Keeping the showroom windows clean at Rohrer’s Select Cars, 1126 W. Second Ave., is a constant challenge.
Passers-by can’t resist pressing their hands and faces against the glass for a better peek at the vintage treasures inside.
And those impetuous enough to wander inside may find themselves driving home via Memory Lane, rehearsing explanations for why paying $36,000 for an 80-year-old Ford Roadster seemed like a prudent investment.
“It’s easier to ask forgiveness than to ask permission,” dealership owner Nicole Morse advises impulse shoppers.
Summer is the season of muscle cars, and Morse says business is revving up, if not quite firing on all cylinders.
She discussed her niche in the auto world during a recent interview, and reluctantly revealed her personal favorite classic car.
S-R: How did you get into this business?
Morse: My dad (Don Rohrer) sold cars for about 20 years. Then he switched to commercial real estate before he and I opened this together in 2002.
S-R: What were you doing before that?
Morse: I managed a steel roofing and siding company for a while, and was a stay-at-home mom for a couple of years.
S-R: Were you into cars growing up?
Morse: Absolutely. I was the baby of six children, and hung out with my mom and dad a lot. My dad’s passion was cars, so every weekend was a car show and every vacation a car tour. My dad and I restored a ’67 Mustang convertible together when I was 15.
S-R: When you and your dad launched this, how did you divide responsibilities?
Morse: He suggested putting the business in my name because he was getting old. I did the bookwork and anything to do with computers, and he handled all the buying and selling until he died two years ago.
S-R: How was your transition to dealer?
Morse: I thought it would be difficult, but it kind of came naturally after watching my dad. He’d told me, “Just buy the cars you love.”
S-R: Are your customers interested in working on these old cars?
Morse: Some, but a lot of them are chasing a dream or the memory.
S-R: Are people surprised to see you’re the boss?
Morse: Very. They typically ask one of my employees, “Where’s the old guy?”
S-R: Can you answer their technical questions?
Morse: Yep. A lot of fellas are impressed by how much I know about engines or transmissions.
S-R: Could you take a car apart and put it back together?
Morse: I could when I was 15, but I might need some help now.
S-R: How’s business?
Morse: It’s good. A decade ago, we’d sell 40 to 50 cars a year. During the slump our sales dropped to 20 cars a year. Last year we sold 30, and we’re on pace to sell 30 or more this year.
S-R: Do you own the cars in the showroom, or are they on consignment?
Morse: We have 20 cars on the floor, and own 16 of them. Two years ago we had 78 vehicles, so I’ve downsized. When you have 78, you need a full-time detailer and full-time mechanic.
S-R: Have TV shows such as “MuscleCar” and “Pimp My Ride” spurred interest in classic cars?
Morse: I don’t know if they’ve helped, but when people come in, they assume that’s what we do – buy beat-up cars and fix them up. We only buy road-worthy cars in nice condition. We may tweak them a little – change the wheels and tires, repair a rip in the upholstery or find a missing part. We’ve done three full restorations in 10 years and spent double what we expected.
S-R: Where do you get your cars?
Morse: Mostly from people who drive up to the front door and want to sell. Sometimes they’ve got their eye on another car, or they’re in their 70s and not playing with them anymore.
S-R: How do you decide what to buy?
Morse: I’m not like a new-car dealership that has 20 versions of a particular car. I only have one. So when I buy a car, I make sure it has the right engine, the right transmission, the right paint job.
S-R: What colors are popular?
Morse: Red, black, blue. Not purple.
S-R: What cars were in demand a decade ago?
Morse: The ’30s and ’40s hot rods. But people who liked those cars are passing away. Now customers want cars produced in the ’60s and ’70s. They ask, “Where’s the Camaro? Where’s the Mustang?”
S-R: Can you drive them like a newer car? Would you?
Morse: In the summer months I would. I’ve had customers drive them close to year-round, and I think, “Oh, no.”
S-R: How long does a vehicle typically sit in your showroom?
Morse: Anywhere from two weeks to two years.
S-R: Do you dicker when buying and selling cars?
Morse: Absolutely. Some people who bring me a car want retail, and I can’t give them that if I’m going to resell it. When we sell a car, rarely does it go for the full sticker price unless someone falls in love with it and doesn’t want to risk losing it.
S-R: Do you have much competition?
Morse: No. Classic car auctions are different. You don’t get to test-drive those cars. Our customers can drive a car before buying it and learn its history.
S-R: Who are your buyers?
Morse: Eighty-five percent of my inventory goes out of state or out of country – Canada, Europe, Australia.
S-R: What does it cost to ship a car overseas?
Morse: From $3,500 to $5,000. It goes to California, where all the liquids are drained and it’s put in a container.
S-R: Do you have repeat customers?
Morse: Many. They’ll buy a car, come back two years later and fall in love with something in the showroom. Of course I’ll take their car in on trade-in because I know it, and they’ve usually done a few things to improve it. A few years later, they’re back again.
S-R: Some of your cars cost tens of thousands of dollars. For that amount, you could buy a new sports car with air conditioning, cruise control and other accessories not available on classic cars. What motivates buyers?
Morse: New cars lose value as soon as you drive them off the lot, while a ’60s Mustang is an investment that gains value.
S-R: What do you like most about your job?
Morse: The people who come in here are fun to talk to.
S-R: What do you like least?
Morse: Being a woman in a man’s world. But I’m getting pretty tough-skinned.
S-R: What should people considering their first classic car watch out for?
Morse: If it says (it’s a Chevy) SS, make sure it’s an SS, because there are people out there who will make something appear to be something that it’s not. You’ve got to know your stuff.
S-R: Have you ever been fooled?
S-R: How many cars do you have at home?
S-R: Which one is your favorite?
Morse: This week? (laugh) It changes a lot. My ’90 Porsche 911 is probably my most favorite. And a ’66 GTO I just took home. I’ve never been a Pontiac fan, but I drove it and fell in love with it.
S-R: Is the Porsche something you’d sell here?
Morse: I actually had it on the showroom floor, and a guy really wanted to buy it. My heart was breaking, so I took it home.
S-R: Looking at today’s cars, which ones do you think will be classics 30 or 40 years from now?
Morse: Probably some of the newer Challengers, Chargers … the newer Camaros and Mustangs – maybe a silver anniversary model. I could see buying one of those new and sticking it away. But it’s hard to say, because back in the ’60s and ’70s we didn’t know the originals were going to be worth so much money. Older guys come in and say, “I sold one of those for $50.”
S-R: Your showroom is like a museum. Do you mind people just looking?
Morse: We advertise ourselves as a free car show every day. Just don’t touch the cars. If I let everybody open the doors and sit in the seats, my cars would be worn out before I could sell them.