From '61 Buicks to the Batmobile, New York's Movie Cars Hail from Red Hook
RED HOOK — Gino Lucci often avoids telling people why he's buying their cars.
Some get blown up. Others incinerated from the inside-out or cut in half. Hundreds more slam into garbage trucks, utility poles or buildings, or plunge headlong into the Hudson.
"It breaks my heart every time we have to ruin one," said Lucci, 65, the founder and owner of Picture Cars East in Red Hook, which has supplied vehicles for virtually every movie, TV and commercial shoot in the New York City area for nearly 40 years.
"I'm working on a job now where we're going nuts trying to purchase a Lamborghini for about $140,000, and we're trying to find the right car with the right colors for the sole purpose of driving it down the street and crashing it."
The Lamborghini in question? A white 1989, 25th Anniversary Edition Countach with an all-white interior — Lucci estimates only 22 white-on-white models exist in the world, and a replica simply won't suffice.
"It's got to be identical," Lucci insisted, "down to the minute details, whitewalls, blackwalls, mirrors, the color of the interiors, all the trimmings that go with the cars. When I say identical, I mean twins. Identical twins."
But convincing an owner to part with his pride-and-joy, simply for it to be destroyed, can prove a challenge.
"We do have to fib a little, a friendly fib," Lucci said.
"One gentleman, he refused to sell me the car. He said, 'You're not going to blow up my car in a movie. I don't want it blown up.' And he didn't sell."
Lucci's attention to detail has proven the key to his success. He started supplying and driving cars for movie and TV productions in 1974, when he loaned his 1940 Ford convertible to a movie shoot at Rutgers University in New Jersey.
A lifelong car enthusiast and one-time drag racer at Raceway Park in Englishtown, N.J., he'd opened Battery Auto Repair in Red Hook five years earlier, and he used the shop to retrofit NASCAR-style roll-cages, fuel bladders and other safety features to protect the drivers inside, all while concealing the add-ons from the film cameras.
In the months and years that followed, business poured in, making Picture Cars East New York's biggest supplier of vehicles for TV shows, movies and commercials.
Lucci is regularly hired by Steven Spielberg and Martin Scorsese. His jobs have ranged from finding 1949 Chevys for "Indiana Jones" to working on the bat mobile for "Batman Forever," and he counts Leonardo DiCaprio and Ben Affleck as friends.
"A lot of it is word-of-mouth, a lot of it is on a handshake," Lucci explained. "People that hire us trust us. They call here like it's a regular thing, 'We need you at 6:30 Monday morning, 63rd at Park.' They call Sunday night at 11, and they know we'll be there."
In the days before the Internet, Lucci and his business partner, Columbo Saggese, would sometimes simply cruise different neighborhoods to find the cars they needed. They'd flag-down owners in Bedford-Stuyvesant at 3 a.m., offering fistfuls of cash on the spot.
"'I want to buy this car right here and right now.' We've literally done it," Lucci said with a laugh. "Stopping a guy at the light and saying, 'We want to buy your car.' They think you're nuts."
Today, the Picture Cars East garage and lots in Red Hook measure about 48,000 square feet. The company also keeps buses, trucks and specialty equipment on a 10,000 square foot lot on Pier 8 in Manhattan, and it has third location in Yonkers for cars that are used less frequently.
There are about 280 cars in the company's fleet — down from a high of more than 500 — and it works on as many as nine projects at a time.
Most recently, Lucci and Saggese, 62, have been searching for five or six vehicles from the Brass Era, including Ford Model Ts, to chase a man on horseback through Central Park. Each car will be outfitted with late-model motors, transmissions and brakes to drive more safely and reliably.
Lucci and Saggese are looking toward handing-off their business to an employee in the next few years. But in the meantime, they say they still enjoy the work.
"How many people can really say, 'I can't believe it! I'm going to work today!'" Lucci said. "We love this business."