It’s a silver Mercedes Gullwing; he bought it when he was starting out 33 years ago.
It’s been in numerous accidents, which is why it’s splattered with maroon paint and held together with Scotch tape.
“I fell in love with a 1955 Mercedes Gullwing,” he says. “It was $80,000. I didn’t have that much money, but I did have the $20 for this toy, which I found the same week. I named my business, Gullwing Motor Cars, after it.”
Peter, who drives a 2010 silver Mercedes S550 sans gullwings, grew up in a carless family in New Delhi, India.
“My father had a Vespa scooter,” he says, adding that “we were little better than poor. We were not on the road and we had a house.”
His father also had an auto-parts store, where Peter started working part time at age 15. The business, however, didn’t do well and it was sold.
By the time Peter was in college, he had decided that he wanted to be a millionaire.
He didn’t know how he was going to accomplish this feat, especially since he dropped out of school in 1984 after the second year of his three-year program.
“My uncle had a used-Mercedes business in London,” Peter says. “I didn’t have any money, so he paid for my plane ticket.”
After four months of cleaning cars, Peter, then 19, went to Miami, where his uncle had another used-car business.
“It was not doing well,” Peter says, “and he sent me to check up on it.”
Peter, who did not have a driver’s license, much less a car, executed his first sale – a 1981 Volvo – while there.
The business ultimately closed in 1986, and Peter, using his apartment as his office, began selling used cars, particularly Ford Pintos. At night, he delivered pizza.
In 1988, upon the advice of his uncle, Peter moved operations to New York, settling in Great Neck, where he still lives. In 1990, he began specializing in pre-owned Mercedes, and in 1991 he transferred Gullwing Motor Cars to Astoria.
“I started with 20 cars,” he says, adding that Gullwing Motor Cars is one of the East Coast’s larger dealers of European and American classic and exotic cars. “The biggest sale I ever did was for a silver 1962 Ferrari 250 GT short wheelbase. It went for $9.95 million.”
Peter restocks the inventory, whose timeline ranges from a 1913 Hudson to a 1996 Mercedes, by traveling around the country.
He mentions recent buying trips to Connecticut, Massachusetts and Louisiana, and networking visits to top shows in Paris and Germany.
Peter, lean and spare like a racecar, thinks nothing of driving hours to meet a potential seller or of getting up at 5 or even 4 a.m. to board a plane to chase down a car.
“I don’t like my job,” he says. “I love it.”
This may be why he’s made it a family affair. His wife, Monica, works in the office alongside him, handling the business side of the operation.
Theirs was an arranged marriage: she is the daughter of Peter’s father’s best friend.
Monica is seven years younger than Peter, so they didn’t exchange vows until he was 26. They have two daughters and a son who are 23, 20 and 18.
“My son is a little interested in Gullwing Motor Cars,” Peter says. “He sometimes works here.”
For Peter, the allure is not only the access to cool cars but also to the stories behind them.
He pulls out his smartphone and flips through dozens of body shots.
See this 1957 silver-and-black Corvette with the red interior? Five years ago, he drove five hours upstate to look at it.
“The owner was 98,” he says. “He fell in love with his car all over again when I was there and decided not to sell it. But he’s 103 now and going into assisted-living, so he just sold it to me.”
This one, it’s a 1956 Mercedes Gullwing. It belonged to a teacher. The glass window in the back broke, and she and her husband couldn’t afford to get it fixed, so they parked it in the garage for decades.
“In 2014, when I bought it from her, it was worth $600,000 — more than her house,” he says.
Then there was the man who was selling a 1975 Porsche and an inexpensive motorcycle.
“He kept saying he needed $35,000 for them,” Peter says. “But the highest offer he was getting was $25,000. Finally, I asked him how he came up with $35,000. It turned out that they didn’t have health insurance and that was how much his father needed for cancer surgery. I bought them for $35,000.”
As Gullwing Motor Cars took off, Peter bought the building that houses it and three others surrounding it. He has 12 people on staff.
“I don’t know whether I’m successful,” he says. “In India, I was a dreamer.”
One thing he’s still dreaming about is owning a Mercedes Gullwing.
“I don’t like the new ones,” he says. “And the classics go for about $1 million.”
He picks up the toy Gullwing on his desk and holds it up to the fluorescent light.
To him, it is worth far more than the real thing.
Astoria Characters Day: The 2nd Family Reunion is September 23. It is sponsored by Bareburger and Salt & Bone. Nancy A. Ruhling may be reached at Nruhling@gmail.com. Follow her on Twitter at @nancyruhling and visit astoriacharacters.com.