By Brian Earnest
Peter Licari chuckles as if he knows the question is coming.
“Which car is your favorite?”
He laughs because it’s a pretty tough question to answer when you have accumulated a collection of machines so vast, diverse and downright fun that Licari could name any one of them as his favorite and nobody would bat an eye.
“I usually just tell people, ‘The one I’m driving’,” he replies.
Muscle cars, microcars, 1950s cream puffs, movie and TV cars, racers, replicas of the earliest cars ever built, motorcycles, gas pumps, neon signage … the mix is astonishing, and Licari and his wife Susan seem to be enjoying every second of it. In all, there are more than 55 cars and a handful of motorcycles — all pristine examples of their kind and all with a story to tell. The Licaris aren’t just car buffs and collectors, they are fans of uncommon and special machines with a history behind them. Nothing in their fleet, housed just outside of Philadelphia, is ordinary or run-of-the-mill.
“We buy what we like, and we’re children of the ’50s and ’60s and we just love the cars for what they are,” Peter says. “If it’s a nice looking car from the prewar era we’ll go for that, but we go up all the way to a modern Ferrari (1995) that I like to race. A lot of them have some rarity to them. They have a history to them and that’s what we think is fun to have… Susan has some cars she likes. She buys some cars just based on color.”
“I’m big on history and provenance,” Susan adds. “I like documentation and history. A lot of our cars have things like Marti reports and provenance.”
The assemblage of collector vehicles, motorbikes and automobilia would be impressive enough if it were simply housed in some old warehouse, but the Licaris have constructed a “Main Street U.S.A.” exhibit in their main storage building that is almost as interesting as the fleet of cars. The Licaris have dubbed it the “CarCatcher Museum” and it includes a Texaco station, barber shop, telephone office, hardware store and women’s boutique. It’s all slathered in neon signs, gas pumps, die-cast, antique bicycles and other cool collectibles that would make most car buffs weep.
“It’s a private museum. It’s not open to the public, but people that we know or have toured before, we ask them to call and we set up a time to take them through it,” Pete notes. “Car clubs get interested and motorcycles clubs, and that’s generally the way we do it. We do kind of keep it secret and actually from the front of the building, you can’t tell it’s the CarCatcher Museum. We just have our address on the front of the building.”
The main building is 10,000 sq. ft. with a 5,000-sq. ft. expansion on the way. Some of the collection is housed at home in the couple’s carriage house, and some other cars are stored in other spots. The expansion should make enough room for all the cars to be in one spot, although the Licaris are still adding things.
“We really have about half the collection under one roof, the rest is scattered at other warehouses and back at home,” Peter says. “At some point we might have to sell some of them to make room for new ones, but right now we are still in buying mode, looking for all kinds of unusual things.”
The whole operation started innocently enough in 2009 when the couple attended a Mecum auction looking for their first collector vehicle. They came home with a 1970 Chevelle SS LS6 and the flame was lit. “Now we’re up to about 56 cars and a half-dozen motorcycles and just the other day we took delivery of a stage coach!” Peter laughs. “We had a friend of mine build us a stage coach, and it’s really neat.”
The dizzying assortment of machines truly has a little of everything: 1960s and early-’70s muscle cars; 1950s Bel Airs, Thunderbirds and Fairlanes; a pair of Model T Fords; 1968 Shelby Cobra; 1950 Rolls-Royce Silver Wraith convertible; 1981 Checker; 1981 DeLorean; a 1958 Divco milk truck; a 2005 Ford GT; 1959 Isetta; 1993 Dodge Viper … the list of interesting machines goes on and on. Included in the mix are several meticulously done replicas, including a replica of the first car ever built — Karl Benz’s 1890 Motorwagen — replicas of the first gas and steam motorcycles ever built, and even a working re-do of the Batmobile.
“The Batmobile, now that was interesting!” Peter says. “We were at a Mecum auction … and a Batmobile came up for sale and we bought it.” The sale fell through after the car crossed the block, however, so the couple decided to build their own version. “We started with a ’77 Lincoln frame, and you can get the fiberglass panels from Fiberglass Freaks in Chicago, but you have to do the drive train and interior and it took a good year and a half to finish that off. It’s got a working flamethrower with propane in the back. We take it to charity events… and it’s a crowd pleaser. Kids love it. You get a 5- or 6-foot flame shooting out the back. And it’s always interesting when I take it to gas stations. People pull off the highway just to watch me put gas in it!”
The 1950 Rolls-Royce Silver Wraith is among Susan’s favorites. “I got it for my 60th birthday, and it’s from the same year I was born,” she says. “It’s right-hand drive, and when you turn the car on you can’t even hear the engine.”
Included in the fleet is one of Jimmy Johnson’s NASCAR racers from 2004 and a 2008 Indy car once driven by Sam Hornish. “That was also at a Mecum auction. We bid on it and won the car. That night Sam Hornish called Dana Mecum and said ‘Tell the guy that bought the car, I’ve driven that car and I’ll pay that guy double if he’ll sell it to me.’ We didn’t sell it, but if we ever do he’s got first dibs.”
To honor the Indy car, the couple had a mural painted on one of the museum’s interior walls showing Hornish’s car on the front straightaway at The Brickyard.
The amazing assortment of neon and gas pumps is mostly Susan’s doing. She has gathered more than 150 lighted signs and other automobilia, and plans to put together an ornate collage of signs in the next addition when it is completed. “When I started going to the auctions with Pete, in those days the pumps that were selling were all original and weren’t knockoffs. They were just really nice and the neon to me was pretty … I also collect beverage neon. We have a lot of it at home in the carriage house, but at the museum we have a wall of neon — a two-story wall of neon.
“When I started to buy the stuff Pete said to me, ‘Where are you going to put all this?’ And I said, ‘Trust me, I have a place.’ I tried to buy by color and I tried to buy things related to cars and it just grew.”
The Licaris have a pair of shop spaces adjacent to the museum building that are used for repairs and maintenance of the fleet, and occasionally to restore car. One of their current projects is rebuilding a rare 1957 Chevrolet El Morocco — one of probably less than 20 in existence. “It’s a mix, but I would say we’re more into buying cars that don’t need a lot of work,” Peter says. “We’re not buying a junker that’s needing three years to fix. The El Morocco, we knew was going to take a long time.
“I don’t do the heavy stuff. We’ve got a great mechanic, and my cousin has a building within a few feet of us and for 30 years he’s been doing custom motorcycles and he does a lot of the painting and body work. Our mechanic does a lot of breaking down engines and transmissions and all that, and I do all the light stuff, but I’m there pretty much five days a week, working on the cars and doing what I can. We’ve got a pretty good team.”
Almost as impressive as the array of cars is the lineup of store fronts that wraps around the museum building. The couple dreamed up an “olde town” theme with some inspiration from Disney theme parks, and the help of some visits to other collections.
“We wanted to do something personal, and all the shops are named for family members,” Susan notes. “I sketched out the buildings and [the builder] really liked them, and we just went from there. We wanted to do kind of a ‘Disney-esque’ main street, and that’s what we came up with.”
“The two store fronts are actually stores,” adds Peter. “Frank’s Barber Shop is a replica of my grandfather’s barber shop. He came over from Italy at the turn of the century and was a barber … we actually refurbished his chair and replicated his shop.”
Some of the cars are parked on elevated perches and others are posed far from entrances, making it challenging to get all the cars exercised regularly. Peter admits that not all the cars get driven as often as he’d like, but he’s hoping they all see the road more often when they are all gathered under one roof. “Every car is licensed. Even the Batmobile is licensed,” he notes. “When the weather breaks in the spring, we try to get every car down and get it exercised. I’m not saying we’re successful in getting every car out, but that’s what we try to do.”
It’s all turned into quite a retirement hobby, and one that neither of the Licaris saw coming.
“It really is amazing to us. Yes it is,” Peter admits. “We both realized that we enjoy cars so much, and I sold my business and was able to dedicate some time to it, but I don’t think we ever thought it would get this big.
“It wasn’t one of those business plans. It just sort of happened.”
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