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Renting the dream: North Buffalo residents launch luxury car rental business

Maybe you’re dreading arriving at your high school reunion in a minivan with an overworked odometer.

Or you dream of impressing a date in a flashy sports car instead of your ho-hum sedan.

Or you want to arrive in style at a wedding in something other than the typical limo.

What to do? Roll up in a Porsche, a Corvette or a muscle car like a Dodge Challenger.

A couple of Buffalo guys, Gregory Straus and Matthew Bona, have these cars for rent, and they think there is a market for people who want to escape their everyday driving experience. They launched Redline Rentals of Buffalo with that idea.

Customers have already rented the cars for a day, several days, or even weeks at a time, for everything from cool road trips to wedding anniversaries and milestone birthdays. The customers get the thrill of driving – and being seen driving – expensive cars, and then turn in the keys and go back to their everyday transportation.

Robert P. Carr, president of Carr Marketing Communications, compares the concept to signing up for baseball fantasy camps to play alongside real major leaguers for a few days. “In some ways, it’s kind of like a Walter Mitty type of dream,” Carr said. “All of a sudden, the alarm clock goes off, and you’re back to reality.”

Charis Zaczek surprised her husband, Eric, with a 24-hour Corvette rental to celebrate their first wedding anniversary. When they stopped by Redline’s North Buffalo shop, Charis figured they would just see the car and pick up a gift certificate. But Eric was eager to rent the Corvette immediately, so they did, taking it to Grand Island to see what it could do.

“We had a lot of yells: ‘Nice car, nice car!’ ” Charis said. Later, the Kenmore couple drove to the Buffalo Chophouse for dinner.

Adam Hageman usually drives a tow truck with his business, Empire Towing and Recovery. The Challenger is Hageman’s “dream car,” but he can’t afford to buy one, so he rented one from Redline for a month.

Hageman drove the car to a wedding and took a friend to Gowanda to pick up a motorcycle. He also drove it for errands.

“I was at Lowe’s with my two daughters, and someone asked me if it was mine,” he said.

Tim O’Donnell drove the Corvette with his 19-year-old son to Chicago for a Blackhawks-Kings playoff game. They could have flown, but O’Donnell preferred father-son bonding time on a road trip. The head-turning car added an extra touch, O’Donnell said.

“The Hawks won in double overtime, which was awesome,” he said

These are exactly the types of stories that Straus, 27, and Bona, 28, hoped to hear when they started Redline. The North Buffalo residents went to St. Joseph’s Collegiate Institute and Canisius College together. While on assignment in New York City, they learned about the luxury car rental business.

When they returned to Buffalo, Straus and Bona talked about bringing the concept here. Both are lifelong car guys with an affinity for numbers: Straus has a degree in accounting, and Bona earned a degree in accounting and finance.

But they faced an obvious question: How can a business like Redline succeed in a place like Buffalo, where wintry weather spoils the fun for months?

“My response to that is, that’s exactly why it’s going to work, because it’s a shortened season,” said Bona, the chief operating officer. “People don’t want to buy these cars, they don’t have room to store them, they don’t have the time and ability to maintain them, because the average person probably only is going to drive them 1,000 to 2,000 miles per year.”

They found a bank willing to work with them and, after a long search, lined up insurance for the business. Then the co-owners set out to build a fleet.

Straus and Bona always had a Corvette and a Porsche in their game plan.

“What we were trying to do was think about that Ferrari-Lamborghini mindset without the price tag,” said Straus, Redline’s president.

They found a 2008 midnight blue Porsche 911 in Washington, D.C., that fit their criteria: full convertible, turbo engine and automatic transmission. Straus flew to Washington and drove the car home just in time to display it at one of the charity events Redline attends to promote its service.

Bona spotted a torch-red 2011 Corvette Grand Sport on a car lot one day.

“I drove by it and said, ‘Yep, that’s the car,’ and pulled a Uie in the parking lot.”

They rounded out the fleet with a 2012 Challenger with chrome rims, a custom exhaust and a thunderous rumble.

“It’s pure black,” Straus said. “It’s really an ode to muscle cars.”

Straus and Bona spent about $150,000 for all three vehicles, assembling a fleet with different levels of rental prices. The rates vary depending on what a customer signs up for, but the Porsche rents for about $700 for 24 hours on a weekend, compared with about $500 for the Corvette and about $300 for the Challenger. (A new Porsche comparable to Redline’s rental sells for more than $100,000.)

Like any rental cars, Redline’s come with rules. Customers must be at least 25 years old and have a clean driving record and proper insurance. They can’t eat in the cars, and they have to put down a $2,500 refundable security deposit. Straus and Bona show customers how to drive the cars safely.

If a car comes back damaged – for example, a fender hanging off from ramming a steep driveway – Redline will hold the deposit until the customer’s insurance company reimburses Redline. “By telling people that, they drive it as if it was their own,” Straus said. “They’re a lot more responsible.” And so far, customers have dropped off the cars in good condition.

Can a business like this succeed in a smaller market like Buffalo? Gotham Dream Cars, which inspired Redline’s founders, operates in big markets like New York City, Miami and Los Angeles. During his research, Straus talked to Rob Ferretti, Gotham’s chief operating officer.

Ferretti said he doesn’t believe Buffalo is large enough to sustain a luxury rental car business as more than a side gig. “It’s not an easy business to make work, and the (profit) margins are far what from people expect.”

And Ferretti said it’s not just about drawing customers from a pool of wealthy people in a market. “They are people who want to pretend to be rich, effectively.”

Gotham customers will rent exotic cars and head to traffic-jammed places like Times Square. “Everybody just drives places nice and slow to be seen,” Ferretti said.

Straus and Bona say they recognize the challenges ahead. They have full-time jobs at banks – they declined to name them – and operate their business from rented space in a former collision shop. Straus believes Redline can be profitable within five years. If it doesn’t succeed, they can always sell off the cars.

By August, they expect to know how their bookings are looking into autumn. They are deciding what to do about the winter months – just put the cars in storage or add a luxury SUV that can handle the snow to the fleet.

For now, Straus and Bona are enjoying the ride. And Straus notices something when a customer’s rental time with a car is up: “They don’t want to give it back.”