By Michael E. Miller
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Billing itself as the largest dealer of exotic cars in the world, the Toy Store Group in Fort Lauderdale sells automotive dreams to wealthy and famous customers -- Bruce Willis, Arnold Schwarzenegger, and Jay Leno among them. The gleaming sports and luxury cars -- from regal Bentleys to sleek Ferraris -- pack the Toy Store's showrooms and are touted as the finest automobiles available for sale anywhere.
Dozens of Toy Store customers from around the nation, however, complain that all they got from the flashy dealership on Sunrise Boulevard were wrecked rip-offs and malfunctioning lemons.
One lawsuit after another -- more than 40 according to a search on the Broward Clerk of Courts computer -- has been filed against the Toy Store Group since 1995, the year millionaire Peter Wolofsky took sole ownership of the legendary dealership. The allegations against the Auto Toy Store and Fort Lauderdale Collection, which comprise the Toy Store Group, include odometer fraud, racketeering, unfair trade practices, and negligence. One recent complaint went so far as to charge the dealership with attempted murder over a Porsche described in the suit as a "deathtrap."
Until recently the complaints -- some singling out Wolofsky and general manager Steve Goldstrom -- were quietly filed away. But things changed radically when Chris Gettings, the owner of an Internet company, decided to get vengeance on the Toy Store the new electronic way, creating a Website to "share my bad experiences with the world." The site's address tells it all: www.autotoystore-cheats.com. Since he put it online last November, the site has been "hit" by more than 17,000 Web users and has served as both a venting place for angry customers and a warning to car buyers.
Gettings' quest for a Ferrari began when he opened a glossy magazine called the duPont Registry, which boasts 250,000 wealthy subscribers and is owned by a scion of the famed chemical-producing company. The Toy Store, which spends roughly $35,000 a month on ads, is the largest advertiser in the magazine's "Buyer's Guide for Fine Automobiles." Gettings finally had the means to buy his dream car last fall. He walked into the Toy Store and bought a 1987 328GTS for $52,000, which he agreed to finance with the Toy Store after being promised the car had never been wrecked or repainted. He then took the car to a mechanic -- which he concedes he should have done before he bought the car -- and learned that the car had been wrecked. Its frame underneath, he says, was still "crushed and bent." Whoever repainted the car, Gettings says, forgot to remove the paint-coated masking tape from around the retractable headlights. When he told the Toy Store about the problems, he was told, "Come on back in, we'll make you happy."
So he went back and bought another car, this one a blue 1991 Ferrari 348TS, which the Toy Store also promised had never been wrecked or repainted. He agreed to a price of $69,000 and put $21,000 down. "I just couldn't believe they would do it to me again," he says. He then had the car delivered to his home in Virginia -- where he says he promptly found out that they had done it to him again. "I learned that the car had been wrecked, that all four fenders and doors had been repainted, and the engine mount was damaged," he writes in his Website. He returned the second car, but the Toy Store refused to refund his $21,000 unless he put it toward another Toy Store car. Instead, Gettings sued for fraud and created the Website.
Goldstrom, the Toy Store's general manager, calls Gettings a "nut" and his claims "completely false." Wolofsky says that the second Ferrari was in great shape and that Gettings is "strictly a ball-breaker."
"It's legalized extortion, I think," Goldstrom says of the Website.
Wolofsky says the Toy Store sells roughly 600 cars a year and the vast majority of his customers are happy with what they get. While this may well be true, a pattern appears to emerge among those unhappy customers in the minority.
It begins, according to the complaints, when the Toy Store promises customers that a car is in pristine condition. The salesman's insistence, plus the large Toy Store presence in the duPont Registry, prompts many customers to buy the cars sight unseen and have them shipped to their homes thousands of milesaway.
When a buyer actually does walk into the dealership, the lawsuit alleges, a test drive often isn't allowed, and only later does the buyer painfully discover that the car is a lemon. When he or she complains, the Toy Store either tries to get that customer in another car or simply doesn't respond at all, according to alleged victims. In some of the complaints, both Wolofsky and Goldstrom are characterized as intimidators who blow up at the unsatisfied customer, screaming profanities.
Here's a look at just three of the claims made in as yet unsettled lawsuits filed at the courthouse:
Terrace Ellis of New Jersey leased a 1992 Mercedes from the Toy Store for $8000 down and $780 a month. Ellis learned that the Mercedes -- which was supposed to be in perfect condition and to have never been wrecked -- had in fact been severely damaged in an accident and required more than $6000 in bodywork. When Ellis wrote a letter demanding her money back, the car was repossessed by the Toy Store, and Ellis was left with thousands of dollars in losses, according to the suit. The case is expected to go to trial nextyear.