'Hollywood' Bob McRae gets his classic cars on the Big Screen
The retired automobile dealer owns a fleet of 45 old vehicles, which he rents to studios for about $300 per scene. You've probably seen them – in 'The Aviator,' 'Pearl Harbor,' and 'Seabiscuit.'
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McRae never set out to rent cars to motion picture studios. He spent a long career managing automobile dealerships. When he retired, he cultivated relationships with friends and neighbors who owned classic cars, long one of his preoccupations.Skip to next paragraph
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"I'd have my eye on some cars for years, right here in the neighborhood," says McRae, whose genteel smile and affability have served him well in building up a fleet of more than 45 cars, which he rents out with his son, Robert. "I'd hear about this car and that car, and think to myself, 'How am I ever going to own it?' "
Then Hollywood came knocking on his garage door. He had developed a reputation for owning cars that seemed as if they had been preserved in amber. The perks didn't hurt, either. "I never intended to work again, but the catering on some of these Hollywood back lots is unbelievable," he says jokingly. "I mean, we're talking lobster, roast beef, and barbecue chicken."
McRae lives in a two-story home with a squared-off lawn in the tony West Los Angeles neighborhood of Cheviot Hills. His classic car bug is more than a hobby: Most days he is up at dawn, coordinating projects and vehicle maintenance with his wife, Barbara. His cars usually rent for $300 a scene.
In his den, several dozen miniature cars sit on a bookshelf in the corner, all, of course, neatly preserved. A photograph of McRae and Jay Leno, another car buff, sharing wide smiles with old vehicles adorns one wall.
The phone rings. It's a neighbor who wants to stop by for visit with an out-of-town guest who loves cars. "Absolutely, I'll be here," says McRae, jotting down a quick reminder.
While he owns nearly four dozen cars, McRae doesn't want his fleet to become any larger. For one thing, warehouse space in Los Angeles is expensive. For another, he considers his vehicles like grandchildren – he doesn't want to lose touch with any one of them.
Aside from parking cars in front of his house and at his son's lot in Sun Valley, Calif., McRae rents garage space from neighbors. "I always loved walking by his house and looking at his cars," says Brian Marks, who grew up down the street from McRae, admiring his bituminous gray 1963 Lincoln Continental. "This guy is legendary around here." Mr. Marks had recently returned from living in New York and dropped by to catch up with McRae.
"Let's go for a ride," McRae says, gesturing to the Lincoln, which appeared in the Johnny Cash biopic "Walk the Line."
Before entering the car, McRae runs his index finger up the entire length of the driver's side. "Oh, that's a smooth paint job," he says. He settles into the bench seat and starts the big V-8 engine. "All of my cars are in great working condition because I drive each of them a couple of times a month," he says.
McRae believes every car has its own character and tells a story. "If they are preserved well, they evoke a sense of time and place," he says.