Broke Ballin'

To hell with the economy! South Florida's lawless exotic-rental-car industry keeps rolling.

By Zarzuela's count, the princess spent $35,000 procuring the dog. She paid Zarzuela $200,000, he estimates, for his services. "I ever tell you about her?" he asks his assistant, Ray Ramirez, while grabbing a bottle of water from a mini-fridge next to his desk. "Crazy bitch."

On his business card, he casually eschews his last name, marking it with only "Nino." A public records search reveals the probable reason. In 2003, Zarzuela (his real first name is Guaroa) and two accomplices were title clerks at Baumgardner Auto Tag Agency, a government-authorized Dade County vehicle registration company. In July of that year, investigators busted the trio for knowingly registering 50 stolen cars, ranging from an '88 Nissan Sentra to a new Mercedes S500. Zarzuela was sentenced to 24 months in state prison for vehicle title fraud and dealing in stolen property, both felonies.

Such backgrounds — or worse — are typical in the trade, says Tony Fernandez, a special agent at the National Insurance Crime Bureau, headquartered in Virginia. "A lot of them have done auto scams before," he says. "Some of them have been involved in drugs."

Noah Lehmann-Haupt is the MIT-educated wunderkind CEO of Gotham Dream Cars.
Laura Massa
Noah Lehmann-Haupt is the MIT-educated wunderkind CEO of Gotham Dream Cars.
Luis Elera claims his exotic shop was the first on the crowded airport strip.
Ian Witlen
Luis Elera claims his exotic shop was the first on the crowded airport strip.

These hustlers are enticed by an underregulated enterprise that, at a glance, seems like an exciting way to quickly turn a profit. "They get into the business for the wrong reasons," says American's Medina. "They want to be the man with the Lamborghinis. They don't know how hard these businesses are to run."

The biggest problem: It's nearly impossible to get insurance. Large companies see exotic cars as essentially unprofitable. Valuable, superpowerful sports vehicles, perhaps, shouldn't be in the hands of inexperienced drivers. So when an underwriter agrees to cover an exotic rental car, the cost can range from $20,000 to $50,000 per vehicle yearly.

So many rental-shop owners bypass insurance. They borrow cars from rich owners and rent them out illegally to customers like Raul who don't know any better. These arrangements become disastrous when a renter crashes and the insurance company goes to the original owner for an explanation. "That's when you hear: 'Oh, I was just loaning it to my friend,' " Fernandez says. "That's a big one."

If all else fails, declare bankruptcy and set up shop elsewhere under a different name. The airport strip has become ground zero for such undead enterprises. Within months, storefronts open, close, and reopen down the block with a new name. New businesses are registered by phantom owners with clean records. The listed address of one business takes you to the storefront of another or face-to-face with a barren street corner.

The lawlessness isn't just a South Florida problem. "There are, in fact, very few legitimate exotic-car-rental businesses in the United States. There may be six or seven that I know, positively for sure, are legitimately insured and licensed," says Ron Sturgeon, owner of Dallas-area DFW Elite Auto Rental. He describes a phenomenon familiar to anybody who has tried to track down business on our airport strip: "There's only one other place in Dallas, but the website lists an address that leads only to a little office, so I know that they're not legitimate."

After slogging through this lawless industry long enough, stepping into the Gotham Dream Cars complex can be a bit startling.

The Dania Beach showroom, located down an industrial alley, is still under construction after the company's move from Delray Beach. The desks haven't even been moved in yet, so printers and computers are strewn about the floor like a child's neglected playthings. But the six candy-painted Lamborghinis outside, bat-wing doors flung upward to snare the attention of motorists on the highway, are owned and paid for, as are all the exotics Gotham rents.

The cars are properly insured for rental, an onsite specialized mechanic takes care of the fleet's constant minor repairs, and the personable employees wear black-and-orange polo uniform tops.

It's all so shockingly... business-y.

In fact, this year Gotham Dream Cars was ranked number 275 on Inc.'s list of the nation's fastest-growing companies. Owner Noah Lehmann-Haupt made the magazine's "Top 30 Entrepreneurs Under 30" list.

Lehmann-Haupt estimates he met with a hundred different underwriters during a yearlong struggle to insure his fleet. "I had to show them I have real business experience; I'm not a former club promoter trying to make some quick cash," he says. "I am not here to have my entire fleet burn up in a mysterious garage fire — which happens, so it's hard to blame them for their reluctance.

"I don't want to compete with the guys in South Beach or over on the airport strip," continues the 30-year-old entrepreneur, who resembles a mousy Tom Hanks. He is wearing his daily ensemble of a blazer over a buttoned-down shirt, tidy jeans, leather shoes, and a sleek black bauble of a wristwatch. "I don't have to break out the Rolodex of wealthy friends when you ask for a certain car. I'm not renting out Scott Storch's private collection."

But Lehmann-Haupt did get into the exotic trade on something of a lark. The Bronx native was already a success by the time he was age 25, having sold a financial software company, TruExchange, that he developed as a 20-year-old MIT junior. When he tried to rent a Ferrari and found no companies in New York "worth a phone call," Lehmann-Haupt decided to fill the niche. "I thought this would be a hobby business," he says. "I thought I would pay my apartment rent and maybe make a little cash."

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