While the descriptor “renaissance man” is usually an overstatement, it could be an oversimplification when applied to Robert Downey Jr. The Oscar-nominated actor, known for his diverse breadth of roles on screen, is also an entrepreneur involved in projects as equally varied, from his new coffee company to venture capital group FootPrint Coalition focused on sustainability.
To help support the latter, the 58-year-old creative was steered back to his love of the automobile and partnered with a group of friends, including restoration specialist Chris Mazzilli. Their collective goal was to transform six vehicles into greener machines, document the process in the show Downey’s Dream Cars, and then sell them off to help fund environmental startups.
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Now, fans of the program will have a chance to see each of the examples in person when the 2024 Chicago Auto Show opens to the public on February 10. As a prelude to the exhibition, Mazzilli gives Robb Report the backstory on his friendship with Downey, his own interesting character arc, and why any one of the cars could end up in your garage.
How did you and Robert Downey Jr. meet?
About 20 years ago, I got hired to produce a film for his father, Robert Downey Sr. The movie never got made but we became very good friends, he was a mentor to me, and we would have lunch about once a month. And that’s how I met Jr., at family functions. Fast forward, I have this shop now, and through my TV connections I meet Jay Petersen, who owns a production company called Matador. He’s a car guy, and we built him a ’68 Camaro and a ’73 Bronco.
Three-and-half years ago, Jay drives the Bronco out to the Hamptons and his buddy, Johnny Schulhof, who’s tight with Robert, sees the Bronco and asked who built it. He calls me and mentions that Robert was looking to modify some of his cars. Robert and I get on the phone and he says, “Mazzilli, I never knew you were in that business, I only know you from comedy, do you think you can help me?” He then explains, “I want to modify them in an environmentally friendly way, and then I want to sell them to help fund my charity.”
Did the idea for Downey’s Dream Cars happen simultaneously?
I told Robert there was more money in doing a sweepstakes. I had just done one for 36 cars we had a series on with the History Channel that supported the build of the cars. I told him that a series like that would be great to bring awareness to the charity and the sweepstakes. Robert, Jay Petersen, and I met at Johnny’s house in the Hamptons, and Jay and I pitched the series. Robert stopped me right in the middle and goes, “I love it, let’s do it. Me and Mazzilli will host, and the four of us will produce it.” That’s how the whole thing came together.
Did you have a say in which of Downey’s cars were selected for modification?
Yes and no. We talked about it but there were certain cars, like his mom’s car, that he just wanted to do something with. And they’re all different; you’ve got a ’69 Mercedes, a ’65 ‘Vette, a ’72 pickup, an ’85 El Camino, a ’66 Buick Riviera, and a ’72 VW Bus—there’s nothing out of that six where you would say, “these two are similar.” With the Corvette, I really wanted a modern LS [engine] in it, because it made sense in my head. But he wanted to go electric and felt very strongly about that. Obviously, it was his choice, and I really struggled with that, but the car came out great. Robert was a dream to work with and he was involved in every aspect of the design of these cars.
How would you describe Downey’s approach to collecting?
What were some of the greatest challenges to the project?
We were on very tight time constraints. Normally, the kind of modifications he wanted to do would take two to three years for one car, and we did a lot of work on each one. They were all challenging in one way or another. Trying to retrofit stuff, a lot of it hadn’t been done before. There was no way we could do all six in my shop, so we did the VW Bus, the Riviera, and the El Camino, and farmed the other three out.
Of the six cars, which one resonates the most with you?
I love them all, for different reasons, but the VW Bus is just such a classic. We put an electric motor in it, and it has a roll-out electric grill at the back powered by solar panels on the roof. When we were filming the last episode, we all got in the VW and drove to the beach in Malibu and barbecued—it was awesome.
What can attendees at the opening of the Chicago Auto Show expect from your exhibition?
All six cars will be there, and we’re all going to be there. All have very unique features—vegan leather interiors, carpeting made from recycled plastic bottles, bicycles powered by solar panels on top of the El Camino, and the Mercedes has been converted to run on biodiesel.
How does the sweepstakes for the cars work?
You make a donation at rdjdreamcars.com. There are also free entries, but if you make a donation, the money goes to FootPrint Coalition, which is Robert’s charity that funds non-profit initiatives. There will be six winners for the six cars, and they will be spaced out through July.
When and how did your passion for cars develop?
As far back as I can remember, my dad was telling me stories. He first had a [Chevrolet] Bel Air 348 Tri-Power with 280 hp, 3:55 POSI rear, and a three-speed on the column. He said that the only things that could beat him on the road back then were ‘Vettes, everything else he demolished. He lost two races, one to a ’59 Fuelie ‘Vette and another to a Pontiac Bonneville with a supercharger on it. So that’s how I got hooked, I had no choice. As a little kid, I could name every car on the road.
Is there a car that stands out from your childhood?
My dad had a ’64 Impala SS and drove me home from the hospital in that car. In the 1980s, he bought a ’58 Impala and we restored it, but he fell on financial hard times and had to sell the car—this is when I was younger. I couldn’t help him out, and it destroyed me. I made a mental note that, someday, when I was successful, I was going to buy him another Impala. About 20 years ago, I found a ’64 Impala SS similar to what he had, and gave it to him for Father’s Day—one of the best days of my life.
How did you end up landing a lead role in automotive restoration?
Wanting to be an attorney, I was contemplating on attending Columbia on a partial soccer scholarship, but that all ended when I blew both of my knees out. My backup school was FIT [Fashion Institute of Technology], because I’ve always been intrigued by design. I did that for half a second and didn’t like it, so went to acting school and started doing stand-up. I’d go to these clubs, and they just weren’t run the right way, so I opened the Gotham Comedy Club, which is going on 28 years in May. I started collecting cars and, one day, saw a shop’s yard that had a ’74 Corvette big block. I talked to the guy, we hit it off, and I told him, “I’ll buy this car if I can restore it with you, because I want to learn how to do all that stuff.” He was honest and really knowledgeable, but kind of a mad scientist, and I thought I could help with the shop. Years later, I became his partner, and that’s how I got into the business.
How did your disparate professional worlds come together?
There are a lot of comedians that love cars—obviously Seinfeld, Rogen, Tim Allen—so through my Hollywood connections I started getting involved with sourcing cars for celebrities and hosting shows. I did a series a couple years back with Michelle Rodriguez and sourced six cars for her to drive on track. And I know Seinfeld well and helped him source cars for his [Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee], including the ’56 Corvette he used for Jimmy Fallon and the ’63 split-window Corvette for Obama.
Where do you see the future of mobility in terms of power-train advancement?
There are a lot of people who think we’re going all electric, but I don’t think it’s going to be that way. If you look 10 or 20 years down the road, you’re still going to have the modern internal-combustion engine, you’re going to have electric, you may have hydrogen, and I think there will be other things that will come out. It’s all about choice. At the end of the day, a good build is a good build.
Will there be another season of the show?
Robert and I—and other people—have talked about it, and I think there will be some more Downey’s Dream Cars in the future.
The 2024 Chicago Auto Show Will be open to the public from February 10 through 19. For more information on entering to win a vehicle from Downey’s Dream Cars, click here.
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