Alfredo Molina — Cars and Carats

  • story by David M. Brown
  • posted on 06/2011
  • posted in: Great Garages

Great cars take Al Molina back to childhood.

When the well-known Valley jeweler was a boy in his native Cuba, Fidel Castro was wresting power from the former dictator, Fulgencio Batista. The Molina family, with almost a century of well-earned prosperity on the island, was not going to be welcomed into the new communist worker’s paradise. So, within a few years of the coup, they made plans to leave — and a ’58 Caddy paradoxically helped take them there.

The family traces its jewelry craftsmanship to 1634 in Milan, Italy, and today Alfredo, wife Lisa, their family and staff continue that tradition at Molina Fine Jewelers, 3134 E. Camelback Road in Phoenix, one of the country’s most respected jewelry boutiques.

Their Molina Foundation supports approximately 200 charitable organizations in Arizona, California and New York, focusing on children, education, diseases and the arts. In the past 24 years, the Molinas have given more than $30 million in money or in-kind donations.

The early Molina family moved to Spain from Italy, and in 1841 Queen Isabella II chartered Alfredo’s great-great-grandfather to oversee the construction of the railroad from Havana to the sugar plantations. With this position, he attained land and titles, becoming one of the country’s cattle barons — called the “Golden Bull” for this and his ongoing jewelry work.

The final battle of the Castro-led revolution, in fact, took place in Alfredo’s hometown of Santa Clara in late December 1958, led by Ernesto Che Guevara. But how could the family leave with at least some assets?

“My father had a 1958 Cadillac, and my grandfather was friendly with a Spanish ambassador, so they had the bumpers cast in gold and other parts in platinum and shipped it to Spain,” Alfredo says from his office at the showroom and studio. “I remember riding in it as a boy.”

Because of the added weight, the car sagged on the wheels. Normally, this might have been suspicious to port inspectors, but the Caddy was equipped with the air-suspension system that GM had first offered the year before for the Cadillac division. The system was innovative, adjusting for road conditions, but it was too complex and widely unsuccessful, so much so that Cadillac later offered a kit for the cars to make them conventionally rear coil sprung. The leaking air system only lasted four years and was dropped.

“It looked like a low-rider, but when the car was inspected on leaving, it wasn’t so strange to see it sagging as though the airbag shocks were deflated, so it got through and got to Spain,” explains Alfredo, who also owns a Madison Avenue and 48th Street Molina store in New York City. In 2006, he purchased Black, Starr & Frost, America’s oldest jeweler, founded in 1810, and on May 6, he opened a store on Newport Harbor in Newport Beach.

In 1967, Alfredo’s family left Cuba and immigrated to Chicago, where he apprenticed with his grandfather, beginning at age 8. He was immediately “hooked” on the allure of gold and gems, but he also fell in love with cars.

“Like every other little boy I wanted to be a race car driver,” he recalls. “I looked at cars and thought they were awesome, and that became a passion that has lasted throughout my life.”

His first car was a 1978 Corvette — an L82 white on red, and he’s also owned a 1959 red-on-white Corvette that he used to drive in the Copperstate Rally here in the Valley. “It was a 40th-birthday gift from Lisa.”

He’s also had a 1950 Allard with a red interior, which he was fortunate to drive in the Mille Miglia in Italy. Sydney Allard, in fact, drove a J2 at Le Mans in 1950 and placed third. “I’ve driven cars at Laguna Seca, Pebble Beach and other concours events. It’s been a lifetime love affair,” he says.

Highline Autos recently asked Alfredo to bring some of his cars to his jewelry store and share them with us. He describes them like the mobile jewelry they are:

•1950 Mercury Monarch — “I’ve had it for five years. It’s black on tan. I bought it from a private owner in the Midwest, and it’s as tough looking today as it was 61 years ago.”

•1959 Saloon 1 Series Bentley — “Black on beige, it’s a rare car purchased at the Monterey RM Auction two years ago. I am just the third owner. It was purchased from an Oklahoma oil man who, rumor has it, was at the time the wealthiest man in the state. The body is aluminum on a stretched frame, and the car has those great so-called suicide doors. The engine is a straight six with aluminum pistons and twin electric gas pumps.

“It’s rare for a few reasons. For one, it is the last Hooper-bodied car for Bentley.” [The famous coachbuilder was ending a distinguished history of building coaches for great marques such as Bentley. Hooper Body Works had begun back in 1805 and built coaches for dignitaries such as King Edward VII in 1904, the Emperor of Japan, the King of Egypt and the Shah of Persia.]

“Secondly, the owner wanted to wear his cowboy hat in the rear seat, so the car is lowered by 2 inches and the roof raised 2 inches.

“And, it’s got just 39,000 original miles with standard air-conditioning in the rear, and another unit the owner had installed in the front from the factory. There’s also a sunroof.

“The car has power-assisted brakes, power steering and automatic transmission. Inside there’s special inlay wood on the fascia and rear trays. One of the previous owners replaced the original leather seats with Connelly hides.

“At Molina, we make it available for special occasions such as weddings for our customers and family.

“I also had an Azure, which was my first Bentley. There’s a kind of emotional thrill sitting in one and driving one, a feeling of ‘arrival.’”

•2006 Ferrari Spyder — “It’s red on tan, and it’s a Ferrari: What else do I have to say? I purchased it from my friend Peter Thomas, a PV resident and real estate icon.

“For men, cars are like jewelry is for women. Cars return us to our childhoods. They keep us young. There’s an emotional attachment with them. You remember your life’s greatest moments through them — who you were with and when.”

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