James A. Peruto, Bucks County auto dealer, dies at 68
Growing up in the 1960s, Jimmy Peruto and his younger brother, Chuck, bought junkers for a couple hundred dollars and restored them in the driveway of the family's Overbrook twin.
James A. Peruto, 68, a Bucks County auto dealer who loved fixing cars in his youth and broke a world record for racing, died at his Lower Gwynedd home Wednesday, Sept. 29, after a three-year battle with melanoma.
Growing up in the 1960s, Jimmy Peruto and his younger brother, Chuck, bought junkers for a couple hundred dollars and restored them in the driveway of the family’s twin in Overbrook. Car parts were strewn on the driveway and in garage. Hood up. Fenders off.
“He did the body work and I did the mechanics. We made like $1,000 a car. Jimmy never lost sight of the car business,” Chuck Peruto said.
James A. Peruto put aside his motorhead leanings to attend Temple University law school and practice law for a few years with his father. But only temporarily. When a deal came along for the Keenan Mercedes-Benz dealership on North Broad Street in Philadelphia, Mr. Peruto felt the tug of throaty exhaust and shiny tailpipes and bought it.
Mr. Peruto immersed himself in the auto business and fast cars, relocating the Mercedes-Benz dealership to Doylestown and adding Keenan Honda and the Keenan Collision Center to his portfolio. And as the business prospered, Mr. Peruto pursued his gearhead passion for racing at tracks around the United States. In 2012, he clocked an average speed of 217 miles per hour on 90 miles of open highway in Nevada, setting a Guinness World Record for the fastest speed on a highway. The state closed the highway for the 2012 Nevada Open Road Challenge.
After his youngest daughter, Jackie Jo, was born in 2013, Mr. Peruto cut out the “extreme daredevil stuff” but still road-raced and would zip around in a Donzi powerboat at the Jersey Shore, taking his family out for bone-jarring rides, his wife, Michele, said. “He would say to me to stop gripping the boat so tightly,” she said, laughing. But Jackie Jo, now 8, would tell her dad to go faster. They called themselves “the best buddies ever,” Michele said.
Right from the marriage vows, Michele knew that cars would be a big part of their life. In May 2005, she and Mr. Peruto were married in a newly constructed Keenan dealership in Doylestown. “As a little girl I never thought that I would be married in a car dealership. But he said it would be the most elegant and beautiful wedding you have ever seen, trust me,” Michele said.
The Peruto wedding, as well as interviews with Michele and the beaming groom, was featured on a Behind the Bash episode hosted by Giada De Laurentiis on cable’s Food Network.
Irv Stein, a fellow auto dealer and close friend, recalled Mr. Peruto as down-to-earth. “People would ask what he did and he would say that he was a car salesman,” Stein said. Peruto also held leadership positions in the Auto Dealers Association of Greater Philadelphia and was instrumental 20 years ago with revitalizing the Philadelphia Auto Show in Center City, Stein said.
Though mostly bedridden in recent months, Mr. Peruto insisted on traveling to Watkins Glen International track in New York in mid-September to watch his brother and Stein race vintage cars. Mr. Peruto hoped to race that day, but he wasn’t well enough. His brother John raced for him in Mr. Peruto’s vintage Mercedes.
“He was a trooper. He fought it. Even though he was in a lot of pain, he would play with his daughter and he was still working,” his wife said of Mr. Peruto’s cancer battle.
Chuck Peruto, better known as A. Charles Peruto Jr., a defense lawyer now running as the Republican candidate for Philadelphia district attorney, said that on his last visit with Mr. Peruto, he was thinking of their Overbrook childhood. The brothers attended St. Callistus and they played football together. Jimmy was in eighth grade and a running back. Chuck, a sixth grader, blocked on the offensive line. But for one game, the coach let them switch positions. Jimmy blocked and Chuck ran for his only touchdown that year.
“I thought I might not see him again,” Chuck said of his last visit with Mr. Peruto. Chuck bent down, kissed him and “I told him to block for me.”
Mr. Peruto’s father, A. Charles Peruto Sr., and a brother, Joseph, predeceased him. He is survived by his mother, Josephine. In addition to brothers Charles and John, he is survived by a sister, Susan G. DeMarco. Mr. Peruto also is survived by daughters Christina Marie Peruto Post, Lisa Peruto Broad, and DeAnna Meckling Peruto, in addition to Jackie Jo. He leaves three grandchildren: Sophia, Owen, and Oliver.
A celebration of life is scheduled for 11 a.m. Sunday, Nov. 14, at the Keenan Honda dealership at 4311 W. Swamp Road in Doylestown, the same dealership where Mr. Peruto and Michele were married. In lieu of flowers, contributions in Mr. Peruto’s memory may be made to Germantown Academy at https://www.germantownacademy.net/supportga.