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Cars of Nicola Bulgari: An Italian Collector Preserves U.S. Automotive Heritage

When the opportunity arose to spend 24 hours hanging out with Bulgari’s top brass and receive an inside look at Nicola Bulgari’s personal car collection in – of all places – Allentown, Pennsylvania, I had a much different perspective of what to expect. Given the Bulgari brand’s deep roots in Italian culture, one would be inclined to imagine a platoon of vintage Ferraris, Lamborghinis, and Alfa Romeos; however as the following gallery attests, nothing could be further from the truth.

As it turns out, Nicola Bulgari developed a fascination with American cars from a young age when Buicks, Cadillacs, and Hudsons started cruising the streets of Italy following World War II. The collecting bug struck Bulgari early, and after a chance meeting in Pennsylvania while experiencing car troubles, he decided to house and restore the majority of his collection in Allentown. Today, a staff of roughly 10 technicians maintains Bulgari’s current collection and works on restoring a constant flow of new acquisitions. At the time of our press tour, the team was in the midst of restoring a Graham-Paige “Sharknose,” and a ragged old Cadillac had just arrived for revival after being found forlorn in Germany.

Cadillac with a V8 engine, All photos by Justin Mastine-Frost

As we started taking a closer look at the vast array of Bulgari’s fully restored collection, it became rapidly apparent that no expense was spared in the restoration of each vehicle. More importantly, each restoration was undertaken in an incredibly thoughtful fashion. Each car has been taken down to bare metal and had its bodywork repaired wherever necessary. When it comes to interior components, leather hides and wood panels have been preserved wherever possible rather than simply reupholstering for the sake of a shiny new interior. The collector scene’s modern fixation on “over restoration” has been scrupulously avoided. From vehicle to vehicle, one can clearly tell that Bulgari and his team care a great deal about maintaining these cars as rolling time capsules – something that isn’t always prevalent in the contemporary collector car industry.

Another fascinating takeaway from this experience – one that was self-evident in conversations with Bulgari’s lead technicians – was the fact that he isn’t trophy hunting for the rarest of rare American cars from the 1930s and 40s.

Nicola Bulgari's Showroom in Allentown, PA

“These are working-man’s cars. These cars were daily drivers back in the day,” a member of the crew observed.

It turns out Bulgari is far more interested in preserving and collecting the Americana that fewer and fewer collectors care about these days. In his eyes, if someone doesn’t preserve and document them, these workaday models will be gone one day. This custodial concern for U.S. road-going heritage draws highlights another fascinating undertaking hidden in Bulgari’s private compound: curated history.

Within the final facility on the property, the group encountered an exceptional surprise. An open warehouse contains a dimly lit row of cars of a unique nature. Although the dimly lit room meant that capturing appropriate imagery was impossible, the first of three 1959 Scaglietti Corvettes was sitting in the lineup. Now I’ve seen my share of rare cars over the years, but to encounter one of these legends in the flesh was an absolute treat. As we rounded the corner, our group was faced with a massive white photography studio complete with a turntable. Resting on was none other than the first Chevrolet Camaro ever built – 1967 serial number 0001.

The first Chevrolet Camaro from 1967

It turns out that this freshly built facility isn’t just about Nicola Bulgari’s personal lust for collecting; there’s much more to it than that. Though a partnership with the Historical Vehicle Association, the purpose of this space is methodical documentation of every historically significant vehicle in the United States for the National Archives at the Library of Congress. The facility is set up to provide professional-grade photography and 3D scanning capabilities. Since completing this studio, the Bulgari team already has documented William Howard Taft’s steam-powered limo, Ronald Reagan’s Jeep, a World War I-veteran Cadillac Type 57 Touring, as well as the Scaglietti Corvette and Camaro Numero Uno. In the same fashion that the Archives holds records of every significant building and person in the country, it soon will also hold a similar record of the automotive world. For “gearheads” like me, this seems like a smart move.

Click through to the gallery at the top to see more of Nicola Bulgari’s car collection as well as an assortment of dashboard clocks from a number of his prized vehicles.

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