The notice caught my eye: An estate auction of classic cars, including nine Cadillacs ranging from a 1938 60 Special sedan to a 1970 DeVille convertible, and two of them with V16 engines beneath their hoods. I needed to know more.
So I called Phil Terry, a car guy friend from Phoenix who a year or two ago was president of the Cadillac & LaSalle Club. He put me in touch with Paul Ayres, chairman of the Cadillac & LaSalle museum and a longtime friend of the late Doug Houston, whose cars are being sold today, beginning at 10 a.m. in Ortonville, Michigan.
I mentioned to Phil that I was in Michigan and planned to go to the auction preview, which was held yesterday. Phil said he was also was in Michigan, visiting his brother before the Cadillac & LaSalle Club “winter” meeting, driving tour and car show at the Gilmore museum, and since his wife would have the car Monday to attend… I think he said a bridal or baby shower or some such event which he’d rather avoid… he wondered if he might ride along with me to the preview?
The preview and auction are being held at what was Cleon Douglas Houston Jr’s home until his death in February at the age of 86. Houston’s obituary was brief, informing that he was born in 1929 in Detroit, was a veteran of the U.S. Army, serving in Korea, and that after his service he worked as an electrical engineer for the Army.
Ayers had known Houston for 20 years and knew that Houston’s father owned a garage and service station in the Grosse Pointe suburbs of Detroit. GM design head Harley Earl had been a regular customer and Doug Houston grew up knowing Earl and other GM design staffers, and he eventually became a Cadillac collector.
Ayers also knew that Houston worked at the Army tank plant doing electrical engineering, was an expert in and collector of old radios, and collected early phonograph record players, the ones that had automatic systems to drop down a new record when the previous one had finished playing.
Googling Houston, I learned that he had won the two major awards from the Cadillac club — the Maurice Hendry Award in 1979 and the club’s most prestigious honor, the Henry Leland Award, in 2014.
Oh, and Ayers also knew that there was a leak in Houston’s garage and that the V16 Cadillac coupe, a rare car built on a limousine chassis, had a lot of water stains on its body as a result.
That’s what I knew when I picked up Phil and we drove to the house where Houston had lived, and had lived alone — he was a lifelong bachelor who had devoted to his collections the entire walk-out level of a house built into a hillside. The house had a two-car garage on the main level, with another two-car garage beneath. At some point, Houston had done an addition to the rear, lower level that provided room to house seven more cars, and had stored the rest of his collection in a nearby barn owned by Bob Dziewit, a 40-year friend who is overseeing Houston’s estate.
The estate sale is being conducted by Braun & Helmer Auction Service, a Michigan-based estate specialist founded in 1971 and which has been doing an auction on average every five days ever since, said David Helmer, son of one of the company’s co-founders.
Helmer said his company already had around 400 inquiries from across the country about Houston’s cars and expects several hundred people to attend the sale today.
Dziewit worked on cars with Houston through the decades, noted that Houston had been a member of the Cadillac club since 1958 and the Classic Car Club of America since 1960, and had bought only one new car in his entire life. After leaving active duty with the Army, he bought a 1955 Chrysler, which Dziewit said was such a lemon that Houston never again bought anything brand new.
Dziewit confirmed that Houston knew several GM Design staffers and said that Bill Mitchell’s family had ridden to the funeral of the former head of GM styling in the Series 60 four-door Formal sedan that is part of the Houston estate.
What got Houston into buying Cadillacs, Dziewit said, was another friend’s comment that Houston should get rid of his Chrysler and buy a two-year-old Cadillac which, the friend noted, could be had for the same price as the typical new car. Thus a used 1958 Cadillac convertible began a string of open-topped Caddys, and begat Houston’s car collection.
That collection focused on Cadillacs, but Houston didn’t use a Cadillac as his daily driver after the early 1970s. By then, he was so involved with radios that when they no longer fit into his Cadillacs’ trunks, he started buying Buick station wagons.
Photos by Larry Edsall