Donna Robbins didn’t really grow up loving cars until it became her livelihood.
“I love cars now … a whole lot,” says Robbins, president and CEO of Streetside Classics, which has a showroom on Derita Road in Concord. It’s one of six showrooms nationwide for the classic car consignment dealer.
She remembers her first car — a green, 1970 Chevy Monte Carlo — and that back in 1999, when she opened her first dealership, there was a Monte Carlo in the inventory.
“I said, ‘Oh, my God, I am old,’” she recalls. “The first car that I drove is already a classic.”
A customer in Robbins’ and her former husband’s consulting business brought the idea of vintage car consignment to the couple. They opened the first showroom in St. Louis in 1999 with that customer as a partner.
The customer exited the business a few months later, and the couple hit upon the idea of expanding the concept into other cities. Now — after Robbins and her husband parted company, too — other Streetside Classics showrooms have opened in Atlanta, Dallas-Fort Worth, Tampa, Fla., Nashville, Tenn., and Phoenix. That first store, the one in St. Louis that carries another name, went to her ex-husband.
Robbins usually spends a year living in the communities where she is opening a showroom for Streetside Classics.
“To me, that’s the reason that Streetside is a success,” she says. “I go to the city and hire people who will do things like we do them.
“We’re about integrity and great customer service,” she says. “Your customers are the most important thing there is and the consignors are more important, actually, than the buyers.”
So Robbins and her constant companion, Shelby Carrol Robbins, a golden retriever named for the classic muscle car, travel to the next city where she plans a showroom. Shelby greets employees when she visits, wagging her tail and welcoming head scratches. But Robbins bought a home on Lake Norman four years ago.
Robbins starts each new store with a staff of about eight employees: salespeople, a photographer and an office manager. And she ensures there’s at least one woman in every store — Robbins’ effort toward gender equity, she says.
Her two sons, Matt Riley, 34, and Brian Riley, 38, are in the business now.
Almost 20 years after her first consignment dealership opened, Robbins is often asked by new acquaintances if she has, say, a Chevelle on one of her lots. With 1,500 automobiles in inventory at six showrooms, Robbins can’t possibly keep up with what antique car is available where.
“I say, ‘Probably several, check the website,’” she says.
On that website, there hundreds of Chevelles, Camaros, Shelby Mustangs, regular Mustangs, Shelby Cobras, F100s and Corvettes — lots of Corvettes. There was a Monte Carlo in the Concord showroom last month when Robbins sat for an interview with Luxury Living.
Running a classic car consignment company hasn’t been a Sunday afternoon drive in the park for Robbins, though. Within two years of the first store opening in St. Louis, 9/11 happened, causing her to worry.
“This will probably be the end of the business,” she remembers fretting. “These are toys; these are luxury items.”
And, indeed, business was slow for about three weeks. But it returned when some business publications suggested classic cars as a safe haven for investment.
It also changed the mindset of the typical buyer. Instead of buying cars they remember from their own teenage days, customers bought for investment, she says.
Today, customers include a mix of those who buy for sentimental reasons and those who buy for investment or speculative purposes, Robbins says.
Robbins’ basic business is consignment sales, but each store has at least a $300,000 budget for purchasing cars from buyers in a hurry to sell. They could have a health issue or they’re simply in need of some quick cash.
The showrooms often go over that budget, though. Robbins estimates the six dealerships today have a total of $2 million in classic autos that are owned by Streetside Classics.
For someone whose interest in automobiles bloomed late, Robbins is catching up fast with all the latest and recently past fads in cars and hot-rodding. She knows about replacing the engine and adding an open, loud exhaust system. She also knows that “drifting” is fading at car shows. Drifting is a driving technique where autos slide around turns with the driver maintaining control. It’s sometimes done on closed courses at car shows. Robbins says she hasn’t seen it much lately.
Another observation: The “cars and coffee” shows around the country, networking opportunities for car enthusiasts usually held over breakfast, are shifting toward exotic cars instead of classic vehicles.
“It has changed,” she says.
Robbins has exotics cars in all of her showrooms — Maseratis, Porsches, Ferraris and others — but her bread-and-butter vehicles are the classics of the 1960s, ‘70s and ‘80s.
As for the future, Robbins plans to open another one or two U.S. showrooms.
“I will never retire,” she says. “I will never sell the company.” Instead, her sons will inherit the business, she says.
And, yes, Robbins will move to the next city for the next opening of a Streetside Classics showroom.
“I have to,” she says. “I don’t know that it will work otherwise.”
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