Features

My Life & Cars – Max Girardo, Founder, Girardo & Co

From an early Testarossa encounter, via teenage aspirations of being a rally star, Max Girardo recalls the road that led to him becoming a collectable car specialist

'I grew up in South East Asia but my family is Italian, from Turin, and I remember when I was a little kid my granddad had an Autobianchi A112 Abarth. He always had the spicy version of the cheap city cars, which were always fun to travel in. My dad always liked cars too, so I guess I was influenced or indoctrinated right from the beginning.

Dad did some rallying when he was a young guy, and I heard all the stories growing up: rallying in a Fiat 500, and then an 850 Coupe, and then he had a big upgrade to a Renault 8 Gordini. So my dad always had cool cars around.

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We’d go back to Italy for summer holidays and stuff, and he’d keep some kind of fun car there that we’d use each summer, so it was always exciting going back. We were living in Thailand, but in Italy we had a Fiat Ritmo Abarth, with 130 horsepower!

Then there was a real defining moment: I was probably 12 or 14 years old, around 1988, and my dad brought home a Ferrari Testarossa. It wasn’t ours, he borrowed it, or had it on a test drive or something, but I was like, wow, how about that? We had a Ferrari at home! I remember the first ever Ferrari he bought was a 355. That’s not something you forget, going to collect a brand new Ferrari from the dealership.

I had a slew of little motorcycles, such as the 48cc Hondas and Suzukis, and as I grew up I got bigger and bigger off-road trials bikes. I’d do some driving around the courtyard and stuff, but never did any racing before I was 18, never any real driving until I got my driving licence, and then all hell broke loose.

My first car was a white Fiat Cinquecento; remember the boxy one? The deal was that whatever money I could put in, my dad would match it. So I worked to get some money together and I had this great plan: in Italy, in Europe, they had the Cinquecento Trofeo, which was a kit you could buy and you could go rallying. So I bought the car and my plan was then to buy the kit and go rallying. I was super excited, bought the car brand new – how stupid was that? – and I had to save more money as my dad would only match what I had.

But before I bought the kit, I rolled it. I was late to meet somebody and I thought I was going to make up some time. I was coming onto a motorway on the slip road, lost the back end and went up the bank. The car stopped on the bank and I thought, “Jesus, that was lucky.” And then it went dun-dun-dun-dun and rolled down the hill! [Laughs] That was the end of my Fiat Cinquecento.

Then I had a Lancia, an Ypsilon. From the age of 18 I was in Switzerland and I bought a terrible light green Ypsilon. But my dad had the 355 at the time, so we used to do meets. We bought a Renault 8 Gordini, so we did things like the Historic Monte Carlo Rally together. We had some great memories, really good fun, real father and son bonding time. But my dreams of becoming a World Rally Champion ended when I rolled my Fiat Cinquecento.

While I was living and studying in Switzerland I was working in a pub, which was great. All my friends were at university and not working, so in comparison I had loads of money. Go out to dinner? No problem, I’ve got cash! In Switzerland pubs close at 2am, so as you can imagine I wasn’t going to class very much in the mornings at all. While I was working in the pub there was a job at a petrol station, but then I realised that if I worked at both I could make even more money! So I did that, which meant I went to class even less. I was just working and living at home, so I had extra cash to go buy bits for my cars. It was great.

Anyway, I was working in the pub and an ex-girlfriend came in and said to me, “Nice to see you,” blah blah blah, “I’m pregnant. Don’t worry, it’s not you.” Close call! But then she said: “I saw an ad in the paper, something you might like. It’s something to do with cars. You should really reply.” Anyway, she brought in the ad the next time she was in the pub, and one Sunday morning I woke up and I thought I should apply. It was actually what’s now known as Bonhams, but at the time it was called Brooks, so I went for a job interview with Simon Kidston and I started work on the 1st of July. I was 19 years old and my birthday is on the 2nd so I turned 20 the next day.

Basically I was just getting the sandwiches, but it was in the car world, working at an auction house, doing classic cars. I was still living at home – as a good Italian boy you try to live at home for as long as you possibly can. You don’t wanna move out; what’s the point? You’ve gotta pay rent, gotta buy your own food and do your own washing. So us Italians, we’re trained to stay at home as much as you can. So I went home and said, “Mum, great news: I’ve got a job offer in a real company. I’m gonna stop working in the pub, stop working in the petrol station, do this 9-to-5 job in cars over summer, and at the end of the summer I’ll stop working completely and I’m going to go to university and get my degree.” And she’s like, thank god, because I was never going to class. And then I started working there and I never went back to university. My mother still complains that I never got my degree, still thinks it’s a disaster, but I think it turned out okay!

I did six or seven years at Bonhams in Geneva. Simon was great and taught me a lot, but I wanted to make more money and I got offered a job to go and work in a shipping company that was specialising in moving high-value cars. So I moved to Monaco, worked there four or five years, which was an amazing experience, opening a new office by myself, accounting, all that. But it was transport, it wasn’t buying, selling, consigning, researching cars, not my passion.

Then RM Sotheby’s contacted me and asked if I would open their European operation in 2006, so I left Monaco, moved to London, and opened the European office for RM Sotheby’s. I became the head auctioneer and had an amazing 11 years of auctioneering for Sotheby’s. It was phenomenal, but I just wanted to do something for us, start something new. So six years ago I started the new business called Girardo & Co, and now I’m just looking after our clients, buying cars, consigning cars, just doing cool stuff with cars – just cars cars cars cars!

With Girardo & Co I wanted to take all the things we learned from RM Sotheby’s, but do it on a slightly smaller scale, with more attention to detail – instead of selling 100 cars per auction we sell maybe 100 cars in a whole year. You can dedicate more time and effort to each of the cars, each of the clients. Less is more. And this is in no way a criticism of RM as it gets great results and I learned so much, but we wanted to do it on a smaller scale, to serve fewer clients to a higher level.

Also, when you work in a really big company that’s such a finely tuned machine, you don’t have as much opportunity to follow passions, you know? So the rally car things that we do, of course it’s a business but we love the cars and they’re fun, and we’re lucky that we can have the hobby turned into part of the work. Financially it doesn’t make sense to do the ”McRae vs McRae” video we did [with Jimmy and Alister], bringing them over from Australia and Scotland, bringing the WRC car [Colin McRae’s 1997 Safari Rally-winning Impreza] over to Walter’s Arena, and a team of people. It makes zero financial sense. But it’s just passion. You’ve gotta do some stuff because you just love it, right? We’re in the lucky position that we can do that cool stuff, because it’s not a big machine.

My personal collection now is a spillover of that rally disease. So I’ve got plenty of Italian rally cars, a Stratos Group 4 car, a Lancia 037 that was driven by Toivonen, and we’ve got Lancia Delta Integrale Group A cars, the Impreza WRC, so quite a bias towards rally cars.

I definitely make a point of taking a cool car out when I have somewhere to drive. It’s never as often as I’d like to, but I’m in a lucky position that there are always cars around. I’ve got so many clients that offer me cars to drive, so I really do try and avoid taking the boring car to go somewhere. Life’s too short to drive boring cars. 

One of my cars, an Alfa Romeo SZ, has a cool story. My dad bought it brand new. I still remember going to the Alfa dealership, during the bubble in 1989, and the Alfa dealer charged him an extra ten grand to have the opportunity to buy it, because they were all sold out. My dad must have done like 3000 miles in it in all the years he had it. Then when I started working at Bonhams, I needed to find some cars. Well that Alfa SZ, my dad was thinking of selling it, so I said great, let me consign it to the auction, and it’ll be my first ever consignment at any auction. Friends and family first, right? We sold it at the Nürburgring auction. I drove it there for the sale, it got sold to a guy in Germany, and it eventually sold for about half of what we paid for it!

Anyway, coming back from a race one day, one of my really good friends was asking what he could get for my birthday. We were talking and he said, “I know what I’m gonna do. I’m gonna find your dad’s Alfa SZ.” I was like, ah, whatever… There’s 900, 1000 of them, how are you going to do that? Anyway, a year later, the bugger tracked it down! He sent me the car and the contact details of the guy that owned it, and I thought, now I’ve got to buy it. It’s the most expensive birthday present anyone has ever given me!

So not only do I remember going to buy it brand new, it was also the first car I ever consigned, and sold, and tracked down and bought back. Now I’m on a mission. My dad had that 355, so I’m going to track that down as well. I don’t want to rush into it, though, because when I find it I’m gonna have to buy it…’

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