Interview with Yusuf Johnson & Antonio Brunet from Chrome Underground

chrome underground

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.

Twitter’s Reaction to Chrome Underground & the Motoreum Crew

On Friday a new TV show called Chrome Underground premiered on Discovery Channel.  The show follows two guys who own a business selling classic cars called Motoreum in Austin, Texas.  The owners, Yusuf Johnson and Antonio Brunet, travel to foreign countries to buy collector cars to bring them back to the US to sell.  Finding decent prices in the states on rare cars is too tough nowadays.

We have our own thoughts about Chrome Underground but I'm always interested to see what the Twitter reaction is to a new TV show.  Here are some of what people were saying on Friday when Chrome Underground had it's debut and yesterday.  People shared what they thought of the Motoreum Crew and the show in general.  I'm posting the good and the bad Tweets to give you mixed reaction.

Postive Tweets

Some people in the Twittersphere liked the show and thought it was fun to watch. They seemed generally quite engaged with what was happening in the show.

Chrome Underground – Entertaining and Fun for Gearheads

chrome underground

 

If you love cars, Discovery Channel has another show premiering tomorrow night that you might like called Chrome Underground.  Clearly there is still a big demand for automotive television and producers are keen to capitalize on this.

Since Discovery Channel thought my review of Rod N Wheels was pretty awesome, they sent me an advanced copy of the first episode of Chrome Underground that will debut tomorrow.  This means a bitchin review of the show for all of you.

What's Chrome Underground About?

The show follows two guys who run a collector and classic car business named Yusuf Johnson and Antonio Brunet.  Their shop is called Motoreum and it's located in Austin, Texas.  Basically both of these guys used to source collector cars from the US to sell, restore, or auction and did well at it for many years.  Since rare and collector cars are harder to find in the states nowadays they travel to foreign countries to buy and then bring back cars to sell here.

The show follows both of these car nuts along as they travel the world acquiring valuable cars.  They mainly go to Latin and South American countries and sometimes put themselves in danger, at least the audience believes this, to get diamonds in the rough vehicles in good-great condition.  Since it is an $8 billion dollar a year industry there is a lot of money you can make and a lot at stake.  Yusuf and Antonio try to achieve 4 or 5 figure sales each time they do a deal.  (This is at least what we are supposed to believe.)

They bring along an ex-Marine, Andrew Mclaren, who protects them from some dangerous situations.  In addition Andrew comes up with plans to keep the cars along with everyone safe while in these foreign countries utilizing his military skills and background.

Mmm… Mclaren?  Good name for a guy that hunts for cars.  Don't you think? 🙂

You can read the press release I posted on CarNewsCafe.

Yusuf Johnson? Antonio Brunet? … Who are these Guys?

Glad you asked since I have bios that will help explain who they are and how they got into the flipping cars for a living.

Yusuf Johnson

Raised in Tucson, AZ, Yusuf is an entrepreneur that initially focused his efforts in real estate, traveling the world while he worked, living in Europe, Asia and Latin America, as well as in Alaska where he became a licensed private pilot.

Yusuf and Antonio met in college and quickly became friends recognizing their mutual passion for business. Yusuf learned about car flipping and was immediately intrigued. In 2003, they went into business full-time. But as rare cars became harder to find in the US, they decided to take a riskier step by searching for cars overseas. A true adventurer, Yusuf threw himself into it, loving the thrill of foreign travel, unpredictable situations, and the financial rewards that go with it. He is not only captivated by the cars, but is also excited to discover the unique history and culture behind each one.

Antonio Brunet

Born and raised in Mexico City, Antonio’s family moved to the US in 1996. A true petrol-head, Antonio has lived and breathed machines for as long as he can remember, refurbishing his first classic car while he was still a teenager. To pay his way through college, he started hunting rare and collectible cars and selling them for a healthy profit.

He was on to a winning business formula, but he knew he needed a charismatic entrepreneur as a business partner in order to establish his passion for cars as a proper business. While in college, he met Yusuf Johnson. Balanced alongside Yusuf’s easy charm, Antonio is focused and passionate, stopping at nothing to get the rarest and finest collector cars. Antonio and Yusuf have built a network of contacts around the world, pushing them to come up with the best leads for rare vehicles. His lifelong goal to develop a well-recognized business is fueled by his passion for finding and selling the world’s rarest and finest cars.

Chrome Underground – 1st Episode

If you haven't seen the show, there will be some spoilers here.  You've been warned, watching Chrome Underground is not like watching “The Sixth Sense” though. 

In the first episode, Yusuf and Antonio are in Mexico trying to locate the crown jewel of the collector car world, a rare 1937 Type 57 Bugatti that could be worth millions of dollars if it's real.  They are searching for the Bugatti in Mexico City and not in the best part of a town.  (Still better than parts of Baltimore from what I can tell.)

Yusuf and Antonio use local scouts to find cars and, well you know, they get ripped off when they give a guy $30,000 dollars and he makes off with their money.  In the car business it's important to have friends so they go see, Reno, someone they've used to help find cars in the past.  Reno tells them there is no Bugatti Type 57 in Mexico City that he knows of but he refers them to Andrew to get their money back.

They meet Andrew and offer him $2,000 to get the $30,000 back, and he accepts the job.  Long story short, Andrew is able to get the money back fairly quickly and he starts working with Antonio and Yusuf.

Luckily Reno has heard about a father and son that have an amazing collection of Porches.  Reno takes the trio to the house and they find a great collection of Porches Speedsters, and Porches 356s that have been expertly restored.  The father wants $1 million for the whole collection of 5 restored and rare Porches but that's not in the Motoreum guys budget.  They decide they want to buy the Porsche Notchback as there were only about 300 made and a Porsche Speedster convertible from the collection.  They haggle a bit with the father and son on the price though, but they buy the cars for $300,000, get the out of their, and go on their way.  Of course, they don't get the cars out of Mexico without any problems.

The Speedster runs out of gas which forces Antonio to go buy some leaving Yusuf and Andrew in a dangerous situation in the middle of Mexico City.  Several guys surround the Speedster looking at it.  Andrew tries to keep people at bay by putting himself between them and the car as much as possible.  It all works out when Antonio comes back with gas to put in the Speedster.

After they get that taken car of Andrew takes them to a friend's farm on the outskirts of the city.  Andrew uses a favor and borrows a horse trailer to hide the Porches along with hay to take it up to the US-Mexico border so they can drive it across.  Along they way the encounter a roadblock of guy's with machine guns, but it is ok since they don't see the cars and believe they are just delivering hay… with a camera crew.

They get to the US border and as it turns out they are missing some documentation for the Porsche Notchback.  They are concerned they won't be able to bring it into the United States and past border patrol, but it turns out ok.  Andrew and Yusuf ride in the Porche Notchback and make it over to the US.

Thoughts on Chrome Underground & Motoreum

You might, or might not, like the show depending on your tastes in TV.  I imagine some gearheads will cry foul with the show for a lot of reasons.

First off it seems like the whole thing with giving the scout $30k in cash was a setup for the show.  If these guys are pros wouldn't you give him the cash after you've seen the car?  Then when they go to Andrew to ask his help, would you really agree to travel around dangerous parts of Mexico City for $2,000 when you know someone can give you more money than that?  Probably not, I would have asked for at least 1/2 if I knew my way around the underbelly of Mexico City and could locate a lot of cash.

Also I find it unlikely that the father and son would have parted with the restored Porches so easily and for $300,000.  I know people that have owned classic Porches and restored them, doing German restorations is hard work.  Also people who have owned Porches LOVE them.  They probably already found people that wanted to sell and maybe Discovery channel gave them more for those cars.

One real part of the show is when they are calling their mechanic back at Motoreum in Texas on a Chevy Bel-Air restoration.  (I did notice that Motoreum has less than stellar online reviews. )  Like most auto restorations it isn't going well as the Bel-Air has a lot more rust and needs a lot more work than anticipated.  This means they are going to go $10,000 over budget for the restoration.  Anyone who's done auto repair or fixed-up old cars can tell you this is quite a common.  Honestly, most projects cars go over budget that's why you make an auto budget and you always double it.

Bottom line though even if the show is not real or authentic, the TV show is still entertaining.  What self-respecting car guy or gal wouldn't want to travel the world hunting, buying, and selling beautiful old classic cars?

The producers did their job and likely the show will be a success.  Discovery channel currently has 6 episodes that will air but I should let people know they did pushback the release of the show several times.  Unsure if this was a contract issue or if they just moved to do TV programming conflicts.

Chrome Underground premieres on Discovery Channel, on Friday, May 23rd, at 10PM. 

If you've watched the show and landed on this review I'd love to hear you opinions, comments, or questions about Chrome Underground below.

– Chrome Underground Trailer

Here are some sneak peaks and clips from the the Chrome Underground.

Classic Cars Beyond Borders

Porsches of Mexico City

Editor's Note: In exchange for getting an advanced copy of the 1st episode of Chrome Underground before it aired I was asked to do write a review about the show by Discovery channel. However I have not received monetary compensation for this review and do not have any special affiliation or relationship with Discovery channel or the production company behind Chrome Underground. I do not know Yusuf Johnson or Antonio Brunet personally or had heard about Motoreum before writing this review of the TV show.

I definitely think I should have received monetary compensation though.  I also deserve special treatment, preferably a few classic cars, in case you are wondering.