Chrome Underground – It’s a car show with a very REAL reality!
By: Cathy Droz and Cathy Burford
It was great to hear that a reality “car show” would be part of the Discovery Channel’s lineup this week. Let’s face it, Bravo gets a new housewife reality show every six months, where the biggest danger they incur is having their local wine bar run out of Pinot Grigio.
Unlike the housewives, Yusuf Johnson and Antonio Brunet couldn’t care less about a wine bar or winey women. Instead they risk their lives for the sake of an extraordinary car, a historical relic, a hidden treasure. These purveyors of chrome have taken their ten years of classic car experience and historical finds to a television series called “Chrome Underground.”
Our interview with Yusuf and Antonio was by phone so we needed to identify them when speaking. Antonio, born in Mexico City, has been characterized in all press as the “bad guy”, and Yusuf, his business partner and friend for over a decade is the charmer and “good guy.” However, we found them both to be good guys and charming as well.
These two, along with an experienced covert operations guy named Andrew, travel inside lawless countries in search of rare, vintage cars. The payoff can be huge but so are the risks. With the help of Andrew they hunt down, purchase and transport the vehicles back to the safety of the US, but each episode is a nail biter. Each week viewers will follow the guys as they search for vehicles in some of the world’s most deadly places – you will see them up against everyone from the cartels of Argentina to the favela gangs of Brazil.
We can all see the show at 10pm ET/PT on Friday, May 23rd on the Discovery Channel.
Cathy D: Why are you taking your quest for cars to third-world countries when there are still “barn finds” here in the US?
Antonio: It’s of love of many things-most definitely a love of cars. I have a passion for cars that literally runs through my veins, love of travelling, love of culture, love of what these cars represent everywhere that we go; it’s truly not just a world market for collector cars, but it’s a world culture.
Cathy B: Do you feel that on some level you are saving these cars, just like the beautiful cars that were hidden from the Nazis in WW II were saved? Are you, in a sense getting these cars to a place where more people can enjoy and appreciate them?
Antonio: Oh absolutely yes, most definitely. The thing about cars is not only the culture, but the stories behind the cars. The fact of the matter is that many of these vehicles from the 30’s, 40’s & 50’s, at the time people didn’t quite realize that they would be as coveted and as valuable as they are today. Of course, people have migrated in the world from third-world countries to bigger economies; so cars have gone from Europe to Latin America to the Middle East, virtually everywhere. For whatever different reasons; either that of the buyers, or the history of the country, the cars can end up in very strange places. And that is exactly what we do; we go after and try to find these incredible pieces and bring them back to an active market today.
Yusuf: As part of what really thrills us about what we get to do is seeing relics from the past, and the values of these cars, and the values are getting ridiculous. Last year we had the highest sale ever at a public auction, one car sold for over $29 million dollars. The question is ‘Why would someone pay $29M for a car?’ It’s because of the uniqueness. For any collectors the value on that collection is the uniqueness. How rare is that car? That’s what we get to do when we travel, we’re finding the rarest and the finest of the collector car world, and when we go abroad it just amplifies both the rarity and the fine qualities of those cars because they’re so unique. So what we’re looking for is the ‘one of a kind’ car that you could absolutely find in the US, and there are literally treasures all over the world. So we are treasure seekers, treasure hunters, and when we can actually bring one of these cars to market it’s more than just the monetary aspect of it, it’s really the cultural aspect of it, and really being able to contribute to the global collector car market. As Antonio said, it’s not just a national market, an international market; it’s really a whole culture, a really tight-knit culture. So when you are able to actually deliver something of such unique value it really feeds us in a lot of ways, other than just a monetary way.
Cathy D: How do you authenticate the stories? When you find something, who gives you that lead?
Antonio: The short answer to that is networking, not what you know but who you know. Yusuf and I have been lucky enough to have been able to meet the right people at the right places. I’m originally from Mexico City and I grew up with very important collectors in that culture, so naturally I knew a lot of the collections in Mexico and as we travel we talk to people and just like Yusuf said, it’s a very niche circle, you get leads and you just follow those leads and talk to people and it definitely needs discovering and searching.
Yusuf: Just to piggy back on that, a lot of the networking that we do, we’re doing a lot of research before. So we have a network of scouts who are looking at cars. And we are asking a lot of questions, doing a lot of preliminary research before we go and actually check out the cars. So if we’re looking at a car it’s because we’ve done a lot of work ahead of time to make sure there is some validity to what we are trying to find.
Cathy B: When do you say “no” to a deal? Are there certain situations when you sense the reward will not be worth the risk to you physically and monetarily?
Antonio: The very first rule is if there is absolutely anything illicit or illegal that is associated with the car we immediately walk away. There’s no amount of money or no amount of material that’s worth putting our business at risk. As you know we have an established business and employees that we won’t put at risk… You almost get a bad feeling about a particular car and we really trust those feelings. That’s one thing that makes Yusuf & I a very successful partnership because we almost read each other’s minds after working together for so long.
Yusuf: Also, we do have a very symbiotic relationship because we’ve been working together a lot so we work together well. Also, there’s a matrix of considerations when deciding whether it’s a go or no go on a particular car. A lot of it is; “What is the potential profit on the car?”
But that’s just one step; another step is ‘where is the car located in the world?’ ‘What is it going to take to get it back to the US?’ and ‘What condition is the car in?’ ‘Do we need to do a complete frame off restoration, do we just repaint it?’ There are a lot of different variables so we have a real good sense right up front whether it’s a go or no go.
Cathy D: Why a TV show now?
Antonio: Well, that’s honestly a question for Discovery Channel. Yusuf & I have been doing this for over a decade now and ours is a common interest story that’s been 14 years in the making. They approached us to follow us on our adventures, and we let them do it.
Cathy D: How do you think this will change the two of you? Or will it not change you at all? Everyone in Austin knows you now, but reality stars become celebrities, so what do you think?
Antonio: We’re definitely not celebrities and I don’t think we’ll ever feel like one.
Yusuf: The funny thing is that people look at what we’re doing & they say ‘Oh my God, this is surreal, this is crazy.’ And I guess when we try to extract ourselves from our own world, because obviously we’re all limited to our own perspective, I would say it’s all from our own experience. But when we do extract ourselves from that and we look at it differently it could be a little crazy. Like Antonio said, we’ve been doing this for over a decade so it took a while for Discovery to catch up with us, and they approached us, we we’re seeking this out, so it is what it is. We’ll continue to do our business, and if anything, our hope is that maybe we’re able to inspire people and maybe break down some of the barriers that Americans might have about some of the more global aspects of different countries and cultures and whatnot, so if anything we hope to inspire people to look further beyond, travel. Also one of the things is that we hope people realize that with collector cars, because we’re so passionate about it, we’re dealing in cars that are somewhat expensive, well into the 5 figures or 6 figures, some even 7 figures. The inspiration and the cool part of the business is that people can start being a collector with a couple thousand dollars, buy a $4000 car and have all the same joy, the same experiences, have the same breakdowns, just like a $100,000 car will break down & still have the same fun with the cars. At the end of the day we hope that it will be inspiring in some way.
Cathy D: So what do you do in your downtime, are you both family men?
Antonio: We basically do this full time. The fact is that we created these jobs; it’s something that we built. We’re hunters so we travel a lot. We have big families and I have an understanding wife. Of course, many times they travel with us to many of the events. We do what we do because we love it.
The authors Cathy Droz and Cathy Burford understand how important trust is in a business relationship. Cathy and Cathy have been friends for over 25 years and have worked together the last decade as well. Having the ability and passion to develop something you love and share it with others makes all that hard work worth it!
For more of their celebrity interviews go to www.highheelscertified.com under Articles/Media