Move over, Mr. Iacocca, and make way for another blunt-as-a-hammer poor-boy-turned-millionaire who also has a hankering for good cars. Of course, the wheels of Houston shopping center mogul Jerry J. Moore, 58, aren't just your everyday production-line models. His come with five-and six-digit price tags or, like the giant gem he just bought at a Reno, Nev. car auction, a sticker of $6.5 million. That's what Moore paid for a 1931 French-made Bugatti Royale Berline de Voyage, making the gleaming yellow and black limousine the most expensive car ever sold. (Previous title holder: the late John Lennon's 1965 Rolls-Royce, which sold last year for $2.3 million.)

In Reno more than 1,250 high rollers came to kick the tires of 221 classic cars once owned by the late casino tycoon Bill Harrah. "I came for the Bugatti," says Moore, a short, balding, broad-chested man whose net worth tops $500 million. "I want to be the only kid on the block with the ugliest car in the world. It looks like a piece of crap, but it's unusual. You have to be honest in the world and say what you think. When I look in the mirror, I sure as hell don't see Gregory Peck looking back. The car is ugly, but it's a work of art." Moore then admits his favorites for beauty are a dozen new Rolls-Royces he keeps "around the house"-a 40-room, 18th-century chateau he had transported from France and reassembled in a ritzy Houston neighborhood. He also boasts owning 22 12-cylinder Ferraris, more than 200 restored antique Duesenbergs, a special collection of Mercedes from the '30s and other vehicles, plus a 40-foot ocean-racing Chris-Craft called Wild Thunder.

Moore's hobby is "making money," he says, and he intends to spend all of it "because you ain't never going to see a Brink's truck in a funeral procession." He adds: "I'm wealthy enough to afford anything I want. I don't think it's bragging to say this. I think it's being proud of what you do. Guys like me built this country.... I'm also known to be extremely brilliant. My IQ is about 20 points above genius—183. That's halfway to being insane."

Of course, Moore's smarts were never in question as the auction revved into high gear at the city's Convention Center. With bands playing and champagne flowing around the Royale's eight-cylinder, 300-horsepower hulk, 38 would-be owners began the bidding at $3 million. Detroit Tigers owner Thomas Monaghan had submitted a written offer of $5 million, but that wasn't enough. Soon the auction settled into a cheered-on duel between Moore and AirCal airlines boss William Lyon, who eventually quit at $6,450,000. Thus, the auction's pearl—a 20-foot convertible made by Ettore Bugatti and one of only six known to exist—went to a man who ultimately ended his $7,970,000 shopping spree by buying three other classics (second row above): two Duesenbergs and a lesser, $70,000 Bugatti sedan. All are destined for his $70 million plus collection, which he plans to display in his own Houston museum. (The Bugatti Royale will have its own building.) "Harrah, with all due respect—may he rest in peace—had some junk mixed in with his top cars," Moore says. "But the Bugatti is king of the hill."

The owner of Jerry J. Moore Investments and the largest single neighborhood shopping center developer in the U.S., Moore has always had a passion for collecting pricey cars, seriously pursuing that passion over the past eight years. Born in Houston to Polish Jewish immigrants, he says he grew up "poor," often went to school barefoot on rainy days to save his shoes and eventually dropped out of high school. Two decades ago, after 12 successful years selling vacuum cleaners, Moore turned his high octane energies to building low-cost, "three-room 'shotgun' houses," then bigger houses and apartments, and finally shopping centers. Today his three grown children and Jean, 54, his wife of 36 years, help him run the business. Although he restores, owns and leases old shopping centers in recession-hit Texas, Moore says that fixing up such open-air centers during a buyer's market has been a boon for him.

Same with old cars, he says. Down deep he's profit-driven, collector cars being an investment that "10 years from now will have done considerably better" than CD's or a savings account. "I don't crave cars. I have respect and love for them, but it's also the money. Yes, ma'am, because cars have made me many dollars in resale...I've already had five offers to sell [the Bugatti Royale] at a handsome profit. But I plan to keep it, admire it, respect it, caress it."

Now, about insurance, Jerry....

  • Contributors:
  • Nancy Faber.