By Pete M. Anderson
Photos by Mike Belleme
Details matter in classic-car collecting. Take the 1971 Plymouth Hemi ’Cuda in Charlotte-based RK Motors LLC’s showroom. The most-optioned one known to exist, its 2,010 miles were driven by one owner, Winston-Salem-based R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co. heir Zach “Dr. Zacho” Reynolds. “It actually still has his cigarette butts in the ashtray,” says James Helms, marketing director for the classic- and custom-car dealer. Even its oil hasn’t been changed since leaving the lot. The only thing not original is its price: $1.18 million.
The ’Cuda is one of about 200 vehicles inside RK’s 60,000-square-foot climate-controlled showroom off Interstate 77. Parked on polished floors, the glistening cars represent different eras, manufacturers and amounts of customization. “We mainly deal with classic American muscle, but we’ll get European stuff in occasionally,” Helms says. “It depends on what we find.” That draws buyers from as far as Japan and the Middle East, though about 85% of cars go to U.S. buyers. While their addresses are international, motives are universal. Acquisitions manager Tony Klein says buyers are often reminiscing about a car their parents or grandparents owned or are seeking rare cars as collectibles.
RK Motors opened in 2010 as a way for its chairman and CEO, Rob Kauffman, to support his own collection of classic cars. “I had acquired a few cars and motorcycles that were spread all over the place, so I consolidated them into one place, here in Charlotte,” Kauffman says. His first “great car” was a Ferrari F40. “And the 1966 Ford GT40, which is a 24 Hours of Le Mans winner, is a very special car to me as well.” But his love of cars started earlier. “My mom says that my first word was ‘Mom,’ my second word was ‘car’ and ‘Dad’ was the third,” he says. “So I always seemed to like cars. I was a mechanic when I was younger, and I’ve stayed interested in cars ever since.”
Kauffman co-founded New York-based Fortress Investment Group LLC in 1998 and spent a decade-and-a-half at the private-equity and hedge-fund company before cashing out for $180 million in 2012. A resident of Charlotte, he’s been involved in NASCAR ownership for many years, is co-owner of Pittsburgh-based Chip Ganassi Racing and leads Race Team Alliance, 14 teams that organized in 2014.
RK employs 22 workers and holds monthly public car shows, though test drives require a financial commitment. It was named a Top U.S. Gearhead Destination by CollectorsCarWorld magazine last year. Klein says one car is sold each day, on average, but he doesn’t disclose the company’s annual sales. Its biggest sale was a $10.3 million red and black 1966 Ferrari 275 GTB/C.RK’s inventory includes the untouched $1.1 million 1964½ Ford Mustang Indy 500 pace car with parts from Charlotte-based racing equipment supplier Holman and Moody Inc. and former NASCAR owner and crew chief Ray Evernham’s highly modified 1964 Plymouth Belvedere, which is all race car and priced at $239,900. Helms says most cars are sold as is. “We go through the car and make sure everything is operating properly and it’s ready to go. If it’s a car that’s almost completely original, we tell [the owner] the little things they need to change to make it exactly right.”
Those inspections, repairs and modifications requested by buyers, such as adding air conditioning, are done in RK’s 20,000-square-foot shop’s outer bay. Its mechanics also custom build and restore cars for customers. Those are done deeper in the shop, where the bones of a 1960 Chevrolet Impala sat on stands this summer. Its owner bought it on eBay and drove it to the shop. Disassembly uncovered plenty of work. “The whole floor was gone,” says Darell Johnston, RK’s paint and fabricator manager. “It was past Flintstone.”
Restorations are defined by the customer’s budget and patience, which can be stretched more than a year. The Impala, which will sport modern running gear, is a restoration-modification. The 1963 split-window Chevrolet Corvette parked nearby was just beginning a concours restoration, which derives its names from the Concours d’Elegance car show where vehicles must often surpass mint condition. Rebuilt in the 1980s, the car already is a National Corvette Restoration Society award winner. “We had to take pictures of everything before it was taken apart,” says Helms, who grew up attending car shows with his parents. “And we have pictures of the car before it was taken apart the first time. The closer you can get to exactly what it was, the more value you’ll have, especially if it is a rare car.”
Parts for American-made cars are easier to source than those for foreign makes and the oldest cars. Some are made on-site. The Impala’s new body panels, for example, will be hand crafted by Johnston. Other work is outsourced. Suspensions are usually done by Mooresville-based Detroit Speed Inc. “At the end of the day, we want the best product for the customer,” Helms says.
Anyone can view RK Motors’ inventory at its monthly public show. Test drives are limited to serious buyers, some of whom will spend more than $1 million on a vehicle. Photo by Mike Belleme
RK Motors’ 60,000-square-foot Charlotte showroom is filled with automotive history. Most are born in Detroit, but the dealer does dabble in foreign makes. Photo by Mike Belleme
Rarity drives a car’s price and desirability. This one-of-a-kind Ford Mustang paced the 1964 Indy 500 and features parts from Charlotte-based Holman and Moody Inc. Photo by Mike Belleme
RK Motors attracts buyers from the U.S. and overseas, but acquisitions manager Tony Klein says motives are the same, ranging from good memories to wanting the most collectible car. Photo by Mike Belleme
RK Motors inspects every car it sells, letting buyers know what work could add value to their purchase. Other work, such as installing air conditioning, is done by certified mechanics at the buyer’s request. Photo by Mike Belleme
It’s hard to find a muscle car more original than this 1971 Plymouth Hemi ’Cuda, whose sole owner was R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co. heir Zach Reynolds. Photo by RK Motors/James Helms
RK Motors sells cars ranging from “as is” to completely custom. This 1960 Chevrolet Impala falls in between. Some of its body will be retained, some parts will be re-created and modern running gear will be added underneath. Photo by Mike Belleme
RK Motors uses an in-house studio to take hundreds of detailed photos and videos of each car. Some customers use only them as the basis for their buying decisions. Photo by Mike Belleme