Louis Savaglio’s first car was a rust-riddled 1938 Ford, bought for $30 when he was 13. It was also his first business lesson.
“I bought it at one of the bodyshops I hung around,” he recalled. “It had surface rust all over, and he had a grinder there but he said, ‘You gotta hand-sand it!’ He knew I wasn’t going to finish the job, and he’d get the car back for nothing.
“I went there and sanded every day for two weeks on that one fender — sanded and sanded until my fingers were raw — before I wised up and realized this ain’t going anywhere.
“I said, ‘You know what, this isn’t working out, I’m never going to get further than one fender.’ So I gave him the car back, and he didn’t give me my money back. Learned my first lesson at 13 years old.”
Today the ’38 Ford is a collector’s car, and Savaglio has one just like it — minus the rust — among the classic, antique and specialty cars he sells at the Auto Gallery on the edge of downtown Colorado Springs.
He hid that first ill-fated deal from his parents — “I would’ve got a lecture,” he said. Still, it didn’t discourage him. Savaglio has been an auto dealer for 45 years now, and he’s spent the past 20 years dealing exclusively in antique cars.
“My passion is antique cars, so here I am,” he said. “Ever since I was a kid I had no education, I just cut my teeth on cars. Grew up behind a bodyshop — I guess the smell of paint got to me, and I never left.”
At 71, Savaglio isn’t keeping count of the lessons anymore, but he was ready to make a major change when it was needed.
Savaglio started buying and selling in the suburbs of Chicago in the early ’70s and in 1989 moved his business, The Auto Gallery Museum, to a 34,000-square-foot building in Spring Grove, Ill.
But when taxes skyrocketed and operating costs became exorbitant, Savaglio said, he started looking for a better way to do business. In 2015, he decided to move across the country to Colorado Springs.
“The only reason I left Illinois is the real estate and the tax situation is … in terrible shape. The taxes were killing me. If the property values match the taxes, that’s fine — but that wasn’t happening,” he said.
“The taxes were getting higher every year, and my heating bills there were much, much higher. I could pay $2,500 in one month, just to keep the place at 55 degrees.
“Here in Colorado Springs, this is a reasonable place to do business. My whole utility bill here is less than what my electric bill alone was in Illinois.”
In Illinois, Savaglio sold 75-80 cars per year before the Great Recession, he said, and a steady 50 cars per year afterwards.
“Here I can sell half the cars and make the same money, and I don’t have to be a slave to my property,” he said. “That’s why I can come in at 11 o’clock.”
Savaglio bought a South Wahsatch Avenue office building one-quarter the size of his Illinois showroom, and spent almost six months on the remodel.
Most of his inventory was sold at auction in Spring Grove, but he brought eight beloved antique cars with him and has since rebuilt his stock at auto auctions around the country.
Savaglio admits it’s been a big adjustment.
He misses the foot traffic he had in Illinois, and the regulars who had come to see him for decades.
“I was doing more local business there because after 20 years, people know you’re there,” he said. “And this will happen here — of course I don’t have that same amount of time, I’m 71 years old — but I’m doing what I like, so life is good.”
These days, most of Savaglio’s business is online — an interesting turn of events for a man who insists he’s “dangerous with the internet.”
“I don’t know anything about it, I don’t want to know, I don’t care,” he said. “I don’t have any smartphones, I wouldn’t know what to do with it — I like dials and knobs better.”
Savaglio takes 20-30 detailed photographs of every vehicle for the website and his wife, Patrice, handles the online side of The Auto Gallery.
In a small tale of just how much the business has changed, Savaglio said the classic Audi he recently sold and readied to ship from the Springs is going back to Illinois — to one of his old customers — who saw him on television, buying the car at the famed Barrett-Jackson auction in Scottsdale, Ariz.
Every inch of Savaglio’s showroom is packed. There’s the 1953 Porsche Pre-A Series Coupe, 1962 Mercedes Benz 190SL, 1954 MG TF Roadster, 1935 Ford Model 48 Standard Tudor Sedan, 1931 Ford Deluxe Roadster, 1957 Ford Thunderbird, a limited-edition 1993 Chevrolet Camaro Z-28 Indy Pace Car and even the 1955 Porsche Beck 550 Spyder replica used in the 1996 movie “Crash.”
Savaglio has Edmonds-built midget speedcars from his racing days, a treasured 1960 Maserati, and a 1959 Mercedes Benz 300 SL roadster.
“I bought that 35 years ago, before anybody knew what the value was,” he said.
“This car’s worth more than my building now.”
Every vehicle has a bulging file. “Paperwork — provenance, they call it — is what sells these old cars,” Savaglio said. “It’s like artwork, you know?”
As well as sales, Savaglio offers appraisals, consignment, transport and shipping. He said his move to the Springs has been “like starting all over again, but with a little more experience and a little more capital on hand.”
“I just want to keep going,” he said. “I’ll be here every day until I can’t do it anymore.”
Location: 217 S. Wahsatch Ave.
Contact: 719-633-3858; autogallerycolorado.com