RIDING THE PRANCING HORSE

Steven Eckhoff

Volume 45 Issue 11

May 23, 2020

Breathtaking! How else would you describe standing with my customer in the configuration room at the Ferrari factory and peering down onto the shiny new LaFerrari parked below?

    Breathtaking! How else would you describe standing with my customer in the configuration room at the Ferrari factory and peering down onto the shiny new LaFerrari parked below?  Just one of those special moments that made up a 31-year-long career of selling Ferrari.

    For someone who grew up in Dover, Illinois, (a town of 200 people, 60 miles north of Peoria) and attended a two-room grade school, spending a lifetime selling Ferraris wasn’t even a dream.

    My father, Richard Eckhoff, served in the Army during WWII. When the U.S. Army invaded Italy, he was put in charge of a foundry located in Livorno just south of Pisa, on the coast, 73 miles southwest of Maranello. The two Italian brothers who managed the business owned an Alfa Romeo that my father got to experience. The stories and pictures from his days in Italy had a significant influence on me.

    While my high school classmates were buying their Camaros and Mustangs, at age 16 I bought my first car. I narrowed my choices down to either a Triumph TR4 or a 1963 Alfa Romeo Giulia Spider. I chose the Alfa. The previous owner had installed side draft weber carbs, quick release racing lap belts and a roll bar to track the car.

    That little Italian 1600cc 4-cylinder would sing a beautiful song when you wound her up. My biggest thrill came from taking some of my high school buddies for a ride on a twisty blacktop road I knew very well. They would scream and grab for anything they could find to hold onto as I clipped the apex and powered out of my favorite right-hander. Not one of them ever accepted a second ride. I sold the Alfa when I went to college, something I’ve always regretted.

        The Beginning of a Sales Career

    After completing my stint at SIU-Carbondale, I went to work at a newspaper in southern Illinois. Two years later, I decided I needed a career change. I took a week’s vacation, packed up my silver Porsche 914 and headed to Columbus, Ohio, to begin my search. Armed with a resume and no sales experience whatsoever, I went looking for a car sales job. Rolling into the city on a Sunday evening, I passed a little Alfa Romeo/BMW dealership that I didn’t know existed. Little did I know, I would end up there the next day.

    The following morning I began my quest. First I stopped at two big Porsche dealerships that merely slid my application under a tall stack of others. No hope there.

    My third stop was the Alfa dealer, Continental Sports Cars. I walked in and asked for the sales manager. I told him I was looking for a sales position. He took me to the owner’s office. After chatting with Charlie Nemeth for two hours, he asked me when I wanted to start. I had found a job.  I signed a lease on an apartment that afternoon, checked out of my hotel and headed back to southern Illinois. On September 7, 1976, the day after Labor Day, I began my sales career at Continental Sports Cars.

    Who’d have thought a 24-year-old from Dover, IL, would discover he could get paid to share his passion for sports cars with people? In 1977 I ventured north of the border to attend Jim Russell Canada Driving School. They invited the top two drivers from the session back to race in their summer series. That was Jacque Villeneuve, younger brother to Ferrari F1 driver Gilles, and me.

    Sales were going well and I was building a following. In October of 1978, I organized a trip to Montreal for the Canadian Grand Prix, the first year it was held on the Île Notre-Dame. I chartered a plane and flew with five customers to Canada for the race. The city went nuts when home town hero Villeneuve won the race, his first F1 victory for Ferrari.

        State Trooper And A Bird

    I sold my first Ferrari, a new 1981 308 GTSi, to one of our longtime Alfa Romeo customers. Scotty was a prominent attorney in Columbus. It was a traditional red/tan car. A week after taking delivery, he parked it in front of the showroom, walked in and offered me a drive. My very first in a Ferrari!

    Excited, I climbed behind the wheel with Scotty alongside. Fired it up, clicked the shifter into first gear and headed west of Broad Street.

    We entered westbound I-70 and the fun began. Up through the gears I accelerated . . . through the gated shifter . . . click, click, click. . .that 3-liter V8 singing its beautiful song. I gently steered us around the 55 MPH moving pylons. (Remember the national speed limit was 55 at the time.) Soon we were hurdling along somewhere north of twice the double nickel.

    One exit past the I-270 outer belt, I swung off onto the cloverleaf for the return trip. We merged on alongside an Ohio State Patrol car. Sadly that little red Ferrari settled at the 55 MPH mark. The state trooper slowed and pulled behind us. He eyeballed that shiny red 308 with an Ohio temporary tag. He then moved right another lane and signaled his intent to exit onto southbound I-270. My mischievous passenger turned to me and said “when I yell, you punch it”. I down shifted to third and once the trooper reached the point of no return I heard “punch it”. And I did! That 308’s rear squatted down. With a big grin on his face, Scotty flipped the trooper a bird. The trooper just stared at us.

    Fearful of the consequences if we got caught, I raced to the next exit and returned to the dealership on backstreets. I parked the Ferrari, tossed Scotty his keys and disavowed any knowledge of being the driver. My heart raced with my very first taste of driving a Ferrari.

        Denise McCluggage and S/N 09437

    Fast forward to the summer of 1989 in Ft. Lauderdale, FL. I had been selling at Shelton Ferrari for three years. I teamed up with my old friend Paul Kent to sell a pale yellow alloy body 275 GTS/4 NART Spyder S/N 09437 to a buyer from Germany. In 1968, S/N 09437 was driven by Steve McQueen in the film “The Thomas Crown Affair”. It was painted metallic burgundy for the movie then restored to its original color (Giallo Solare) in 1985 during a ground-up restoration at Shelton Ferrari for the new owner.

    On a Saturday morning shortly before the car was scheduled to be shipped to Germany, Denise McCluggage visited Shelton. She wanted to spend some time with the car before it went to Europe. She feared she would never see it again. She and Pinkie Rollo had driven it to a 2nd in class finish at the Sebring 12 Hour in 1967.

    I opened the door and she slid behind the wheel like she was greeting an old friend. From the look on her face, I knew she was recalling those memorable days at the track 12 years earlier. She shared some funny stories about the race weekend.

    When she climbed out of the car, she asked me to open the trunk and remove the cover over the spare. On the black underside of the wooden cover, one could still make out chalk marked numbers. Tears rolled down her cheeks as she explained that Luigi Chinetti, the owner of the North American Racing Team, had forgotten to bring a pit board for the girls. As a substitute, he used the painted underside of the cover as their pit board.

    Denise passed away May 6, 2015, at 88 years old. Rumor has it, she requested her ashes be put in an oil can and shelved in Jay Leno’s garage. Rest in peace Denise McCluggage.

        Men In Black

    A gentleman from the Netherlands bought a used Mondial Cabriolet from me over the phone. He sent me the deposit and scheduled a day he would come to the dealership to pay the balance due. As scheduled, he arrived, examined the Mondial and we test drove it. Satisfied with his purchase, he sat down at my desk to pay me. Then it got really interesting.

    He reached into his bag and pulled out stacks of American Express Travelers Checks. For those of you too young to remember, traveler’s checks could be purchased like a money order at American Express offices and he had to sign each one of them. As he still owed me $55,000 and each check was for $100, it took him a while to sign 550 of them. I then called American Express to verify the checks were good. A week later the car left for Europe. Our deal was complete. So I thought!

    A few months later, two men in matching black trench coats wearing dark sunglasses looking like Tommy and Will, walked in and asked for me. When they flashed their gold US State Department badges, I knew whatever this was, it was certainly serious. They told me they wanted to talk to me in private. They asked to see my file on the sale of the Mondial. They rifled through it. Then ASKED me to make them a copy of everything in the file.

    Next they showed me the bill of sale sent to them by their counterparts in the Netherlands. They asked if I signed one showing a selling price of only $30,000. My answer was definitely not. The signature was mine but I suggested someone was very good with a copier. With a thick file of paperwork in hand, they donned their trench coats and sunglasses and left me with this order: Do not contact the customer!  I didn’t.

        Ambassador for Ferrari

    As a Ferrari sales representative, I felt it was important to introduce people to the history of Ferrari automobiles and help them discover the amazing story of Enzo. It was also to prepare them for the changes owning a Ferrari would make to their life. If they had never owned an exotic car before, readying them for the attention it would generate. Lastly, urging them to attend Ferrari events and be an active participant in the family of Ferrari owners. Over the years, I was happy to help hundreds of people visit the factory in Maranello . . . the birthplace of every Ferrari.

        Memorable Moments

    1979 shooting the Daytona 24 hour for Autoweek. That year the Otto Zipper 365 GTB/4 “Daytona” finished 2nd overall in the race. A few years later, I tried unsuccessfully to purchase that Daytona for Scotty.

    In the fall of 1989 having to tell Steffi Graf there were no new 328 GTS left when she called me from NYC after winning the U.S. Open.

    Black dress socks borrowed from a customer for the awards dinner at the 1989 Ferrari National Meet in Atlanta.

Sending a truck load of Ferrari to the Ferrari National Meet in D.C. in 1990 that included a 250 GTO and a 1967 alloy 275 GTB/C that finished 1st in class at Le Mans in 1967.

    During the 2016 Ferrari Mondiali event at Daytona, standing atop the infield garages alongside Cathy Roush, as seven 333 SPs. . . six red and one yellow. . . hurdled out of turn four and screamed across the finish line. A spine tingling moment!

        Thank you:

    Thank you Steve and Tom Shelton for allowing me to join the sales staff at Shelton Ferrari in 1986.

    Thank you Ed Wettach and Hugh Steward for hiring me as sales manager of Ferrari of Atlanta in 1994.

    And thank you Wade Williams for making every day special and fixing all the personal stuff I brought you.

    To the people who put their faith in me and purchased cars, I thank each one of you from the bottom of my heart. You are the people that made me a success. Teddy Roosevelt once said “people don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care”. I believe that.

    When you get on the career train, you never know how long the journey will last and when it will end. I met so many absolutely amazing people during my time with Ferrari.

        A New Beginning

    Following two years of retirement, I started 2020 off by joining the sales team at Merlin Auto Group in Atlanta, GA. Thank you Adam Merlin.

    While I missed the Prancing Horses, even more, I missed interacting with people who love these amazing machines. If you want to share your love of Ferraris, F1, sports car racing or cars in general, call or come visit me at Merlin Auto Group. My cell phone number is still (404) 538-4454. My new email address is seckhoff@merlinautogroup.com. I look forward to hearing from you.

    Glad to be back in the saddle again.