Like some folks are nervous noshers, when Nelson Rockefeller gets uptight, he has to buy something. So, while waiting for the Senate to confirm his nomination as Vice-President last winter, Rocky decided to splurge on a rare 1967 Rolls-Royce Sedanca Deville. But only two 1967 Sedanca Devilles exist in the world, and a young Levi-clad Californian named Charles Crail happened to own the only one up for sale. After a bit of perfunctory haggling, Rockefeller ordered the car from Crail over the phone. The estimated price: over $100,000.
When it comes to selling rare Rolls-Royces, Chuck Crail is accustomed to being in the driver’s seat. At 33, he is the world’s most exclusive used car salesman, operating by appointment only out of a small office above Hollywood’s Sunset Strip. A super-rich international clientele flies in from as far as Hong Kong and Pakistan to view his collection, vaulted away in a heavily secured subterranean garage. Last year his volume in vintage vehicles approached $2 million.
Most of the time, however, wheeler-dealer Crail is himself prowling the globe in search of new merchandise and leaving the shop in the hands of two mechanics. In 1972 he stopped the late King Faisal in front of the Saudi embassy in London and offered $15,000 for his Phantom V. The sale was made, and Crail in turn ran to the nearest phone to sell it to a dealer in St. Louis for $23,000. Crail also paid $7,000 for the 1960 Bentley used by Peking’s ambassador in London, then unloaded it for $12,000 to a woman real estate agent who tools around Laguna Beach, Calif. with Chinese flags still flying. In India he came up with a Rolls owned by the Raja Bahadur of Durbhunga and custom designed for—what else?—tiger hunting.
Crail, the son of LIFE magazine photographer Schuyler Crail, grew up in Hollywood, but curiously innocent of the dragstrip culture. “I rode a bicycle until I was 18,” laughs Chuck. After USC film school, he became a movie and then network news cameraman. But covering the “troubles of the ’60s with the CBS ‘Riot Squad’ made me too depressed,” he reports, “and I quit. So probably as a rebellion to the misery and poverty I’d seen,” Crail found himself buying his first Rolls—a 1934 limousine used in Those Magnificent Men in their Flying Machines. It cost $1,200 and, pyramiding his profits from the sale of that car, he scored his biggest coup in 1970 by purchasing Warner Brothers’ entire Rolls collection. He also plunked down a mere $200 for the 1950 Mercury James Dean drove in Rebel Without a Cause (which he immediately resold for $500).
Even in a time of recession and energy crisis, Crail’s business is booming. He recently delivered a $55,000 Rolls gift-wrapped in cellophane to Diana Ross. A grape farmer from Indio, Calif. purchased Lucille Ball’s old Rolls, and Queen Mother Elizabeth’s Silver Wraith Park-Ward went to a New York oil investor for $20,000. Mick Jagger tried to buy a 1936 SS-100 Jaguar for $9,500 (it is now worth $24,000), but the Three Dog Night’s Danny Hutton got to Crail first with the cash. When he is in town Ringo Starr rents for prices of $300 a day and up.
Replenishing his stock often leads Crail into weird combo deals—”a grown-up Monopoly game with real toys.” Recently he got five millionaire financiers together for three days of nonstop swapping of everything from cars to planes to furs. At the end of the plutocrats’ potlatch, Crail walked away with 12 Rolls-Royces worth $450,000.
Success has provided Crail a house in Beverly Hills and a ranch in Santa Barbara, but he is not into the conspicuously consumptive life-style of his clients. His real kicks are sleuthing out new rolling stock. He stumbled upon a 1932 Phantom II that the owner had kept on display in his living room since it was new, and part of the price Crail paid was the cost of replacing the wall that had to be torn down to remove the car. “Finding an old Rolls is just as exciting as finding a lost Rembrandt,” says Crail. “It’s the excitement of the find, not the money.”