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It’s Not About The Cars

A dozen Y’s Men met Malcolm Pray and toured his automobile museum in Banksville, NY on Monday. We car lovers went to tour his two garages and view some 40 vintage classics. We got much more. First, he told a story about almost every one. More important was hearing him talk about his pride and joy – the Pray Achievement Center – an academy he established in 2000 to use his cars to teach teenagers how they, too, can succeed in business.

The 84 year old Pray started selling cars in Greenwich, CT in 1955. He became a pioneer in the imported auto business and turned a small garage into eight large dealerships – including the oldest and largest Audi dealership in the U.S.

For 40 years selling cars was his passion. Today it is enjoying life. And teaching entrepreneurship.

He has hosted some 7,000 young people at the Achievement Center. He greets every visitor at the door, makes eye contact, shakes their hand and repeats their name. Their first lesson. That may be the norm for us. But many of the teens who visit don’t live in that world. Pray teaches them how – and why – this skill is important.

As he did with us, he takes them first into the main house. Opening the door we saw a 1961 Mercedes 190SL roadster. The room itself presents Pray’s world – a large genealogy chart displaying forebears back to 16th century England (he notes proudly that seven of eight of his Pray great great grandfathers – I think that’s the right generation – fought for independence in our Revolution); a collection of automobile magazines that would make a librarian drool and auto sales literature and scale models galore.

Another area displays over 50 certificates and trophies his cars have earned in Concours d’Elegance. And still another houses the sort of personal artifacts we all tossed out long ago (or our parents did), from a stool he built in a junior high school woodworking class to his Air Force uniform.

As we enter the first garage he begins his tale – in 1939, as an 11 year old, he went to the World’s Fair. Despairing of the long lines at the American car pavilion went to the French. There he saw a 1937 Delahaye Type 135, a sleek, beautiful roadster. He was sucked in.

25 years later he saw one advertised for sale, inquired, and learned it was the very car he had seen at the Fair. He became its second owner. Today it is the car most associated with him.

In the same garage, which houses mostly European cars, are two other ultra rare vehicles – a 1935 Amilcar Pegase Roadster and a 1937 Bugatti Type T57C Roadster – as well as some more “common,” yet beautiful cars, including a 1957 Porsche Speedster; five MGs, from a 1931 M Type to a 1946 TC to a 1966 B; a 1957 BMW; a 1938 Jaguar; a 1967 Morgan and the 1953 Sunbeam Alpine featured in the Cary Grant and Grace Kelly movie To Catch a Thief. Pray also has 1964 Mustang convertible – the first year that car was made; a 1909 Ford Model T – before all Model Ts were black, and when their headlights and radiator shells were brass; and a 1942 Jeep he bought in its crate.

Pray’s other garage houses about 18 cars, all American, including a 1937 Cord 812 SC convertible, a 1934 Auburn Boattail Speedster, 1941 and 1948 Lincoln Continental (how much more beautiful the older one is!), a 1953 Raymond Loewy designed Studebaker Starlight coupe, a 1936 Ford roadster and a 1941 Ford woody station wagon (the real thing!).

When Pray opens his collections to students he tells each one to choose the car they want to own, he lets them sit in their choice – even those carrying seven figure values – then uses that object of desire to teach them “there is NOTHING IN LIFE YOU CANNOT ACHIEVE.” Following their tour they move to a conference room where he gives them what one young visitor called “four years of a business education in a half hour.”

He leaves each with a booklet that offers thoughts on “How to Become a Millionaire,” basic ideas he recommends to them – “Think About a Career,” followed by “What are you good at…,” and more.

And he requires that each student write a letter telling him “What Did I Learn from Mr. Pray Today?” 71 pages of mostly one line excerpts are gathered in that book, one he gives to each guest who tours his collection.

Important as it is for young people to see and talk with someone who has been visibly successful, and to see and touch the rewards of his accomplishments, the ideas he have a far greater value.

But this is not the end of Pray’s giving back. He is a benefactor of Greenwich’s Boy Scouts and of numerous other local organizations, he supports conservation and environmental organizations and programs and he has opened the collection for “hundreds of ‘Cars and Cocktails’ fundraisers,” and he is an active and generous supporter of Republican office seekers.

Roy Fuchs