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WHEELS OF FORTUNE : Collector's Auto Motive Is to Benefit Charities With User-Friendly Museum

August 10, 1995|CORINNE FLOCKEN | Corinne Flocken is a free-lance writer who regularly covers Kid Stuff for the Times Orange C ounty Edition.

Some museum directors count ticket stubs; Dick Marconi weighs the success of his exhibits in smudges.

"We judge how successful a car is by how many fingerprints there are on the body and nose prints on the windows at the end of the day," explained Marconi, the owner and driving force behind the Marconi Automotive Museum, which opened this summer in a quiet industrial park in Tustin.

A museum that allows visitors to touch some of its exhibits is not uncommon in this area, especially one that, like Marconi's, was designed with kids in mind. And there are certainly larger and more impressive automotive museums just outside the county: most notably, L.A.'s Petersen Automotive Museum, a four-floor, $40-million tribute to the history of cars; and the San Diego Automotive Museum in the city's Balboa Park museum complex, which houses changing exhibits (currently there's an emphasis on 1920s and '30s roadsters, French cars from 1937 through 1948 and Hollywood movie cars).

Still, when you consider that Marconi has repeatedly turned down offers of more than $1 million for some of the treasures in his museum, the idea that children are welcome to handle them (and in some cases even crawl inside them)--something they definitely can't do at the L.A. or San Diego museums--is mind-boggling.

But Marconi said that kids are the whole reason he decided to go public with his collection, a gleaming display of vintage and modern racing machines that is sure to draw an admiring gasp from visitors of all ages--even those of us who think Formula One is something babies spit up.

Obviously, a guy who owns so many expensive cars--his own estimate puts their total worth somewhere between $10 million and $20 million--must have a few nickels. Marconi, 60, is co-owner of D & F Industries, a company that develops and sells vitamins and supplements to health-food distributors.

A longtime collector of race cars and a racer and race team owner himself (he took eighth place in last year's Long Beach Grand Prix), Marconi decided to bring together his scattered collection under one roof as a way to help local children's charities. All museum profits, from admission fees (kids under 12 get in free) to facility rentals (private groups rent the place for $5,000 a night or more) will be turned over to the nonprofit Marconi Foundation for Kids, which will then make donations to the Olive Crest home for abused children, the Covenant House shelter for women and children and Children's Hospital of Orange County's pediatric AIDS unit. Marconi, who said he plans to tap his celebrity friends (among them Elton John and Bruce Jenner) to host events, expects to raise $1 million a year from the project.

Housed in a 25,000-square-foot warehouse, the museum is accessible in every sense of the word. No velvet ropes or glass walls separate visitors from the cars; there's only the specially treated air (the product of a filtration system used in hospitals) pumped into the room to help protect the cars' glossy finishes.

In fact, one of the most accessible cars in the collection is also one of the most valuable. It is the Lola T-9300, a studly, 750-horsepower racer that Mario Andretti drove at Phoenix International Raceway in his last race before retiring in 1994. Anyone who wants to climb inside the car for a fantasy spin is welcome to do so (don't sweat it, parents, the engine's been removed); Marconi requests only that visitors ask a museum staff person for assistance and that they remove any personal items that could scratch the car.

On a recent weekday tour of the museum, Marconi explained his reasoning: "This car was built to take a cement wall at 200 m.p.h. A kid isn't going to hurt it."

Also awaiting hands-on exploration is a cherry-red, 1937 Ahrens-Fox Fire Engine. It has been painstakingly restored, all the way from its bulbous silver 1,000-gallons-a-minute water pump to its gleaming alarm bell (which kids can ring from the passenger seat). In the near future, kids will also be able to operate its lights and siren.

On any given week, Marconi designates a third vehicle for hands-on use. Maybe it will be a Lamborghini, a Maserati or, if you're lucky, a personal favorite of Marconi's, his "rolling sculpture," a Ferrari.

The grandfather of the museum's Ferraris stands near the entrance. It is a 1950 195-S, thought to be the 53rd car that Enzo Ferrari built. Crimson, curvy yet decidedly macho, it is one of only three such cars ever built--the second is in a Swiss museum, the third was destroyed in a crash. And yes, it runs. Marconi and his son John drove it in the 1988 Mille Miglia Rally, a 1,000-mile road race in Italy.

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