Eric Murphy’s 4,500-square-foot pad has a 900-bottle wine cellar, gourmet kitchen and a red Ferrari F430 parked by the sofa.
This isn’t your average man cave. It’s a car condo at AutoMotorPlex, 40 acres (16 hectares) of garages overlooking a wetland outside Minneapolis. Here boomers hang out with their cars, watch sports on TV and commune with fellow auto enthusiasts. Eager to cash in on an accelerating trend, developers are throwing up car condos around the U.S., including a project with a 1.5 mile (2.4-kilometer) test track planned on the grounds of a defunct General Motors plant near Detroit.
Murphy paid $300,000 for his garage and invested about that again to kit it out. On the first floor a BMW M5 and Mercedes SL550 AMG share space with a slot-car track and two Ducati motorcycles. Upstairs is an 1,800-square-foot living space, with a full master suite where Murphy, his partner and their Siberian husky host parties and hang out.
“I’ve always been a car guy and I love this idea of a set of man caves -- or people caves -- where people got together of like minds and love cars,” said Murphy, a 54-year-old health-care executive, whose home garage was running out of space for his 10-vehicle collection. “We wanted to go with more of a homey feel than a garage feel.”
Car condo developers say the vast majority of buyers are men, who sometimes struggle to persuade spouses of the wisdom of plunking down $300,000 for a garage -- even a fancy one.
“I’ve had many men whisper in my ear that they could use some help convincing their wife to get this garage,” said Mike Ard, who developed the GarageTown complex outside Denver. “Usually the second visit doesn’t occur if the spouse is adamant about not purchasing it.”
AutoMotorPlex founder Bruno Silikowski began investigating the car condo concept when his kids’ bikes started to crowd his Porsche out of the four-car garage. His initial plan for a two-acre parcel to share with friends ballooned into the current site that encompasses 146 garages with some 120 owners.
The 55-year-old entrepreneur has licensed the concept to sites near Kansas City, Missouri, and Chicago and is looking at a handful of other possible new locations for his brand of enthusiast garage, including the Raleigh-Durham area in North Carolina.
“This whole business model is based on the idea that baby boomers have this affinity for vehicles,” Silikowski said.
It makes sense that the generation that embraced the muscle cars of the late 1960s would create lavish retirement homes for their cherished vehicles, said John Wolkonowicz, an independent auto analyst and historian in Boston.
“The two concepts that best describe baby boomers is reinvent everything -- even if it’s not broken -- and do it to the extreme,” he said. “Those are the mantras of the baby boom generation.”
What was once a hobby is turning into a lifestyle. At AutoMotorPlex, owners leave garages open so neighbors can wander by, check out the space and talk about their collections. They can also convene at a clubhouse for meetings and parties. One Saturday a month, the public is invited in for “Coffee and Cars,” during which thousands of people ogle the about 1,000 vehicles stored there and other cars brought by visitors.
Brad Oleshansky, 44, is developing the M1 Concourse car condo development north of Detroit with 270 private garages around a 1.5 mile test track. His target market: owners of the 50,000 exotic and classic cars in the Motor City’s suburbs.
Oleshansky studied 20 similar operations from Orlando, Florida, to Silikowski’s AutoMotorPlex in Minnesota, before buying 87 acres that previously housed a GM testing facility. About 600 people have expressed interest, including one guy who wants a seven-unit garage all to himself.
Typical car condo buyers range from “very wealthy people who need a place to store their incredible collection” to working-class people who are so passionate about cars that “they’ll spend every dollar they make on their hobby,” he said. “There’s projects popping up all over the country.”
In the Highlands Ranch suburb of Denver, demand has been so strong for car condos at GarageTown that it opened a second development in the suburb of Ken Caryl. The first 84 units sold out so fast, they are adding 37 more. Walter Wood, 58, owns three units, for which he paid a total of about $500,000.
One unit is an homage to Elvis, with a 1950s-style diner and other memorabilia. Next door, his wife, a professional singer, re-created an 1800s saloon, complete with an old-West copper ceiling, where she sings karaoke and parties with pals. On the main floor, Wood stores his Chevrolet collection, which includes a 1953 pickup, a 1967 Camaro SS and two Corvettes.
“Pretty soon you have a lot of new friends and it’s just like your neighborhood,” said Wood, whose friends call him Woody. “It’s your ‘garagehood’ friends, so to speak.”
The car condo trend is sufficiently far along for Hagerty Insurance, the world’s largest classic-car insurer, to offer policies covering garages and their contents. Hagerty estimates there are as many as 9 million collector vehicles in North America, ranging in value from $8,000 to eight figures.
“Last year it really picked up momentum,” said Mark Wilson, vice president of Hagerty’s commercial business. “Every single one of these is unique. You have a spectrum of someone who might have a storage unit that shares a conference room to car condos to condos around a racetrack.”
The Thermal Club, now being constructed in Thermal, California, is much like a gated golf community, with a 4.5-mile racecourse standing in for 18 holes. Membership runs $85,000, with monthly dues of $1,600. Lots at the development, a half-hour drive from Palm Springs, range from $460,000 to $800,000 and the pre-designed floor plans start at $680,000. The Ascot design includes an elevator between condo and garage.
Car condo developers try to appeal to both genders. At GarageTown, the bathrooms are fancy, clean and stocked with lotion and amenities, while the show units often have shiny coated floors to offset the image of a grease pit.
“Our clubhouse area looks more like a Starbucks than a gear-head space,” Ard said. “We tell the spouse, ‘This is where you’ll hang when he tells you he needs 10 minutes, and you know he really is going to take 45.’”
For units being turned into elaborate man caves, the key is melding the garage into a broader theme, said Sara Wurm, 30, Eric Murphy’s partner, who took the lead on much of the design of their Ferrari- and Porsche-themed hideaway.
“What I first envisioned was large sheds where guys would come out and work on their cars with grease and wrenches and things like that and kind of a car show that went along with it,” she said. “I didn’t have the expectation of a place where you would come and almost be your second home.”