By Adam Yamada-Hanff
A new TV show on Discovery channel, Chrome Underground, follows the exploits of Yusuf Johnson and Antonio Brunet who buy and sell rare and collector cars. To find good deals and “diamonds in the rough” these two friends travel to foreign countries to get the classic cars they know will make big bucks. Sometimes getting them back to the United States can prove to not only be tricky but dangerous. They have help by the way of an ex-marine Andrew McLaren who does his best to keep everyone out of harm's way and the cars safe. Once Yusuf and Antonio bring get a car back to Austin, Texas and their shop, Motoreum, they try to sell the cars for a nice profit.
Adam – How did both of you meet and decide to start a business selling classic and collector cars together? Was it something you always dreamed about? Were both of you always in the auto business in some capacity?
Antonio Brunet – We both met in college during a semester abroad, we hit it off and recognized our mutual interest in business. As soon as we returned from that semester abroad we purchased our first collector car together for resale. Cars have always been my passion…it seems like I have gasoline running thru my veins! I have been involved in flipping and restoring classic cars since high school, paid my way thru college by buying and selling cars and established our business soon after graduation.
Adam – Cool. For readers that haven't seen Chrome Underground, can you explain what the show is about?
Yusuf Johnson – It’s an exciting blend of travel adventures with an immersion into the worldwide collector car culture. Antonio and I have been traveling abroad searching for cars for over a decade now. When you mix classic cars (which are often unpredictable) and traveling abroad (puts you out of your normal element) it makes for some incredible stories and scenarios.
Adam – Definitely, I enjoy watching the show. Why do you go to Central and Latin American countries? Are there really no good “barn finds” and diamonds in the rough in America anymore?
Antonio – There are definitely great cars in America. We go abroad searching for off the grid or not easily accessible cars to gain a competitive advantage (there are not as many international car hunters) and to take advantage of monetary exchange rates (the value of the dollar can often make international purchases less expensive). Plus we are adventure seekers and will use any excuse to travel the world.
Adam – That makes sense and I imagine not many people in the biz want to travel to foreign countries. When you guys find cars that need restoration work, are you good at estimating the costs to repair? Or does the budget usually always go overboard?
Yusuf– We have over a decade of experience that helps greatly in estimating a budget to restore a car. But that experience was expensive and hard to acquire since restoration can easily double whatever amount you originally anticipated spending.
Adam – What was your first car? Can you share a fond memory of it?
Antonio – My first car was a 1972 Opel GT which I purchased for $1,500 and restored while in high school in Texas. After graduation I decided to go to college in Virginia so I listed the car for sale on the internet. This is back when EBAY was only a few months old. I ended up selling it to a rock singer out of Canada who paid me $6,000 plus $1,000 to deliver it so I drove my Red Opel GT all the way to Detroit. The profits paid for all my moving expenses and my 1st semester of college. A great memory was driving to a hockey tournament from North Texas to Oklahoma City with 3 friends in the 2 seater Opel GT with 4 hockey bags. I was 17 years old then.
Adam – Thanks for sharing and that's a pretty great sale. What's been the most challenging aspects of running a classic car business?
Yusuf – Selling them! We really love the cars, and would prefer to keep them all if we could. One of the more challenging aspects of the business is managing customers’ expectations about the condition of the cars. They are not like new cars, and will invariably need some type of work. Collector cars are old and their parts naturally wear down over time.
Adam – What's the hardest aspect of buying and auctioning the cars?
Antonio – Transporting the cars both abroad and domestically is always a challenge. But the hardest part about of our business is again educating customers and buyers that part of the reality of owning a classic car is that it will require mechanical repairs and maintenance.
Adam – Do you find it hard to sell and part with some cars both of you take such time, effort, and money to acquire? Do you fell personally attached to some cars?
Yusuf – Like I said earlier, if we had the financial ability we would not sell a single one. We usually just buy cars that we would personally like to own for two main reasons. If it takes longer to sell it doesn't upset us because we get to play with it longer, plus it gives our business a very eclectic selection of cars since we love anything from a steamer to an exotic and everything in between.
Adam – I probably would try to keep all the cars too! 🙂 What cars and vehicles do both of you currently have in your garage? By that I mean you personally own and drive on a daily or occasional basis?
Antonio – My favorite car, which started my collector car dreams and my hunting adventures, is a 1963 Split Window Corvette. I drive it almost every day weather permitting.
Adam – Those Corvettes are nice! How did Chrome Underground become a TV show? Did Discovery Channel scout you guys out or did you approach them? Tell us the whole process.
Antonio – We were approached by Discovery through a production company that was searching for people who traveled and did business internationally. The production company asked around in the industry and at classic car auctions for people that traded cars across borders. As far as we know we are one of the very few, if not the only, established collector car business that travels to Central and South America searching for cars, so it didn’t take long before they found us.
Adam – What advice would you have for someone that wants to get into the collector car business? What skills should you have? What skills should you learn?
Yusuf – Simply be enthusiastic and learn to love maintaining and repairing your investment. Consult with a trusted professional before you decide to buy a collector car. The great thing is that there are diverse ways to enter the collector car culture, from a $2,000 car to a $2 million dollar car, with different benefits and challenges at every level.
Adam – What advice do have for making money flipping and selling cars? Not necessarily even collectors cars but Hondas, Toyotas, Mazdas, etc.
Antonio – Honesty it will always pay off to be upfront and honest about anything that you know about a car. The great thing about collector cars is that they all have a value, even the ones that are just for parts. And furthermore, there is always a buyer at the right price regardless of whether it’s a trailer queen or a rust bucket. The endless imaginations and desires of car enthusiasts create a market for cars of all types and conditions.
Adam – Alright, thanks for sharing that advice From what I can tell both of you focus on buying the right car instead of selling it, is this an accurate assessment? Also you rely on friends to help you find good cars. Is this important even for selling regular cars?
Yusuf – We have built a business that focuses on two simple things: finding the rarest and the finest. We base our purchases on our own taste and what we believe will be a good tangible investment. Enthusiasts should always buy what they like and what they believe in, much like investing in a company through the stock market. Getting leads from people you know and trust is always a plus.
Adam – How much money to you guys usually spend traveling and transporting a car back to the US? Does it vary depending on the car or do you set a budget?
Antonio – It’s impossible to nail down a specific figure. It all depends on the car, the location, the condition, etc. That is a great reason why our stories are interesting and compelling: there are no two deals that are the same.
Adam – When you buy collector cars on the show it seems you want to get back double what you paid for it, right?
Antonio– Anybody would love to get back double what is paid, but that is rarely the case. The part that is difficult to understand is that transportation and taxes are a huge part of importing and exporting cars, which is a cost that is not displayed on the show. And we are an established business with 12 employees back here in Austin, so like most brick and mortar businesses we have a sizeable overhead. We try to make the best business transactions that we can. But as long as we can make a profit and we feed our addiction of cars and adventure, we are happy campers.
Awesome, thanks so much for taking the time to do an interview and I wish the best of luck to both of you with Chrome Underground and Motoreum.
END OF INTERVIEW
To catch Chrome Underground on TV you can tune in on Friday nights at 10pm.
If you want to see what people think about the show you can see Twitter's Reaction to Chrome Underground.