Forget Ferraris, this man would rather play in the dirt

“At one time I had 14 Ferraris,” said John Campion, before explaining that a collection others might dream of didn’t scratch all of his itches. “They were great, but didn’t connect with me like rally cars did.”

The Ferraris were hard-earned, not the playthings of a trust-fund brat. Campion of Cork, Ireland, arrived in the U.S. on June 6, 1984 with $25 in his pocket. Those dollars were precious, but more precious still was a memory that would shape his future.

“My dad took my brother and me to the forest to watch rally cars,” Campion said. “It was 1974, and I had just turned 15. All was quiet at first, then I heard the scream of an engine. Through the trees I saw Billy Coleman in a Lancia Stratos flying sideways as the car cleared a rise. The image was burned into my brain.”

Coleman would eventually become Ireland’s top World Rally Championship driver, a series that is to the Irish what NASCAR is to Americans. The experience reinforced Campion’s automotive passion and seeded a deep affection for the Lancia Stratos, a sleek Bertone-designed automobile powered by a sweet-sounding Ferrari Dino V-6.

Campion’s love of automobiles travelled with him to America, where he took a roadie job with a rock band as “the fifth man on a four-man crew.”

An ordinary man might have been drawn into the typical rock bands’ culture of excess, but Campion was not ordinary. Instead, he recognized that traveling bands often lacked the electricity needed to power their lights and amplifiers, so he began to market portable generators. Over the years, he bought and sold businesses and expanded his reach. Today he’s chairman and chief executive of APR Energy, which provides portable electric power for industry. And he and his wife, Suzanne, own 20 cars of particular interest.

Campion said he started buying cars “when I began to make a few dollars.” He bought his first collectible, a 1969 Intermeccanica Italia, in 1994. Typical of the distinctive cars that catch his eye, it speaks Italian, voiced by a Ford V-8.

While the Italia was offbeat, most of his early purchases were typical big-buck collectibles.

The first rally car he purchased — after selling his Ferrari F40 and Testarossa —was, no surprise, a 1975 Lancia Stratos HF that competed in the 1977 Monte Carlo Rally. A sophisticated racecar, even by current standards, it uses a midengine layout and is built on a space frame with integral roll cage.

The Stratos was among six rally cars that Campion showed at the Concours d’Elegance of America in Plymouth, Mich., last July. Others from his collection on display included a 1969 Lancia Fulvia; an ‘85 Lancia Delta S4 Group B car that makes 550 horsepower from a turbocharged and supercharged midship four-cylinder; a Fiat Abarth 131 Coupe that was rallied in Michigan and once graced the cover of Road & Track; the 1988 Lancia Delta Integrale that won the ‘88 World Rally Championship; and a 325-horsepower, two-wheel drive 1983 Lancia 037 that competed in more than 20 Group B rallies.

When asked if he drives his cars, Campion seemed taken aback: “Of course I drive them, so does Suzanne, who is very into this as well.” Asked which car he most enjoys, Campion didn’t hesitate: ”Either of the Group B cars, the 037 or S4. They’re visceral. The S4 reaches 60 mph in 2.3 seconds — on gravel.

“There’s no comfort,” he added. “They’re extremely loud and extremely fast. I’m extremely thankful when I stop driving, because I’m still alive.”

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