John and Joe Palma are down-to-earth brothers, internationally known for their expertise in luxury and exotic cars. A few numbers dramatize their career: $270,000, 5 to 6 years and zero.
The $270,000 figure is the highest price that any client spent for renovations, with the 1960 Silver Cloud II then rightfully earning a first place in touring at a national Rolls Royce meet.
Five to six years is the longest a job has taken. Waiting for parts, you know. Luckily clients have another car. Or five or six. Luckily, they’ve learned how to design and build parts that are no longer available.
Zero is the number of Rolls Royces and Bentleys (John’s specialty) and Ferraris and Lamborghinis (Joe’s specialty) among the three cars they each have at home. But they do have regular access to these models since they buy and sell them. They picked a Bentley to drive the half-mile to their interview.
“We’re considered the go-to guys for the stuff that even the factories can’t fix,” John said, citing their lifelong interest in cars, all the documentation and expertise they’ve acquired and knowledgeable employees (Thomas Brancato and Stanley Kierznowski have worked for Palmas Automotive and Palma Classic Cars in Audubon, N.J., since the 1980s, with Wilfrido Melendez joining around 2005, Muhammad Khalid around 2019 and Michel Jacobelli around 2020.
In fact, Bentley Motors asked them to train their mechanics and set up a heritage program to care for older models no longer supported with factory parts. They said yes, but COVID-19 intervened.
They also offer pre-purchase inspections and appraisals. “We know all the things you need to know,” John said. “Nothing can get by us.” He routinely conducts technical seminars and writes technical articles for automotive publications. And he is national tech adviser and instructor for the Rolls-Royce Owners’ Club and its affiliate, the Modern Car Society. But they don’t enter cars in shows – or judge them. “We don’t want to compete with customers,” he said.
John, 65, and Joe, 68, were born in South Philadelphia and moved to Willingboro as children. John studied automotive mechanics at Camden County College and worked as a limo driver in Vegas.
Joe helped neighbors fix their cars, began working for Sears Automotive when he was 16½ (“I lied about my age”) and built engines for race cars.
In 1980, they set up business in an old gas station. They’ve expanded the original building – it now holds a dozen cars inside – and added two more nearby buildings. During a recent visit, about 50 cars awaited work outside, with fabric covers protecting many from the elements and critters.
“Drive them,” John said, dissing “cars that just look pretty in the garage,” also known as hangar queens. “The more you drive them, the better they handle.” Plus, keeping them in regular rotation offers early alerts to all-too-typical issues with the leather, wool and wood in their interior.
In the beginning, they might work from 8 a.m. to 2 a.m. (“whatever was needed to get the job done,” Joe said). They’ve cut back, to maybe 9 a.m. to 10 p.m., often devoting the evening to advising owners and fans of luxury cars.
Those long hours are maybe why none of their eight children is in the business. “We were never at home,” John said. “We were always here.” Then again, the brothers don’t talk about retirement.
In their little free time, they prioritize their families, enlarged by the fact their wives both have seven siblings. “There were 83 for Holy Communion,” said Joe.
Their father’s parents are from Tuscany, and they have visited Italy twice. The knowledge of the language is limited (“just the bad words,” said John), as is their enjoyment of Italian food (“I ate so much that I now have diabetes,” he added).
Customers have come from as far as Hawaii and Canada and included celebrities from many fields, such as basketball star Julius Erving, chef Georges Perrier and entertainer Richard Barrett.
Barrett – a singer, songwriter, producer and manager –known for his work with The Three Degrees – “was our customer and connection in the world of Rolls-Royce and Bentley Motorcars,” John said.
“We’re fortunate enough to know the right people at the right time,” John said. “My brother is a better mechanic, and I know the factory guys. We’re keeping the legend going.
The marque.” As they write on their business brochure: “John has dedicated his career to the preservation of proper motor cars and the heritage of the companies and individuals who created them.”
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You might see them profiled in a future issue.