12 Jan 2015

CARS: Joe Macari

I FOLLOW a willowy receptionist up spiral stairs to a small door marked ‘Private’. Joe Macari is beyond. “I’m not a front person,” he says lighting a roll-up. “I’ll always have a dark blue car over red.” News scrolls across screens while banks of CCTV feeds show very shiny bonnets. Beyond an entirely glass wall one of only four California Spiders in aluminum (valued at $12m) undergoes painstaking restoration. 
Macari was born in Aldershot to émigré parents from the Monte Cassino area (between Naples and Rome). His father, who owned ice cream and coffee bars, drove a Mercedes, although Macari, who harboured the dream to race a Ferrari at Le Mans, couldn’t understand why.
Perturbed by dyslexia, which his school was unequipped to assess, Macari shunned higher education in favour of repairing fairground rides and jackpot machines, and re-facing pool tables in Manchester. “All common sense and mechanical, like playing Killer Sudoku,” he says. Macari pin-balled between appointments with the company’s St. Bernard, Annabelle as passenger, her paws hanging over the passenger seat in a “box-like but underestimated” Mitsubishi Lancia Turbo. “The first few times I cornered she fell but soon understood to move with the car.”
Macari remembers the habitats of amusement arcade operators. “The worst places possible, on the news for shootings and stabbings the night before.” Fortunately, Annabelle proved a deterrent. “They’d say ‘I’ll pay you next week.’ Then they’d see the slobbering, 14-stone dog. What they didn’t realise was the only thing she could bite was a bone.”
As branded coffee chains mushroomed, Macari’s parents’ businesses declined, so he turned one into an amusement arcade. But racing ambitions were far from fading. “I started buying and selling cars, including a Fiesta, £100 in, £150 out, to finance a Mitsubishi race car.” Macari’s first attempt in 1988 was a failure. “I entered the wrong championship, starting and ending back of the grid.” But two years later, the focused Macari won the British Saloon Car Championship “despite no tuition,” he says. “Too expensive to go to the track, so I used to do set-up at night on the 20-miles between Pulborough and Bramley.” 
Was Macari aware he was breaking the law? “I was a menace. At two places you could get ‘air’! I remember one night I saw police and thought ‘shit’ and kicked down a couple of gears. Like a lap of the old Nürburg-Ring.” Macari hid his car at his father’s. “Of course the next day the police stopped him. ‘We think you should have a chat with your boy,’ they said.”
In 1993 Macari decided to meet sponsors in America. “But on my 27th birthday, to the minute I was born, one chapter of my life finished.” A motorist pulled out from a junction into his path. “My car exploded on impact. 
“Amazing” people supported Macari through initial blindness then 14 operations over 14 months, a time he says “nobody would sit opposite me on a train because of my appearance.” These included “angel”, nurse Ellen. “On morphine I told her she was a ‘filthy communist’ though it transpired she was Dutch!” he remembers. “One day when they were trying to take the scabbing off my face Ellen said: ‘I’m 5’10”, blonde and you’d love to get your eyes on me.’” Three weeks later Macari was able to verify that claim. “I saw my bandaged hands then Ellen came in. ‘You lied. You’re a dog!’ I said, and she gave me a massive hug, She was 5’6” and cute.”
But with tendons destroyed by fire, Macari couldn’t move his hands. “My doctor estimated I’d get back 20% movement, so I fired him. I said I had to be racing at Brands Hatch that weekend. When he informed me I’d been in hospital three weeks I tried to find out if I could get my entry fee back. A definite no.”
Macari appointed physiotheraphist, Catherine Russell. “‘You have the job,’ I told her, all macho, ‘give me my tennis ball’ to which she responded, ‘Joe, my dear, you can’t inflict half as much pain to yourself as I’m about to.’ I thought, I’ve seen sponges carry more weight. But five minutes later she took me to another dimension.” In fact Russell tried to persuade Macari to take painkillers before treatment, “and I refused because I actually needed them after.”
After 14 months, Macari regained 70% and 80% use of his hands. “I had to wear lycra gloves 23 hours a day for two years. Later, another nurse, very tall and quite attractive, sowed in leather patches so I could feel the steering wheel and drive with fingertips and palms. Those girls basically gave me my life back.”
Macari continued to fire doctors including the “big Scotsman” who, having unsuccessfully sewn his eyes shut to make new lids, caught him sneakily smoking behind his car in the snow. “‘What the hell do you think you’re doing?’ he said. I felt like a school kid.” Macari then encountered two of Britain’s leading surgeons. “This young surgeon, Nick Parkhouse, had something extraordinary about him. ‘I can do your hands again better,’ he said, ‘and I can do your your eyes. However, there’s a chap up the road, Richard Collin, who’s better with eyes. I’ll see what I can do.’ Richard agreed to see me. He described the surgery as if putting butter on toast.” 
The operation was scheduled for a week on Wednesday. “I said, ‘can Nick help you?’ which he did. It put him on the map at King Edward VII, because no one had ever done a graft of that size.” Surprisingly, following surgery, Macari ventured straight to a stag weekend in Ireland “with great friend, ‘hollow legs’, rooming with a guy called Wayne Money, at the time MD of Everest double-glazing. Next thing I know all 12 of us are in a bar and there are eight of the most beautiful, uninterested girls.” Money approached them. “‘Hey girls, my friend’s so ugly no one’s interested,’ he said. Next thing Wayne and I are holding court, with the other 10 guys looking on.” Money phoned a month later. “‘How you looking?’ -Much better thanks. ‘Well let’s put your head through a window and let’s go on the pull again…’”
Macari eventually met the driver responsible for hospitalising him. “He was completely remorseless.”
“I had to survive so I bought and sold, bought and sold: two fish and chip shops, a coffee bar, cars. And then it just got bigger…”
Despite vowing he would never return to the racetrack, in 1996, Macari accepted a friend’s invitation to teach at Goodwood. Clients included police, “most of whom shouldn’t have a driving license” and civilians. However, Macari avoided clients who brought their own kit “because they’d want to show how good they were rather than learn.” Once customers left, Macari drove a few laps of his own. “Taking it to its limits gave me freedom: release.” In 1998, another friend phoned from Donington Park. “‘Do you want to do some testing?’ he asked. I said no. ‘I’ve got some money I owe you,’ he remonstrated. So I went, and got into a BMW M3 touring car. It was raining. But I don’t remember feeling so alive.” There Macari met best friend, Rob Wilson, “probably the best racing coach,” and Robert Brooks, “Chairman of Bonham’s.”
The season featured international tour car racing with a second at the Nürburg 24-hour. “We led class, but got three punctures in the last five laps and a cracked chassis, finishing on three wheels in second. Absolute hell.”
Meanwhile, Macari continued to coach including catwalk model, Jodie Kidd before her Top Gear episode - “fastest one on the track.”
In 2005, Macari got an opportunity to race at world championship level. “Better lose some weight, I thought, so I got a trainer called ‘Rob The Bastard’ (poor man, I gave him the name). I went from 17-and-a-half stone to 13 stone.” 
That year the more slender Macari realised his dream with Rob Wilson. “Extraordinarily special. As a kid I had no interest in single-seater racing; I wanted to race a sports car at Le Mans. And it had to be a Ferrari. So much bigger than me. It probably took 15-hours into the race for me and the track to like eachother, then I started to go quite quickly.”
Macari opened his first workshop in Wandsworth in 1999, relocating to Southfields in 2003 where he later opened to officially service Ferraris and Maseratis. “Our restorations are not cheap by any means but they’re the best. Out of 14 we’re currently doing, six are for foreigners of German origin who want quality.” 
We take in complex engine tasting bays, beside which is a Lamborghini tractor and a number of Fiat 500s, “I love them,” says Macari. “Cool, fun, refreshing and iconic. I even drive one. Collectible but completely usable.” I clock one of Macari’s more powerful automobiles outside, though: a Ferrari FF. “Mind blowingly technically good. Amazingly sure-footed, quite good manners, a big girl, quite heavy, and a little bit fat.” He describes his Daytona Spider as “a bucket list thing.” He mentions Chris Kristofferson inspired him in ‘A Star is Born’, driving into the sunset, eight track playing. “I had to put an eight track in mine in the same place. Except I didn’t like red so I painted the car black.”
Macari actually loves colours, frequently encouraging clients to take risks. He recalls the one who wanted a Ferrari Dino in red and chrome for his 50th birthday. “I phoned his wife to show one we’d done in gunmetal grey with Bordeaux leather, and she overrode his decision. ‘You two buggers have done me a favour,’ he said. And he drives it to work every day except in the snow.” Then there was the superstitious client. “A psychic told him he’d have a terrible accident in a red car which meant we couldn’t put the registration in his name until every bit of red was taken down to bare metal.” Macari also shares his idea of re-colouring the roof of the Ferrari 599 in black. “The effect of losing the roof-line made it sleeker, but two years later Ferrari offered it as an option. Disaster for me!”
Golf buggies, in Ferrari livery, shuttle the short distance between workshop and brand new showroom. It was three years in the planning and one year late because Macari, who rendered the design himself, “wasn’t prepared to compromise”. Hours before the launch, “Father John from Garratt Lane Catholic church” blessed the site. “We need all the help we can get,” half-jokes Macari.
Although Macari admits he would rather watch a double-bill of Coronation Street “which I haven’t missed in 15 years” than attend a “got-to-go-to” party, the launch was a mighty success. “We invited 600 clients, friends and family. Chris Evans, like many people, turned up early. There were 40 cars in the car-park at 5:45pm.”
As well as stars there were star cars. “We had the 360GT2 which I did my first Le Mans in and an F1 GTR McLaren, hand-painted by artist, César Baldaccin. I competed at Le Mans twice and won Bahrain 24 hours in that. And a 430GT2 I raced at Le Mans which I took part in Dubai 24 hours. And a Maserati MC12 – one of most important Maserati’s ever because it was probably the only car in the GT world championship where the same chassis won three times. They would restrict it to make it slower – clipping its wings –but every year it came back and won.” For a moment, I see a parallel between it and the seemingly indefatigable Macari.
The six metre wide video wall is best viewed from the laser-lit mezzanine, which features a private room with a glass table over two Ferrari power plants. “We’ll wait until Bahrain - then you’ve got a race at a reasonable hour,” says Macari. “There’s nothing better than watching a spectacular event in company. Have a bacon sandwich together, enjoy the build-up and then see the race with big surround sound and live timing.” In addition to showing off the cars, Macari intends the space to support launches for up-to 300. What did this all cost, I ask? “A lot,” is all he’ll say.
Buoyed by grandeur and glamour, I ask Macari how he feels having built-up a fantastic-looking business. “Is it fantastic?” he says. Outside, mesmerised by the glimmering motors, and perhaps incubating racing dreams of his own, a child presses nose against the glass. “They say the grass is always greener. Perhaps it’s just cut differently.” He pauses, “I just love restoring motor cars to a level which is extraordinary, and in today’s age of traffic, more drivable...”
(An extended version of an article commissioned for The Wharf)