salesman took my Vespa on trade plus fifty bucks and I drove the Nash home.
I parked it in the driveway of our house back in Brookline, Massachusetts. My father looked out and said somebody put the wrong car in our driveway. I said “no Dad, I just bought that.” He looked at me, walked outside, asked me where I got it and demanded that I return it immediately. I took it back but the salesmen didn’t want to take it back. When I bought it I lied to him about my age, I think I told him I was 18 or whatever the legal age was to buy a car. Ie said “if yon’t give it back to me, I’m going to have to tell the police that my real age is 16 and you had no right selling it to me.” Anyway, he gave me the Vespa back to me and that was the first car I sort of ever bought.
But I wasn’t really into cars, my first love was theatre. I was involved in the theatre, went to acting school at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts. That was my main interest.
SB: Cars and acting have intersected in your career, can you tell us about it?
EC: I was in a major film, directed and written by David Mamet, called Spanish Prisoner. I was still involved in the theatre, however I already started my car company at the time so I was multi-tasking. Steve Martin was staring in the movie and it was one of his first serious roles where he played a con artist. Steve’s character comes to my showroom and I’m trying to sell him an Aston Martin Lagonda. David Mamet and I wrote the scene two hours before we filmed it right here in my office here at Cooper Classics. I think I also did Law & Order once, where I was selling a car amongst other things. I guess that came naturally.
SB: How did Cooper Classic Cars come to be?
EC: I was primarily involved in theatre. I had a very uncomfortable experience in a play during the opening night of a play with the Negro Ensemble Company. I was the first white actor invited to participate and I was playing the token white guy. Douglas Turner Ward, the actor in the play, was pointing a gun to my head and had a 20 minute monologue accusing me of every horrible thing done to African Americans and since I was a method actor, I took him seriously and my body collapsed from an anxiety attack. It was such a difficult moment for me, it felt like I died on stage. So I started thinking it was time to look for something else, but what am I going to do?
At the time I had a Rolls Royce, regal red on cream, and I was probably the only actor with a Rolls Royce going to the unemployment office an-
SB: Hold on, you had a Rolls Royce, as a struggling actor?! Please explain.
EC: Thats another great story. So here I am, a struggling actor, walking home in The Village and on the corner of Christopher and Bleecker, there’s this Rolls Royce parked in front of this shop. In the back seat, there’s this guy sitting there and wondered what the hell he’s doing. After about five months, I see the same guy is the back seat of a different Rolls Royce. Finally I stick my head in and say, “Excuse me, what’s with these Rolls Royces?” I get to meet him, and he introduces himself as John Van Means III. He invites me in to talk and we become good friends and I realized very quickly, that’s how he would pick up girls – the car was like a fly trap. One day John said to me “Elliot, I’ve got to leave town right away and get out of the country, do you want to buy my car?” Why, I don’t know, but I ended up spending every penny I had to my name, $6,000, to buy the car and didn’t have enough to insure it.
SB: Not something that happens everyday, so I’m assuming this car was start of Cooper Classics?
EC: Sort of – I decided I would clean it up and put an ad in the Village Voice saying, “Personable Young Man With Rolls Royce for hire – $20 an hour.” I thought, well since I have a British car, and I don’t want people to know that I was going into business because that was the worst thing you could do being a serious actor so I decided to call myself Cooper, which sounded British. When someone would call on the phone, and I would answer (British accent) ” Hello, Cooper here – yes, we have a beautiful Rolls Royce for you and you chauffeurs name is Elliot. If you like him, your welcome to give him a nice gratuity.”
My first job as the chauffeur was taking two guys wanted to go to see Bet Midler. I told them I needed three hours in advance which is $60. They said “Why the advance?” I said, “Look I just drive, call Cooper. Those are my orders, my instructions.” So I was both Elliot and Cooper (chuckles).
I made $80 with their tip for 20 minutes of work and thought to myself “hey, this is a great business.”
So I started renting my car out and myself as chauffeur and they within two and half years, I had eight Rolls Royces. I would have my fellow actors drive the cars when I was on stage but my business started to grow. Next thing you know, you’re hiring mechanics working in restoration and then sales. With the revenue I bought the building right here on Perry Street. Cooper Classics started from Cooper Rolls Royce Limousine Service – the first major Rolls Royce limousine services in the US.
SB: Sounds like your appreciation for beautiful cars was also growing.
EC: Beautiful things – I have such a connection to beautiful things. I adore beauty, whether it’s cars, paintings, architecture, beautiful women, beautiful meals. Maybe it’s because my background as Holocaust survivor and being brought up during horrific times. I think the balance to that is the sensitivity to making life beautiful. And thats how I got attracted to cars, I just love the way they were put together and their aesthetic quality.
I started to not only love the beauty of these cars, I really appreciate the way how they’re put together and especially the history. I think whats wonderful about these cars, and I really coined the phrase “Rolling Sculptures” years ago before it became a cliche. Not only are they just beautiful sculptures, but they define history and give us the sense what the world was like when they were built. You really look at a car closely, imagine why it was put together that way and get a sense of what the world was like.
NEW YORK, NEW YORK
SB: Lets talk about the backdrop of all of this. New York seemed to have everything you were looking for. Any car stories to share from the early days?
EC: Sure, I was one of the first members of the Improvisation comedy club. I used to hangout there and the pianist was a guy named Charlie Smalls. One day I’m driving my Bentley down the street and I hear Charlie yelling after me saying, “Yo Elliot – I want to buy your Bentley, I’ve always loved that car.”
At the time, he was wrote the hit Broadway show ‘The Wiz” and had money for the first time and wanted to buy the car right then and there so we went to his apartment. He took out a bottle of cognac and at the time cocaine was big and started doing some coke and he said “Have some Elliot.” I said, “No, no, no, I don’t do drugs, don’t worry about me.”
I sold him the car for $13,000. He actually wrote a song about the color of the car called “Sand Over Sable” for a film that I wrote. The character was hard on the outside and soft on the inside – just like the car.
SB: Sounds like much different times! Since then, you’ve grown into someone who is pretty well recognized and respected in the in the city. The New York Observer described you as one of 43 citizens who define New York. How did you become such a personality around selling cars?
EC: Even though I was selling cars, I always considered myself an artist. I was part of the film underground and met all the artists, guys like Andy Warhol, Julian Schnabel, Lou Reed, Carl Appel. It wasn’t that I was just involved with business, I was also involved with a lot of people who were apart of the very special scene at places like Studio 54. I’ve always been apart of so much of this city.
SB: This rolled into politics eventually as well, correct? You were also described as ‘the most exotic and mysterious creature in the mayors circle.’
EC: Well when I first started my company I didn’t really know the proper way of running it and a couple of accounting situations came up. I ended up hiring Rudy Giuliani as my attorney to help me out. I got to know him, we became very close. Rudy was uncomfortable as a public speaker and since I had a key to the actor studio I brought him there to work with him late at night on speaking. When his friends wanted him to run for Senator, I disagreed – I thought the best thing was for him to run for Mayor instead.
I helped him out with all of his speeches, he even credits me in his book, Leadership, for doing that. When he was elected I became co-chairman for the Film and Theatre Advisory Board with Jane Rosenthal – who started the Tribeca Film Festival with Robert De Niro.
I did a lot to help Rudy soften his image – Since I was the writer and director of The Inner Circle Shows I would pick and redirect a Broadway show and find a role for Rudy that was suitable and make him more likable to the public. I even got him to dress up in drag during a show called Victor Victoria with Julie Andrews as well as on Saturday Night Live.
SB: Let’s touch briefly on cigars, I know that’s another passion of yours.
EC: I owned a very special cigar bar called Cooper Classic Cars and Cigars. It was a very beautiful place – beige leather ceilings, velvet furniture, and most importantly I had sports cars parked between everything. You’d be enjoying a cigar and next to you is a Jaguar E-Type or Austin Healey.
You have to get behind the mentality of it – what is a cigar? Its all about sensuality – just a different form of sensuality. You can’t just enjoy sensuality just from sex, it’d get boring. You look for it in different areas. It’s the same feeling you get when experiencing a beautiful classic car or riding a motorcycle. We’re not on this planet just to work hard, it’s got to be worth it somehow. Your body, your spirt has to absorb a sensuality to make everything worth it – you gotta feel good or else, whats the sense of it all? I believe the more you can enjoy aspects of life, the better you do, the more life becomes meaningful, the better you do economically. They both work hand in hand.
SB: You’ve been in this business for 4 decades. Share some lessons learned with us.
EC: When I first started off, my whole philosophy was how to go from point A to B. How to win, because of my background as a survivor. But I began to realize that in order to truly succeed, what I mean by succeed is an inner satisfaction where you feel good about yourself – it’s all about ethics. You want to make sure your client get something great, you want to make them happy. It’s a commitment, it’s a relationship. You have to be proud of what your selling them and truthful because you pay a price for any falsehood, you pay a price.
SB: Where do you see the market going from here?
EC: Let’s talk about pricing. How do you set a price to a car? Is it really determined by auction prices? No, not necessarily. If I bought a car for a $100,000, I wouldn’t necessarily look around to see what others were selling it for to determine mark up. I would put a price on it, and people thought I was insane. In 1989, I was looking at E-Types being sold for $8-$12,000. And I thought this was insane, this is such an incredibly beautiful car, there’s no reason in the world it should be that cheap so I started buying them up and was selling them for $85,000 after some restoration. I felt with other cars too and helped the market for the Mercedes 190 SL, 280SL, and 280 SE Convertible.
So it’s peculiar why cars reach certain prices – yes auction set certain prices, but even they’re defined by what happens in the marketplace before the auction as well. Then a few guys have a pissing war, one guy spends $50,000 more on the car because he’s got to have it and that starts affecting other prices.
Prices have definitely softened in the last year, however, I think the market is definitely coming back especially with the prediction of inflation this year. Then again, if you do have something very special and unique, it does stand in a class by itself and someone will pay for it. For example, I just purchased an original, 13,000 mile, totally virgin 1972 Ferrari Dino that I’m still not sure what the asking price will be. This is a perfect case where the price will be not be determined by the market, but the value that I will put on it.
SB: What’s an emerging car you’d consider to be a solid investment on a modest budget?
EC: A couple years ago I felt the Mercedes 560SL would become a classic. A couple of years ago, I started buying them up, I only get the best, low mileage cars, and getting good money for them. At that time, I sold one with 250 miles to the King of Morocco for $125,000.
SB: Elliot, you’re a man who lives philosophically. Leave us with a dash of wisdom.
EC: I center on the word beauty. Having these cars for the right reason is an extension of celebrating a life lived well with the right priorities. It’s not something to be looked at as bourgeoisie or something over the top.
It’s all apart of the journey, no matter which stage of personal development you’re on, part of that development is enriching your life with beautiful things and moments – cars, art, love, family – whatever it is, it’s all in that same circle. That is what prevents these things from being a purely detached luxury and make them a wonderful complement. I do Transcendental Meditation®, and having that moment of relaxed awareness and having a moment of driving your car, believe it or not, they’re not that far removed from each other. It’s just a question of where you’re sitting on your couch or in your XKE.