Owning a luxury car or two in tony Greenwich is not exactly unique. But amassing a collection of more than 50 automobiles, spanning100 years is, well, extraordinary. Especially when you use it to inspire thousands of underprivileged kids to work hard to realize their potential by daring to dream.
The man behind the mission and the impressive collection is longtime Greenwich resident and philanthropist Malcolm Pray.
For more than 40 years, Pray owned car dealerships in the Greenwich area – a golden stable that included VW, Porsche, Saab, Nissan, Infiniti and Audi (the first Audi dealership in the U.S. and the largest) – until he sold the business in 1999 to devote himself to his children’s foundation.
About 100 feet from the border of Greenwich on Bedford Banksville Road in Bedford is the Pray Achievement Center. Built in 2000 with the purpose of teaching entrepreneurship to young people and inspiring careers, Pray uses his distinguished collection as a vehicle to motivate kids, just as a Delahaye motivated him when he spied the French auto as an 11-year-old visitor to the 1939 New York World’s Fair.
“This was a moment that changed my life. I wanted that car more than anything. In 1964, I bought that very car, which gave birth to the Pray Automobile Collection.”
Since opening its doors, the Achievement Center has played host to more than 7,000 students and hundreds of “Cars and Cocktails” events to benefit numerous charities, including the Boys and Girls Club of Greenwich and the Boy Scouts, an organization near and dear to the Life Scout’s heart. He uses many of the guiding principles he learned as a Scout in a booklet he hands out to young visitors titled “How to Be a Millionaire,” which teaches such concepts as valuing your reputation, trustworthiness and pride in your conduct.
Tragedy struck in 1986 when the father of four’s youngest child, Malcolm III, died shortly after the car he was driving crashed into a stone wall on North Street about a mile from the Pray Achievement Center. The accident became the impetus for helping children.
Pray credits his son for the decision to build the center.
“I got a message from Malcolm and God to sell the business and do this. Malcolm is up there directing with God,” he says with a smile.
With a burgeoning business, Pray was able to fuel his passion for collecting cars. So much so that at one time he owned more than 80 automobiles.
“To be a collector you need three things – money, space and passion.”
They’re three of the things the auto aficionado has in spades.
A French “mistress”
Today the collection has been edited down to 50 of the most significant works of automotive art, because that’s truly what they are. The most significant is his crown jewel and first love, a 1937 Delahaye Type 135M Figoni et Falaschi Cabriolet.
As a tribute and gift to her husband, wife Natalie wrote a book, “Malcolm’s French Mistress,” about the car and their adventures together. It includes the time in 1994 when the pair literally took the show on the road, winning awards at Concours d’Elegance events throughout the United States and appearing in England, Scotland and France.
Written tongue-in-cheek, Natalie describes the car as having “…a fabulous body, and sweeping fender skirts that flirt with the road. Her flawless ivory skin shines like satin. Deep blue brush strokes contoured over covered wheels give the illusion of sensuality in motion.
“She went to Palm Beach in the winter, and breezed along Round Hill Road in the summer, to polo and to parties. A topless lady, the Delahaye likes sunshine and fair weather.”
And so does his 1953 Sunbeam Alpine, which was famously featured in the Cary Grant and Grace Kelly movie, “To Catch a Thief.” Indeed, the majority of the collection is contains some of the most coveted “topless ladies,” including a 1937 Bugatti Type 57C bodied by Van Vooren, a 1935 Amilcar Pegase Roadster, a 1957 BMW 507 Roadster, a 1957 Porsche Speedster, and a 1961 red (is there any other color?) Ferrari.
Though the collection is an eclectic mix, each car is significant to Pray, either because of a personal connection or from a historical perspective. His purchase of a revolutionary 1909 Ford Model T was inspired by Henry Ford’s story of going broke several times before he succeeded. Sometimes, however, it simply comes down to sheer beauty.
“It’s chemistry, just like when you go to a cocktail party and meet somebody. I go to auctions and I see something, I’m like a little kid in the candy store.”
Born in Manhattan and raised in Greenwich, the 84-year-old spent much of his youth hearing stories about what a wonderful life his family used to have before losing a fortune in the Great Depression. Perhaps it was that experience that instilled in him a great desire to achieve the success and financial rewards that had eluded his family.
But the young boy struggled in school and wasn’t particularly athletic. With a less than stellar education and no money, the young man, straight from Air Force duty, began his career as a car salesman in 1955 in a small foreign car dealership on Greenwich’s Boston Post Road. A born salesman, it wasn’t long before Pray was sales manager, and in 1964 he founded the first of what would be many dealerships, selling Volkswagens.
It’s that drive and passion that Pray is trying to impart to young visitors at his Achievement Center.
“The cars are a way for me to prove to these kids that I have become an achiever on my own, and they can, too.”
Pray greets every visitor that walks through the door with a firm handshake and a warm hello, including visitors like student Shiann, who’s been inspired by him.
As she wrote to him, “You opened my eyes to the endless opportunities that may come my way if I try, always believe and do my best.”
The “Fall Guy”
A longtime Republican, Pray has raised funds for former Gov. John Rowland, former Congressman Christopher Shays and now Mitt Romney in his presidential bid. In June, Pray was one of 800 top donors invited to a three-day retreat at the Chateaux at Silver Lake in Deer Valley, Utah, where he mingled with the candidate.
But it’s not all fundraising and mentoring kids for this bon vivant. Known for his lavish parties – he once hosted a sit-down, black-tie affair for 900 in his backyard – the connoisseur knows how to have a good time.
This year, The Harpoon Club (a by-invitation-only Greenwich men’s club whose sole mission is “to preserve the sense of humor of the people of Greenwich”) chose Pray as its “Fall Guy.”
Last month, more than 200 men gathered at Greenwich Country Club to roast, or more appropriately, “harpoon,” Pray. As is customary, after the harpooning is done, the recipient is presented with the signature harpoon, and then it’s time for the rebuttal. The moment of truth comes when all wait to see just how funny the chosen Fall Guy is. The consummate salesman didn’t disappoint with his humorous response and surprise ending that had stunning USO Girls singing patriotic songs.
It’s creating those kinds of special moments, whether for his friends or deserving kids, that make Pray’s motor run.