Convention-centre lobbies tend to give off a sideshow vibe during auto shows. Out here, away from the heavy hitters in the main halls, sits a hodgepodge of vintage artefacts, homebuilt specials, earnest eco-solutions and tacky paint-and-wheel “concept” cars. And during this year’s New York auto show, the soaring atrium of Manhattan’s Jacob Javits Center was no different. That’s where we found Tony Garofalo and his car. On a swath of red carpeting, sandwiched between a khaki-coloured Lamborghini with US Marine Corps messaging and the Mazda Miata Spyder concept from the 2015 Specialty Equipment Market Association show, sits the New Yorker’s cunning, hand-built replica of Chitty Chitty Bang Bang from the 1968 film of the same name.
Garofalo was four years old when his mother Anna took him to an opening night showing of Chitty Chitty Bang Bang at New York City's Radio City Music Hall. She could not have known the effect the movie would have on him.
“I was completely blown away,” he says.
Young Tony emerged from the cinema saying, "I'm going to build that car."
It was a mantra he would repeat often to his single mom while growing up in Queens. And like any indulgent mum, she would reply reassuringly: "Sure you are. Of course you are.”
Life happened, as it tends to do. Tony grew up, developing other interests — including the guitar — along the way. As a teenager, he worked in a garage and started tinkering with cars. He played John Lennon for a while in a touring company of the musical Beatlemania, and still plays in a Beatles tribute band. Eventually, he ended up a New York City cop, retiring as a Detective Sergeant after 20 years that included first responder duty during the terrorist attacks of 11 September 2001.
Throughout it all, the dream remained. Fresh off the force in 2005 and far too young to devote all his time to golf or settle into a recliner with the remote, Tony decided it was time to get to work. He began the process of research and design, and kicked off the long quest for parts. That aspect may have involved some recliner time, as Tony says he watched the movie musical some 200 times during the build, freeze-framing and rewinding to capture every last detail of the original.
Fabrication began in earnest in 2010. Five years and more than $100,000 later, the dream rolled out of his garage and is now street legal and registered in the US state of New York.
“There’s at least 5000 man hours in it,” he said. “If I had any idea it would've been this much work, I might never have done it.”
Based on a 1914 Overland Model 79 rescued from the scrapyard, not much of the original car remains. Tony says some 95% of the build was fabricated from scratch, and that he did most of the work himself, from hand forming parts to rebuilding the 1928 Ford Model A engine chosen for its distinctive sound - the same one used by the movie car.
He even made a pilgrimage of sorts to Hollywood, where he had an opportunity to examine, measure, and drive one of the original cars driven by Dick Van Dyke in the film.
Since completing the build in June 2015, Tony has shown the car at Concours events and has already received offers including one for $1.5m from a collector, who said, "I gotta have this car." Garofalo politely refused the offer.
"Hey, let me enjoy it for a little while,” he says.
And enjoy it he does. It's evident even now during an interview, when a young family stops to check out his creation. He beams while answering questions from the children, bending to better demonstrate details like the wings that sprout from beneath the car. Tony even responds without hesitation to a reporter's colleague who asks to squeeze the bull on the elaborate old-fashioned horn.
"Of course,” he says. The horn responds with an authentic bleat.
Tony’s plan is to keep showing the car for now, and to use it as a way of raising money for cancer research. His mother died of the disease the same year he retired.
“She didn’t get to see our dream come true.”
But the dream lives on, in all its gleaming brass, wood, and winged beauty. Tony and his Chitty Chitty Bang Bang replica will be at the New York auto show — in the lobby — through 3 April.
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