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By Marc Goodman
Photography by Mark Mason | January 23, 2012 | Lifestyle
The Mach 5 Speedracer used in the 2008 big-budget movie
A 1938 Oldsmobile Sedan, housed in the museum’s main car section
The museum’s founder, Michael Dezer, alongside a Russian tank used in the 1995 James Bond film, GoldenEye
The BD-5 Microjet from another Bond film, 1983’s Octopussy
The Dezer Collection Museum & Pavilion boasts countless memorabilia and more than 1,000 automobiles
A block away from the Costco on 146th Street and Biscayne Boulevard, surrounded by a cement factory, train tracks, and a dusty, Texan-looking landscape, a museum is taking shape that would make any auto enthusiast’s pulse quicken. Michael Dezer, developer of Sunny Isles’ Trump Grande Ocean Resort & Residences and buyer of vast amounts of commercial real estate in Manhattan’s Chelsea neighborhood in the 1970s (when everyone thought New York was going down the tubes), has taken a set of forsaken, rundown warehouses and transformed them into a showcase for one of the world’s most outstanding car collections.
As workmen frantically scurry to finish the complex, the scene inside the largest building conjures up the government storage room at the end of Raiders of the Lost Ark: In vast hallways, shrouded in half-gloom under dusty tarps, sit incredible finds, lying this way and that as they await their final positioning in the soon-to-be-finished space. But these aren’t just any crates: One holds the DeLorean from Back to the Future. Another, the Ferrari from Magnum, P.I. And this is just the Hollywood car section.
“We’re going to attract tourists from all over,” says the bespectacled Dezer, sitting at a makeshift table. “They’re going to go crazy when they see this. It’s the most eclectic collection in the world.” Beginning this month, sections of the 240,000-square-foot complex will open to the public. One hall will hold 1,000 cars, some of which are the most famous ever filmed (including a staggering 11 vehicles from the Batman movies, as well as autos from The Dukes of Hazzard, The Beverly Hillbillies, Grease, Miami Vice, Ghostbusters, Knight Rider, and Starsky & Hutch).
Dezer’s haul also encompasses the largest collection of James Bond props and vehicles in the US—more than $15 million worth—ranging from the golden gun itself, to a T-55 tank, myriad submarines and boats, and eight gadget-equipped Aston Martins. And for the “normal” cars, there’s a $2 million 1927 Duesenberg Model X (one of only four), a $2 million 2008 Bugatti Veyron, a host of military vehicles, and over 200 micro-cars (they were big from the ’20s onwards, as it turns out).
“I always spent 90 percent of my time on my hobby, and 10 percent on my job,” Dezer says with a grin. “I’m 70 now. I’ve decided it’s time to open the collection to the public. It’s a pleasure to see people enjoy it.” Dezer’s father sparked his collecting mania by giving him a Vespa at age 16 in their native Israel. Dezer then began collecting mopeds. He’s since sold those first models but now owns much older ones, as well as the largest collection of Vespas in the world—also on display here, alongside rare bicycles and motorcycles.
Two years after that first Vespa acquisition, Dezer made a deal with his father: He would sell both it and a Harley he’d also been given and, with the proceeds, buy a 1949 Plymouth to repurpose as a hot rod. It was the beginning of a life of clever deal making and recognizing the true potential of the undervalued—a precursor to snapping up the faded Manhattan real estate that eventually made him a fortune. Dezer has a collector’s knack for buying and selling, always on the lookout for the next gem, though he admits he gets attached. “It’s very hard to sell,” he says. The James Bond collection is perhaps his ultimate prize. It was a startling group of items— two museums’ worth in England’s picturesque Lake District—that Dezer heard their owner was looking to sell in one lot. Now, quite wonderfully, there’s no car that he feels is beyond his reach.
German gallerist and curator Helmut Schuster, Dezer’s partner in the 20,000-square-foot Dezer Schauhalle contemporary art gallery that’s part of the pavilion, smiles at the thought of the collections on the other side of his door. “[Dezer’s] life is cars, but it was his idea to have contemporary art [here], and I see the similarities. Every serious artist spends his life following one idea, and with this idea, in seconds, you can be in another world. The same thing happens with cars—both are this film-like idea of going back to your childhood, of feeling emotion.”
Schuster likens the whole endeavor, in its location off the beaten path, to the risk-taking that led Tony Goldman and David Lombardi to blaze the trail in Wynwood. “Who would have thought that Wynwood would be such a success? This area is ideal. Big shopping centers are around here, MOCA is not far away, Aventura, Sunny Isles. And the combination we have—look what this place offers.” Indeed, the mix is nothing if not unique: antique and famous cars, contemporary art, a Madame Tussauds-like waxfigure mini-museum, videogame room, movie theater, and even a planned train for guests to ride around the complex.
Eric Shiner, director of the Andy Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh, paid a visit to the complex during Art Basel, and agrees that the museum complements the neighborhood perfectly. “I think generally people are excited about new types of venues, and new and unthought-of locations, so being there in an old industrial/warehouse district could be really intriguing for people to visit. And because MOCA is not far away, they have a built-in audience. But the car museum will be an anchor bringing in potentially huge numbers of people. I think it’s OK that they’re different demographics, because we always want to extend our audiences. To say, Look, contemporary art is interesting, and you don’t have to be an art person, necessarily, to enjoy it.”
Though housing precious cars may conjure thoughts of the pristine glass garage holding the Ferrari in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, or the Zen minimalism of Ralph Lauren’s recently publicized collection of rare autos, Dezer has taken a different tack. In the classic car sections of the museum, a maze-like path winds through ’50s Chevrolets, a ’74 Citroen DS21-M, a 1972 Fiat 500, and another DeLorean. Costumed mannequins sit in many of the driver’s seats, displaying a certain broad humor: a stoned hippie in the ’62 VW van, while Muammar el-Qaddafi, Willie Nelson, and fedora’d Mafia hit men ride in others. And instead of spare white museum walls, Dezer has designed massive collages of notable world events from decades past, providing context for the adjacent cars. There are also vintage gas station signs, garage memorabilia, and ads for Beech-Nut gum, Chesterfield cigarettes, and Tab.
Dezer, who lives with his wife, Neomi, in his Trump Sunny Isles apartment, drives a 2011 Rolls-Royce Drophead Coupe (Rolls’s most expensive model), as well as one of three replica ’55 Thunderbirds. The car he’s most in love with, however, is a 2006 Chevrolet SSR pickup truck, a replica of a 1950 model that he’s turned into a convertible and redone as a yellow hot rod—one of only two customized as such. “It goes fast, as it has a Corvette engine, but I’m a very careful driver with all of them. I drive with feelings for the car.” When he’s in an adventurous mood, Dezer will hop on late-model Harleys, or a metallic light-green late-model Vespa, which he even takes on the highway. “I crisscrossed Europe in 1959 with a Vespa, so why should I be afraid now?” he asks.
The sprawling campus is a child’s dream—precisely what the museum’s team has in mind for parties and corporate events for kids both young and old, like Dezer himself. “When you have the money,” he says, “and you love these things, you say, ‘Why not? Why not another 10, 20, 30?’ They’re beautiful. That’s my art. It’s music to my eyes,” he laughs.