All posts by Larry Edsall

A former daily newspaper sports editor, Larry Edsall spent a dozen years as an editor at AutoWeek magazine before making the transition to writing for the Web and becoming the author of more than 15 books. In addition to being Editorial Director at ClassicCars.com, Larry has written for The New York Times, writes a weekly automotive feature for The Detroit News and is an adjunct honors professor at the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication at Arizona State Univeristy.

Future classic: Oldsmobile Aurora

1995 Oldsmobile Aurora Four-Door Sedan DN546-U0184
Photo courtesy of General Motors

Editor’s note: This is the first in a series of articles about cars that someday likely will be considered classics.

When Chuck Jordan returned from General Motors’ European offices to become the automaker’s vice president of design in the late 1980s, he realized that “all the sedans on the road were dull, drab and boring. There was no character, no excitement.”

Secretly, Jordan set one of GM’s advanced design studios to work on a sedan that had character and excitement.

The car was designed and a full-scale model was created.

But Jordan still had a problem: None of GM’s various car divisions had asked for such a car and didn’t seem very interested in the no-longer secret vehicle.

Undaunted, Jordan parked a full-scale model of the car in the hallway at GM’s headquarters, placing it so executives couldn’t avoid it as they walked past the car several times every day.

At last, the day arrived when the head of Oldsmobile asked if he could have the car. Well, not him personally but if he could have the design for his division, as its new flagship sedan.

1995 Oldsmobile Aurora Four-Door Sedan UNC1995-0039

And thus was born the 1995 Oldsmobile Aurora, which one author has called the last great full-size American car design.

Nearly two decades later, that original Aurora, with its spaceship shape, grille-less nose and full-width tail lamp, still looks fresh and futuristic.

There aren’t a lot of Silver dollars in Arizona

The sell-through rate at Mitch Silver’s inaugural Arizona in the Fall auction was only 26 percent. Seems consignors valued their vehicles more than the snowbirds looking for something to drive during the winter months.

The sale was scheduled with an eye on offering cars that could serve as classy daily drivers for Arizona’s winter visitors, cars they might turn around and consign themselves next spring when Silver does a similar auction just before the ‘birds fly home for the summer.

But in many cases — too many cases — the bids offered fell just short of the owners’ reserve prices.

The high-dollar sale of the weekend was $55,000 for a 1955 Chevrolet Bel Air convertible. A 1968 Camaro RS/SS convertible brought $32,500, a 2008 BMW 550Li went for $29,600, a 1961 Pontiac Catalina convertible $29,000 and a 1957 Pontiac Star Chief hardtop traded ownership for $28,000.

Silver is back in Arizona in January for its big annual sale, and returns for its spring event in March. Silver also is working on a possible sale in the Phoenix area during the summer, though that one would be in an air-conditioned building, not outdoors in a tent.

Something fishy at the Petersen, where Jaguars are on the prowl

Did you know that the 1928 fishing season was a disaster in Massachusetts and residents blamed the state’s Dept. of Motor Vehicles?

Turns out that in 1928, the DMV added a fish symbol to the state’s auto license plates, but the fish was pointed away from the word “Mass.”

After the anglers’ uproar, the person who designed that 1928 plate was fired and the following year the fish pointed toward the state’s name and the fishing industry prospered.

Such tales are part of the new “License Plates: Unlocking the Code” exhibit that runs through March 30, 2014 at the Petersen Automotive Museum.

Officially, the exhibit celebrates the centennial of the first State of California license plate, but it includes plates from across the country and around the world. (As early as 1909, the Automobile Club of Southern California and the American Automobile Association produced license plates for California drivers, with the state taking over the business in 1914.)

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By the way, did you know that until 1972, each Argentine province had its own unique plate design, and those from the Neuguen region featured a water fall and were hand painted?

“There really is educational value to each plate in this display,” said Jeff Minard, a license plate historian who worked with the museum on the display. “At the same time, time, these unique pieces are displayed as art for everyone to enjoy.”

Also new to the Petersen — opening last weekend and running through February 16, 2014, is a special Jaguar sports car exhibit that showcases a 1937 SS100 formerly owned by entertainer Mel Torme, a 1949 XK120 used in the movie Gangster Squad, a 1956 XKSS formerly owned by Steve McQueen, a 1965 E-Type used in the television show Mad Men, and a 2014 F-type V8 S.

800-plus cross the block at Mecum’s Anaheim auction

The folks at Mecum Auctions anticipated 750 vehicles would cross the block at their second annual autumn event in the Anaheim Convention Center, but “consignments came in droves” and bids were accepted on 812 vehicles.

Seems, however, that sellers were more eager than buyers, because only 412 of those vehicles sold, though for nearly $14 million.

Tied for high-dollar transactions were a pair of Ford GTs, a 2005 and a 2006, each of which brought $210,000.

The list of top-10 vehicles is an interesting mix. At $180,000 was a 1969 Chevrolet COPO Camaro, but then came a 1953 Hudson Hornet Twin-H convertible at $150,000.

Next on the list was a quartet of vehicles sold for $132,500 as a single lot — a 1955 Chevrolet 210 resto-mod, a 2005 Harley-Davidson Roadglide, a 2006 Ness Lowliner bike and a 2008 Adventure motor bike trailer.

Selling for $130,000 each was a pair of 1954 Buick Skylark convertibles. A 1956 Chevrolet Nomad resto-mod brought $125,000, the 1938 Harley WLD Solo Sport formerly owned by Steve McQueen also went for $125,000, while a 1955 Chevy Nomad traded ownership for $120,000.

Mecum ends its 2013 auction year December 5-7 at Kansas City, and then launches its 2014 calendar with a motorcycle auction January 9-11 at Las Vegas, followed by its huge — some 3,000 vehicles huge — sale January 17-26 at Kissimmee, Florida.

Simeone book, Amelia Island concours win awards

We have classic cars. Europe has “historic motoring.” For the third year, a British bank and magazine have sponsored the International Historic Motoring Awards to “celebrate ‘the best of the best’ in what is now a multi-billion global industry.”

The event of the year award was shared by the Amelia Island concours d’elegance and the VHRA Pendine Sands amateur hot rod races while the publication of the year went to the book “The Stewardship of Historically Important Automobiles” published by the Simeone museum of Philadelphia.

The museum or collection of the year was the Louwman Museum of The Netherlands. Motorsport event of the year was the Silverstone Classic while the race series of the year was the FIA Masters Historic Formula One Championship. Rally or tour of the year went to the 20-Ghost Club’s Centenary Alpine Trial. The Aston Martin Owners Club was club of the year.

The lifetime achievement award went to F1 broadcaster Murray Walker while Philip Young, father of historic rallying, received the personal achievement of the year award.

Car of the year was the recreation of the Bugatti 57SC Aerolithe by David Grainger of the  Guild of Master Craftsmen, Canada (see photo by Joe Wiecha). Restoration of the year was the 1966 US. Grand Prix-winning Lotus 43 by Andy Middlehurst, and specialist of the year was Francis Tuthill Ltd., which sent more than 15 Porsche 911s and more than 50 tons of parts and gear to the East African Safari Classic despite being a family-run company with less than 30 employees.

Among the finalists in the various categories were concours at Pebble Beach and The Quail, the Rolex Monterey Motorsports Reunion, the Blackhawk, Le May and Mullin museums, the Colorado Grand tour, Hagerty insurance (specialist), and book publisher David Bull of Phoenix (in the personal achievement category for his battle back from a life-threatening motorcycle collision).

Judge’s ’34 Packard judged best-in-show at Pebble Beach

New Jersey judge Joseph Cassini III and his wife, Margie, are well known within the classic car community. For the last two years — and four times in the last eight years — their cars have won best-in-show honors at the Concours d’Elegance of America. And their 1934 Packard 1108 Twelve Dietrich Convertible Victoria drove off with best-in-show honors at the 63rd Pebble Beach concours d’elegance as well.

“This Packard is the epitome of American style and grace in the Classic Era,” said Sandra Button, the concours chairman. “It is understated but elegant, and it has a striking but quiet presence. When it drove onto our show field this morning, and I stepped forward to greet the Cassinis, I could barely hear the engine running.”

The Cassinis’ Packard is only the second American car to win best-in-show at Pebble Beach in nearly 20 years (The 1935 Duesenberg SJ Speedster “Mormon Meteor” won in 2007).

The Cassinis also won the top award at Pebble Beach in 2004 with their 1938 Horch 853A Erdmann & Rossi Sport Cabriolet.

Petersen’s plans, Monterey money, and Barrett-Jackson’s ‘Hot August’ nights

We’ll get to the results of the auctions and other action on the Monterey Peninsula in a moment, but first, an update on the plans for the Petersen Automotive Museum, which is not going all French cars and Art Deco on us (as has been reported elsewhere).

As we reported and as the Petersen confirmed at a press briefing at Monterey, the museum plans to celebrate its 20th anniversary in 2014 with “a complete exterior transformation and a dynamic redesign of the interior, resulting in a world class museum that will showcase the art, experience, culture and heritage of the automobile. Displays will feature the prominence of the automobile in Southern California, as well as cars, trucks and motorcycles from around the world. In addition to the facility upgrade, the new Petersen will feature a refined and upgraded permanent collection and an expansion of rotating displays, galleries, technology and story-telling, providing visitors with fresh, new experiences throughout the year.”

Further, “The L.A. cultural landmark will showcase Southern California’s rich automotive heritage and will serve as a gateway to the city’s “Museum Row.”

Money generated by selling off a bunch of cars that had been taking up room in the museum’s parking garage and basement, as well as a few true classics, will be used to upgrade and update the displays. A separate fund-raising effort has begun to pay for the architectural alterations.

The goal is to transform the museum’s exterior into “one of the most significant and unforgettable structures in Los Angeles,” with ribbons of stainless steel — designed to evoke the imagery of speed and the organic curves of coach-built cars — wrapped around and over a deep red building. As you can see from the photograph of the proposed interior, the theme will carry into the building as well.

“Our plan is to work with the best and brightest minds in architecture, automotive history and interactive design to give the people of Los Angeles and the world a place where they can be immersed in the culture, sights and sounds of the greatest vehicles ever built,” said museum chairman Peter Mullin.

Those changes, plus the addition of 15,000 square feet of display space, are designed not only to appeal to first-time visitors, but to draw people back for repeated visits.

Enjoy your classics while you can

I also chatted recently with Jim Hery, owner of Chalfant Motor Car Company, a classic car restoration business in Belfast, Tennessee. It was at the Concours d’Elegance of America that I was admiring the big aqua blue 1929 Rolls-Royce Phantom I that Hery was polishing (see photo).

I asked if he was the car’s owner. He wasn’t, he said. But he had recently completed the car’s restoration, and he told me the owner’s story.

The car was shown at the concours by Helga Knox, who’s husband, George Knox Jr., died just a few months earlier.

Hery said George Knox Jr. had been in the equipment rental business. According to Knox’s obituary, his passions included classic cars — he was an original member of the Antique Car Club of Chester County — flying his Piper Cherokee (he also once flew a hot air balloon over the Alps), wildlife and domestic animal protection, and volunteering for missionary trips and doing equipment repair in several central African countries.

Hery said that Knox had collected 50 classic cars and planned to restore them after he retired. Sadly, he added, the devastation of Alzheimer’s disease meant that when it was time for those cars to be restored, Knox didn’t even know they were his.

Petersen cars among those sold at Auctions America’s Burbank sale

$5,775 for a very stock-looking 1976 AMC Pacer. $6,325 for a 1995 Hyundai Elantra that once-upon-a-time raced up Pikes Peak. $57,750 for the 1967 Boothill Express, a hot-rodder’s vision for someone’s last ride — and rites. $77,000 for a big beverage can on wheels, the 1970 I-coulda-had-a-V-8 vehicle commissioned by Campbell soup and built by George Barris. And $407,000 for a 1952 Cunningham C-3 coupe (see photo) and the parts needed for its eventual restoration.

Those reportedly were among some of the 64 or so vehicles pulled out of storage at the Petersen Automotive Museum and sold at Auction America’s California auction in Burbank.

The Cunningham coupe was among the top-5 sales at the auction, where 313 of the 389 cars were sold, along with 13 motorcycles and a bunch of memorabilia, all totaling $17.27 million.

Why would a museum sell a rare Cunningham? Most likely because of how much money and time would be required to restore it into any sort of showpiece condition. Besides, that $407,000 represents a nice chunk of the money the museum needs to proceed with its plans to update and modernize its displays. Details of those plans are promised during car week this month at Monterey. (For background, see our earlier article at http://classiccars.com/articles/le_july2013c.aspx.)

The top-dollar sale at the auction was $825,000 for a 1964 Shelby Cobra, one of the few that left Shelby America with an automatic transmission. A 1957 Mercedes-Benz 300SL roadster formerly owned by actor Robert Stack (see photo) brought $808,500, a 1971 Ferrari 365 GTB/4 Daytona went for $401,250 and a 1974 Ferrari 246 Dino GTS sold for $291,500.

Overall, 313 of 389 cars sold — for a combined $16.8 million — as did 12 of 13 motorcycles.

“This auction proves that with the right vehicles and the right team, Southern California can host a lucrative and successful collector car auction,” said Auctions America executive Ian Kelleher. “The location in Burbank was central to most Los Angeles residents and the fact that we were just a few blocks fro several major movie studios while cars with serious Hollywood history rolled over the block helped, but many of the top cars sold were simply outstanding cars that were highly sought-after.”

Speaking of Hollywood, a 1946 Indian Chief motorcycle formerly owned by Steve McQueen sold for $143,750 and three cars built for the 2000 “How the Grinch Stole Christmas” movie each went for around $35,000.

And if you’re still fretting about the Petersen selling some of its cars, calm down. For one thing, it’s supposed to be a museum, not a storage facility. For another, I had a long conversation last week with a long-time classic car collector, auctioneer and museum director who has brokered a bunch of such sales — and many purchases as well — for various museums, including some of the most respected institutions in the country. He said car museums often sell cars and buy others, but they try to do it quietly so as not to have an undo impact on transaction prices.

Motown celebrates its heritage, and its rivalry with Indy

One of the things we really like about the annual — this was the 35th — Concours d’Elegance of America is its eclectic mix of classes. Sure, it offers the Prewar European and American Classics 1928-1942 sort of groupings. But it puts them alongside such displays as Vintage NASCAR; Jet Age Convertibles (what a colorful array that was this year); cars from The Great Race; a row of the ultimate Muscle Cars as modified by the likes of Yenko, Baldwin Motion and Nickey; and this year it also celebrated its rivalry with Indianapolis for the very title of America’s Motor City.

Remember that the Indianapolis Motor Speedway was funded in large part to provide a proving grounds and showcase for that city’s growing auto industry. To showcase the Detroit vs. Indy rivalry, this year the concours featured classes for Detroit Iron and Indianapolis Iron from the heyday of manufacturing cars of elegance — the 1930s — with Detroit represented by Packards, Cadillacs, Lincolns and Chryslers and Indy by Marmons, Duesenbergs and a couple of Stutz (there was a separate class for Cords, which were built not in Indy but in northern Indiana).

At the end of the day, it was one of those Dusenbergs that was judged to be the best-in-show among all the made-in-America cars — a Derham-bodied 1931 Model J Tourister. The winner is owned by Joseph and Margie Cassini III of West Orange, New Jersey. This was the second year in a row in which one of their cars drove away from the fairways of the Inn at St. John’s with such honors, and their cars took the other best-in-show award, for European cars, in 2006 and 2008.

This year, best-in-show European went to a 1934 Alfa Romeo 8C 2300 boat tail speedster owned by Roger Willbanks of Denver, Colorado (see adjacent photo of the best-in-show duo).

Just like at Monterey, the weekend no longer is large enough for all that happens around the Motown concours, what with various tours and even the Automotive Hall of Fame induction ceremonies.

For the last 19 years, there’s been an RM auction, which this year sold 90 percent of the 80 cars offered for nearly $7.75 million, led by a 1929 Duesenberg Model J dual-cowl phaeton that went for $682,000. All of the top-10 sales were Detroit or Indiana classics from the 1930s.