The Ocean Ridge resident says he spends 12 hours a day at the business, but it’s truly a labor of love.
Tim Stepien/The Coastal Star
Thomas Johnson, or Ted, as he is known, has spent a lifetime playing with cars — from the time he was 3 pedaling around his backyard in a little fire chief’s truck, to becoming the founder of Milestone Motorcars in Boynton Beach.
Johnson has developed his lifelong passion into a business that encompasses every aspect of classic and collectible cars. The facility features a showroom filled with models from manufacturers such as Ferrari, Alfa Romeo and Jaguar. It also includes areas for restoration and repair work, car storage, a race shop, and an extensive library that Johnson has accumulated over the years.
“We’re one-stop shopping for the car nut,” said Johnson, 68, who lives in Ocean Ridge with his wife, Sherry. “It’s a 12-hour day, but I don’t mind at all.”
Growing up in Connecticut, Johnson first caught the bug for car collecting from his father, an engineer who liked mechanical things. His father brought home different cars, including British models that had leather interiors and burled walnut dashes, which Johnson found fascinating.
“The materials used in making these cars were so different from what we saw in cars that were made in America,” said Johnson. “It perked my interest at a very early age.”
When he was 18, he bought his first car, an Alfa Romeo, which at the time was considered “just a used sports car,” not a collectible, and was very affordable.
“That ignited a real passion for Italian cars that’s lasted all my life,” said Johnson. “They’re what I mostly have interest in. I appreciate them because of their engineering excellence.”
In 1967, while Johnson was earning a degree in engineering, he worked for what was then the only U.S. importer of Ferrari automobiles, Luigi Chinetti Motors in Greenwich, Conn. He did everything from clean cars to chase parts, and by the time the company dissolved in the early 1980s, he had held just about every position, from mechanic to sales manager.
During that time, he was also a mechanic and engineer for the North American Racing Team, the Ferrari factory racing team that Luigi Chinetti founded in the United States. Johnson got to see a bit of the world, participating in races such as the 24 Hours of Le Mans in France and the Formula One Dutch Grand Prix.
After his job at the Ferrari dealership ended, Johnson continued to work in the car business, but when it took a hit during the economic downturn of the early 1990s, he had to find other work to pay the bills. He started his own company and worked in international trade for almost 20 years, while still keeping his hand in the classic and collectible car market.
Johnson eventually returned to the car business full-time. After moving to Florida in 2010, he started Milestone Motorcars as a way to share his expertise with other collectors and enthusiasts.
“The operation I’ve put together here is pretty unique in Florida,” said Johnson. “We supply people with what they need to enjoy the same cars we do. We all love what we do, and it’s easy to see, because we don’t punch clocks, we go home when the job’s finished.”
He has sold close to 1,000 cars in his career. The one with the biggest price tag was a Ferrari 250P competition car that was one of only four built and raced in 1964 by the Ferrari factory. A collector bought it for $12 million. The car is probably worth $25 million now.
In his private collection, he has three Jaguars and two Alfa Romeos, all built in the 1960s, his favorite period. It was right before the federal government mandated certain safety requirements for motor vehicles that changed the character of sporting cars.
Johnson hopes to pass his cars on to his grandson and granddaughter, and to instill in them the same passion that he has.
“I want to make sure that these artifacts — these artworks — are maintained and enjoyed and seen in the future,” said Johnson. “I’ve put a lot of effort into making my cars beautiful and historically correct with the right fixtures and pieces. They’ll be something the future can look at and say, ‘Oh, that’s how it was in 1966, or 1963. That’s how this car was when it left the factory.’
“That may seem like a small thing,” he said, “but I think we as collectors, of anything, are really charged by the future in preserving what goes through our hands. We’re only custodians of it for a little while, and then it moves on into history.”
— Marie Puleo
Q. Where did you grow up and go to school? How do you think that has influenced you?
A. I grew up in Stamford, Conn. The area when I was growing up combined the virtues of a small town with the access to the cosmopolitan attributes of a big city. Now it’s much different.
When I was ready for high school, my family arranged for me to attend a coed preparatory school in Pennsylvania, where other family members had attended. It was an interesting experience as I was on my own at an early age. I think this independence was formative.
From there I attended the University of Connecticut and studied engineering, which led to my passion for competition and sporting cars.
Q. What professions have you worked in?
A. I am a mechanical engineer by profession. My early career was spent working for the U.S. importer of Ferrari automobiles. I started as an apprentice mechanic and did pretty much everything around the company, ending up as the sales manager. Since then I have been involved in the sale and brokerage of many important collector cars.
I also ran a company involved in international trade and traveled widely. I operated a beverage distribution company in Mexico, until I sold it in 2009 and moved full-time to Florida and opened Milestone Motorcars in Boynton Beach.
Q. How did you choose to make your home in Ocean Ridge?
A. I had been coming to Palm Beach County since I was young and had been looking for a place to spend the winter months. In 1998, a friend had an apartment in Ocean Ridge for rent and I took it for a few months. I immediately fell in love. I moved here full-time in 2010.
Q. What is your favorite part about living in Ocean Ridge?
A. The quiet and the feeling of community.
Q. What book are you reading now?
A. A Ship of the Line, by C.S. Forester. Part of the Horatio Hornblower series and an amazingly detailed historical novel using the Royal Navy during the Napoleonic Wars as a backdrop.
Q. What music do you listen to when you need inspiration? When you want to relax?
A. Smooth jazz.
Q. Do you have a favorite quote that inspires your decisions?
A. Admiral David Glasgow Farragut at the Battle of Mobile Bay: “Damn the torpedoes! Full speed ahead!”
Q. Have you had mentors in your life?
A. Foremost would be my dad, who was a very great influence on me. Also, Luigi Chinetti, the great racing driver and the man who brought Ferrari automobiles to the United States. I worked for him and his son for 15 years and developed a love of fine sporting machinery.
Q. If your life story were made into a movie, whom would you want to play you, and why?
A. Steve McQueen. Because he was a real car guy and probably the coolest person to have ever walked the planet.
Q. What kind of car do you drive?
A. Every day, a 2013 Audi Q5. For fun, my 1964 Jaguar XKE Coupe.