The Marconi Automotive Museum in Tustin, California looks, feels, and even smells fast.
American muscle – check. Racecars – check. Ferraris and Lamborghinis – check and check. Sportbikes that give you whiplash just looking at them – many checks.
Their collection also includes a Gullwing Mercedes-Benz and Rolls-Royce from the 1950s, a firetruck from the 1930s and much more. It’s an auto museum that makes kids, both young and old, grin and drool. But it’s also a venue for private and corporate events and all for a good cause.
The museum is also a non-profit that supports Southern California organizations that help at-risk children. In this iDriveSoCal Podcast we learn the history of The Marconi Automotive Museum from the museum’s CEO, Priscilla “Bo” Marconi.
Recording date – April 5, 2018 in Tustin, CA
Marconi Foundation for Kids
Bo: Somewhere along the way, Dick decided that he really wanted to put his money where his mouth is. He’s always been very philanthropically-minded and so he decided to donate all of the car collection and the building to the Marconi Foundation for Kids. We’ve got to one-of-a-kind Ferraris here in our collection. We have the 53rd car that Enzo Ferrari built. We’ve also got beautiful Gullwing. Ranging from American muscle cars. We’ve got a Firefox fire truck from the 30s and all the way up to the modern day car, so there’s something here for everybody.
Tom: Welcome to iDriveSoCal, the podcast all about mobility from the automotive capital of the United States–Southern California. I’m Tom Smith and having a lot of fun with iDriveSoCal yet again today as I’m in Tustin, California at the Marconi Automotive Museum, and joining me is Priscilla “Bo” Marconi of the Marconi Automotive Museum, excuse me, the CEO, actually. Priscilla, Bo–I’m gonna go with Bo–thank you so much for joining me.
Bo: My pleasure. Happy to be here.
“We’ve got to one-of-a-kind Ferraris here in our collection. We have the 53rd car that Enzo Ferrari built.”
Tom: So the museum was founded by your husband.
Bo: It was, yes.
Tom: And it is an adult playground. For anyone that’s been here already, they know exactly what I’m talking about. If you haven’t been here, you absolutely have to come, and you will see the most fabulous display of high-performance vehicles, race cars. And Bo is going to fill us in on how it became and what it’s all about.
Learn, Earn & Return
Bo: Well, my husband Dick founded the place in 1994, and he bought this building which was a former solid oil manufacturing facility that had gone out of business. And I can remember seeing it thinking, “Oh this is a terrible place.” It was a decrepit. I had no vision for what it could be. But Dick is a great visionary, and he put what he calls cubic dollars into it, and he formed this museum, and he moved his open-wheel race car team into it along with his car collection of about 75 cars.
And so for a couple of years, he used it as a facility to tune the engines. We had mechanics running around and, because he raced professionally, that was the whole purpose of this building. But once he decided that he wanted to stop racing, he opened it up as a special event facility, and we became very organically.
So somewhere along the way, Dick decided that he really wanted to put his money where his mouth is. He’s always been very philanthropically-minded and so he decided to donate all of the car collection and the building to the Marconi Foundation for Kids, which is a 501 (c)(3) public foundation.
And his goal has been to encourage other people to find their passion for philanthropy whether it’s children, which is our passion, to give to at-risk children’s organizations whether it’s animals, the environment, whatever it is that hits your hot button.
His mantra is to “learn, earn, and return.” So you go to school, trade school, university, whatever your passion is, and then you earn. And then after you’ve started to establish yourself, then you give back.
Benefit At-Risk Children
And you find that when you open yourself up to helping others in need, you have a tremendous feeling of well-being because it’s not all about you. It’s about giving back to others.
Tom: What year did it become the 501 (c)(3) and began the transformation into a nonprofit and helping children?
Bo: 1997 was when we got our nonprofit status. So we were around for three years prior to that just kind of trying to figure out what the next best decision would be. And when Dick founded the foundation, he said, “Okay, who are we going to give our money to?”
Personally, I have always been for helping at-risk children. And by that, I mean particularly kids that emancipate out of the foster care program and end up on the streets. Covenant House up in L.A. is a great organization that we’ve put a lot of effort into because their goal is not only to give them crisis shelter but to then help them become productive. Whether that’s through job training, skill development, resume building, mental health awareness, those sorts of things.
And then, here in Orange County, we’re highly involved with CHOC, which is the children’s hospital. They’re opening a mental health pediatric unit, actually, in April. So that was that was how we started.
And we have donated millions of dollars to various at-risk children’s organizations through the rental of our museum and through tours that come through and then we host a big event called Fight Night which is held in March.
Tom: All the revenue that comes in, is all about taking care of children. Is it just local to Southern California?
Southern California Focus
Bo: For the most part it is, yeah. We have found, is in Orange County, there’s a misunderstanding that Orange County is a very wealthy community and there is no poverty.
But, literally, on the other side of the railroad tracks from us is Santa Ana. Lots of homeless population issues, as we know, but lots of homeless kids or high-risk families, low income. So we believe there’s a lot of need right here in Orange County.
Tom: And the Fight Night, I know, is a really big, fun time for you guys. Tell us a little bit about that and what year did that start and how did it evolve.
Bo: Well, we just finished our 20th year. So, yeah, I was 12 when we started this. Little joke. So it started because we had a friend that came to us who had a friend who was a kickboxing guru, and this guy said, “I want to give back. I can put the show on if you get the people here.”
So I said, “Gee that is a really novel idea, “and we are all about novel. Obviously, we’ve got these one of a kind cars, which we’ll talk about, but so I went home to Dick and I said, “Listen to this great idea.”
Well, Dick was a former Golden Glove winner. Now he’s blind in his left eye, so back in the 50s, he was boxing with a blind eye and winning Golden Glove championships.
Bo: So he knows boxing, he knows professional boxing, and he said, “Well, that is a terrible idea because the boxing world is corrupt. You’re a woman. You’re going to get taken.”
Marconi Fight Night
And I said, “Well, you tasked me with running the museum. And so I’m going to do this.” Well, over $7 million later, here we have completed this great event.
So we have professional fights, both kickboxing, and boxing. We have women’s fights, men’s fights, we have about 400 people in the museum, and we serve a delicious steak dinner. And, we have great live and silent auctions.
And I think what makes this a very interesting event is we’re all used to going to galas where we have to sit and behave ourselves, and this is not that. It’s a well-orchestrated event, but our guests see it as, “I can go across the room and talk to my friend in the middle of a fight, and it’s okay.” So it’s held on a Friday evening. We have lots of men that attend, but women enjoy it as well.
Tom: And, of course, you get to go home… The greatest thing about the fight night is that you actually get to pick your car that you want to drive home from the museum, right?
Bo: Oh, ha-ha-ha. Well, actually, we live on a four-mile dirt road, and at the beginning of this whole venture of building the Marconi museum, when we found our property in San Juan Capistrano, our crew chief at the time thought that this would be great. We could move the race team out there, and we could put Dick’s cars out there because we have a lot of land. But a four-mile dirt road doesn’t exactly help with big car transporters, so, thus, this building was built.
Drool-Worthy Car Collection
So I drive a Toyota Land Cruiser, which I am a big proponent of, and the cars here at the museum there have been a couple of Ferrari’s and a couple of Bentleys that have been out there, but you can imagine the dirt that gets on them, and low to the ground cars on a dirt road is not great. So…
Tom: Gotcha. I was actually referring to coming to fight night and, as an attendee, part of the deal you get to drive a car.
Bo: Oh, right. Haha. Again, you cannot imagine the number of times people say things like that.
Tom: Let’s talk a little bit about the cars. You have a phenomenal… It’s, as I mentioned, I think, adult playground is about the best way to describe what the Marconi Automotive Museum is.
It’s got to be such a fun place to come on a daily basis. But the cars themselves–you showed me some of them–one-of-a-kinds, really impressive. Talk a little bit about the collection.
Bo: Well, Dick has always been a high-performance street car and race car guy, big Ferrari person. I think we’ve got a pretty good collection of them.
We’ve got to one-of-a-kind Ferraris here in our collection. We have the 53rd car that Enzo Ferrari built. So it goes way back to the 50s. We’ve also got a beautiful Gullwing, show Gullwing which was built about the same time as our 195S Ferrari, which was the 53rd car that Enzo built.
So it’s an eclectic collection. Dick is an eclectic guy. He’s a creative person, and he wanted people to be able to enjoy the cars with no barriers around them.
Millions You Could Touch
So we’ve got cars that are worth, singly, worth millions of dollars, and knock on wood, we have never had anything bad happen because I think the people that come through and see the cars are largely car people.
But even those that aren’t, can appreciate the beauty of them, the color, the shine. We’re modern, we’ve got hard edges, steel, concrete, and they are very respectful of the cars. And Dick has always wanted people to dream.
Maybe you see an American muscle car that your dad had when you were a kid, or it’s a car that you wanted to have or, perhaps, did have, or people that have never seen many Ferraris that come and they can see the engines and see the interiors without being held back by barriers.
Tom: And that’s really one of the cool things that I had to ask. Like wait a minute, where’s all the stanchions? Talking about one of the cars that you were pointing out being worth $2-million-dollars by itself, and it’s like I can just touch this thing. That’s that’s kind of crazy.
Bo: Yeah, that is Dick. He wants to share. And of course, we have staff. They’re paying attention, and we, periodically, during events, have to ask people not to lean against the cars when they’re taking selfies. But you know, they’re great.
Tom: So what is the collection cumulatively? What’s the value?
Bo: Well, that’s a good question. I think it’s somewhere in the neighborhood of 30 to 40 million probably.
Tom: And what about the top 1, 2, 3 single value vehicles?
Stories Behind the 7-Figure Rides
Bo: You know, car values change all the time, and we have a great appraiser. He comes in twice a year, after having gone to all the different auctions, and reappraisals the collections.
We’ve got a Formula One car that Michael Schumacher drove the first year that he drove for Ferrari. It’s got a working engine in it, which, normally, you can’t buy Formula One cars with the engines because they have this proprietary information they don’t want anybody to know about.
But Dick bought the entire collection from that year and sold off all the cars and kept this one jewel of a car. So the value in that, you know, I don’t know. Probably a million dollars. We’ve got a Daytona Spyder that was brought into the country when Sonny and Cher were married, and that’s valued in the neighborhood of $2 million by itself.
Tom: That’s a funny story. Let’s share that one.
Bo: So this was in the early 70s, and, you know, I chuckle telling this story because a lot of your people that listen to the podcast probably…
Tom: Weren’t born in the early 70s.
Bo: …who Sonny is. To the older generation, they get… There was a time when Sonny and Cher Bono were married to each other. And when the car came in, she had started to see Gregg Allman, so Sonny said, “Well, it’s the car or Gregg,” and she said, “I’ll choose Gregg.”
So Dick got the opportunity to purchase this car, and one of the great facts about it is the list price was about $35,000. By the time Dick got the car, he paid $125,000, and his friends said, “Why would you pay so much over sticker for this car?”
Museum, Foundation & Event Venue
And he said, Oh, you just wait.” Well, here we are in 2018, and it is worth in the neighborhood of $2 million dollars.
Tom: Well worth the extra dollars that he paid.
Tom: All the revenue that you generate, goes, essentially, to a good cause, right, children in Southern California. But it’s not only, “Hey, come to the museum,” that helps you guys help children but also you have special events here. You guys are prepping for a special event right now.
Bo: Right. That is actually probably the biggest part of our business model. As a nonprofit, our business model is a little different than most because we’ve got three components. So we’ve got the museum itself. We have the foundation, and then we have the event side, which is what you’re speaking of now.
And because of this car collection, it’s very mobile, so you can have all the different kinds of events. I like to say that the museum, as an offsite facility, is different than a hotel ballroom. We’re all used to going to hotels where, after five minutes of talking to somebody, you want to move on, but there’s nothing to move onto and you’re stuck.
Events with Flare
Here with the cars, especially since there are no barriers around them, you can say, “You know, I’m just going to go over here and check out this car. Nice chatting with you,” and then off you go.
And from a fundraising standpoint, because we do have a lot of fundraisers held here, men, largely, are the ones who stick their hands in the air for live auction items that are worth thousands of dollars. Well, men typically don’t like to go to events because they’re easily bored.
Here you go to the Marconi Automotive Museum with this great collection of cars ranging from American muscle cars. We’ve got a Firefox fire truck from the 30’s and all the way up to the modern day car, so there’s something here for everybody, and I think that’s one of the things that’s made us successful are the cars. People love that.
But it’s also in this culture of corporate climate, they want to give back. So Brand X holds their event here, and they are indirectly helping children’s causes because we are taking a portion of our net proceeds and giving it to children’s charitíes. So it’s definitely a win-win all the way around.
Tom: For podcast listeners that want to come out and check out the Marconi Automotive Museum, your website, your social media, how do they track you down?
Bo: Well, this is not my area of expertise because I’m an old person, but I can tell you our website is MarconiMuseum.org, and I believe that all the rest is under the Marconi. But if you come to our website, that’s a great place to start, and you guys who are in the modern age can figure it out from there.
Something for Everyone
Tom: It’s a very cool place to come to check out, just an adult playground and also a kid’s playground, too.
I mean, when I came up for the interview that we’re doing right now, there was a bunch of young families that were fathers and sons and daughters ooh-ing and aah-ing and looking into the windows and everything, so it’s a great place. It’s a great cause, and I highly recommend checking it out. And is there anything else that you like to add before we say goodbye?
Bo: Well, thank you so much. We appreciate the exposure as a nonprofit. Anything that we can get to bring people into our community to help kids in need and enjoy these wonderful cars, we welcome you, so thank you.
Tom: Well, thank you for being with us. For iDriveSoCal, I’m Tom Smith. That was Priscilla “Bo” Marconi of the Marconi Automotive Museum. Thank you so much for listening. Until next time.