Category archives: Commentary

Bookshelf: Big cars + big engines = big passions

 Classic Car Bookshelf

Cummings cover

Cadillac V-16s Lost and Found: Tracing the Histories of the 1930s Classics by Christopher W. Cummings

PublisherMcFarland & Co.
FormatSoft cover


Christopher Cummings writes that, “Almost as soon as the Cadillac V-16s came to market, economic, technological and cultural forces conspired to make them obsolete. A severe and tumultuous depression knocked the wind out of the sales prospects for fine, custom-built luxury cars. Improvements in metallurgy, engine design and fuel chemistry soon meant that a V-8 engine could be made to run every bit as smoothly and powerfully as a sixteen. And the classic styling of the late twenties and early thirties was shouldered roughly aside by the onrushing ‘streamlining’ craze.”

But not only did Cadillac continue to produce such engines and the cars that carried them — nearly 4,000 between 1930 and 1937 — it developed and built a radically different (the V widened from 45 to 185 degrees) second-generation V16 power plant and put nearly 500 of them into much more aerodynamically designed vehicles between 1938 and 1940.

Cummings is an attorney by profession and a Cadillac V16 owner by lifelong affection. In 2006, he wrote The Cadillac That Followed Me Home: Memoir of a V-16 Dream Realized. Now, he follows up with Cadillac V-16s Lost and Found: Tracing the Histories of the 1930s Classics, which tells the stories of nearly 70 of the nearly 4,400 classic Cadillacs and their 16-cylinder engines.

But these are not just the stories of the cars and their engines, but of their owners and their passion for such vehicles.

Talk about passion:

  • Lawrence “Baron” Dorcy, whose great-grandfather James J. Hill was the inspiration for characters in Atlas Shrugged and The Great Gatsby, owned his V-16 Cadillac three different times;
  • Jim Pearson owned so many Cadillacs — including several V16s — that he became known simply as “Cadillac Jim;”
  • Henry W. Struck not only was able to close a public road so he could prove his V16 roadster could achieve its advertised 120 miles per hour, but afterward he set out to make modifications to make the car safer and more convenient, including a drinking water dispenser and what may have been the first on-board navigation system — a map that scrolled between rollers as you drove, complete with lighting for finding your way at night.

Other V16 owners included, Bill Harrah, Jack Nethercutt, Eugene Zimmerman (whose car collection rivaled Harrah’s, but was based on the East Coast and wasn’t nearly as well known), Frederick Vanderbilt, a 21-year-old Emily DuPont, actor Richard Arlen, Seabiscuit-owner Charles Howard, concept car-collector Joe Bortz, Barrett-Jackson auction company co-founder Tom Barrett, former President Herbert Hoover, even rival Rolls-Royce, which bought a V16 to study; among those studying it was Walter O. Bentley who wrote that, “The word ‘torque’ also took on a new meaning with this V 16.”

Other owners included Judge Rutherford, who gave Jehovah’s Witnesses their name, and Dr. John R. Brinkley, whom Cummings describes as a “medical huckster… who used radio to promote goat glands as a spurious remedy for male reproductive problems.”

To find a build sheet with only the car’s chassis number requires examining all 3,251 sheets until the one with that chassis number turns up.”

— Christopher Cummings


Cummings writes that doing research on V16 Cadillacs, whether you’re writing about them or trying to restore one, can be difficult.

For one thing, a 21-year-old who bought a car in 1940 is now in his or her 90s, if alive at all.

For another, while copies of early build sheets are available, they are sorted by engine number. “To find a build sheet with only the car’s chassis number requires examining all 3,251 sheets until the one with that chassis number turns up.”

But Cummings and other V16 Cadillac enthusiasts and restorers are undaunted in their pursuit, and there’s much to be learned and enjoyed in this book, which is thoroughly illustrated with photos, most of them black and white but a few in color.

And you’ll learn more than just about V16 Cadillacs as you read. You’ll learn about Cadillac, about the world in the 1930s, about Fleetwood and its move from Pennsylvania to Detroit, and about the fate of cars once affordable only to the rich and famous.

My favorite stories are about the less-than-elegant fate of many of the big cars, how several of the V16 engines were used to power hot rods and racing cars — my favorite story is about the car called “Helen,” — and how a couple of the cars even survived participation in demolition derbies.

When restorations lose touch with historic reality

Would you preserve or restore this Bugatti? | Larry Edsall photo
Would you preserve or restore this Bugatti? | Larry Edsall photo

What does the resurrection of the wooly mammoth, the passenger pigeon and other extinct animal species have to do with the restoration of classic cars, be they Duesenbergs , DeSotos or Datsuns? Maybe nothing. Or maybe something.

The New York Times Magazine recently published Nathaniel Rich’s 7,500-word article, “The New Origin of the Species,” about efforts to use modern science to bring back animals that no longer exist on their own. In the course of discussing the pros and cons of such efforts, he wrote about Theseus’ Paradox.

I’d never heard of Theseus or its (turns out it’s a his) paradox, so I’ll let Rich explain it, which he does by first talking about the restoration of da Vinci’s famed fresco, The Last Supper, and then by quoting Plutarch:

“If you visit ‘The Last Supper’ in the refectory of the Convent of Santa Maria delle Grazie in Milan, you won’t see a single speck of paint from the brush of Leonardo da Vinci,” Rich writes. “You will see a mural with the same proportions and design as the original, and you may feel the same sense of awe as the refectory’s parishioners felt in 1498, but the original artwork disappeared centuries ago.

“Philosophers call this Theseus’ Paradox, a reference to the ship that Theseus sailed back to Athens from Crete after he had slain the Minotaur. The ship, Plutarch writes, was preserved by the Athenians, who ‘took away the old planks as they decayed, putting in new and stronger timber in their place.’ Theseus’ ship, therefore, ‘became a standing example among the philosophers… one side holding that the ship remained the same, and the other contending that it was not the same’.”

So, is an animal produced by injecting the DNA from the wooly mammoth into the egg of an Indian elephant really anything more than a hairy elephant, albeit one that might tolerate cold weather?

Likewise, is a rusted, falling-apart 1938 Chevy body shell salvaged from a weedy salvage yard and rebuilt with newly shaped sheetmetal, a new interior and a period-correct powertrain really still a 1938 Chevy? Or, like Theseus’ ship or a painted-over da Vinci, is it something else?

How do we decide whether to preserve that old Chevy as an historic artifact or restore it so we can once again enjoy seeing it driving down the boulevard?

We see some fairly brutal restorations. The sense of historicity has been removed. The car loses its connection to history.”

— Miles Collier


Even Miles Collier, champion of the preservation movement, has said that “A car is a machine for moving.”

Speaking at RM Auctions’ Art of the Automobile symposium late last year in New York City, Collier noted that the automobile “is a mechanical device that needs to move, needs to operate.”

That, he said, puts “a great deal of pressure on collectors to make sure automobiles are mechanically perfect, ready to go.” As a result, he said, “We see some fairly brutal restorations. The sense of historicity has been removed. The car loses its connection to history. Knowledgeable custodians want to respect that historicity.”

Perhaps it’s time to update the language of classic car restoration, adding to “rotisserie restoration” and “sympathetic restoration” what Collier might call an “archival restoration.”

Collier also explored this theme when he wrote the opening chapter to Fred Simeone’s book, The Stewardship of Historically Important Automobiles:

For an historical object to lose its history is to lose its reality, the only thing of any great value in the first place.”

— Miles Collier


“What do we do when we erase patina, when we cover over the historic evidence of the object’s trail through time to the present day?” Collier asked. “What do we do when we eliminate the very fingerprints of the past by restoring cars to ‘original,’ or ‘improving’ them to make them better drivers or more successful racers?

“Once the evidence of an object’s travel through time disappears, history disappears. For an historical object to lose its history is to lose its reality, the only thing of any great value in the first place.”

So, by restoring a car, even at the cost of hundreds of thousands of dollars, it may become not more but less valuable?

Collier suggests that perhaps that money might better be spent in producing what he calls a perfectly executed replica.

But, he adds, “The conventional response to his statement is that people, owners and spectators alike, don’t want to see modern copies, they want cars that are ‘real’.”

At the seminar in New York, Collier noted that most restorations are not “original” restorations, but “re-restorations of cars already restored once, twice, three times.”

What does that really produce other than a series of interns’ scrawlings over the master’s brush strokes or the automotive equivalent of a modern elephant with a hairy coat to keep it warm?


Bookshelf: ‘Dust and Glory’ available as e-books


I missed the first edition of Leo Levine’s Ford: The Dust and the Glory, A Racing History, though not by very much. I bought my second-printing copy in the summer of 1969 in a book store in Boston while we, fresh out of our respective colleges, were on our way home from honeymooning on Canada’s Gaspe Peninsula, which was about as exotic and foreign-speaking of a destination as we could afford.

The book spans 630 pages, includes photos and lists and seemingly every detail of Ford racing history from Henry’s first race — he beat Alexander Winton, at the time America’s leading car-builder, and in so doing earned enough backing to start his own car company — through the 1967 season — when Andretti won at Daytona, Foyt won at Indy, and then Foyt and Gurney won at Le Mans.

Ford called it Total Performance. It was more like Total Domination.

Next thing I knew Dan Gurney went around me on the outside, going about twenty miles an hour faster.”

— Leo Levine

As for Levine, he had been racing in Europe until one day, as he reports on the jacket cover of Dust and Glory, while racing around the Nuburgring in Germany,“I thought I really had it hung out in this particular corner, and next thing I knew Dan Gurney went around me on the outside, going about twenty miles an hour faster than me. It didn’t take a genius to get the message.”

Levine returned to the U.S., became the auto racing writer for the New York Herald-Tribune, and later spent 20 years managing public relations for Mercedes-Benz in North America. After he retired, Levine wrote a second volume of Dust and Glory, this one totaling 413 pages and covering the 1968 through 2000 seasons.

I’ve used both volumes for everything from just reading to being serious research sources for my own writing. Dust and Glory and Volume 2 consume 3 1/2 inches of bookshelf space at my house, where they are parked in a place of honor alongside Michael Cannell’s The Limit, Ted West’s Closing Speed, Danny Gerber’s Out of Control and A Second Life, and Brock Yates’ Sunday Driver.

But now you can have both volumes of Dust and Glory, not on a bookshelf but in your Amazon Kindle, and for only $7.99 (not each, that’s $7.99 for the complete two-book set).

You’ll be able to sit back and read not only about Ford’s racing history, but about those against whom Ford drivers raced, here in the United States and elsewhere around the world. In many ways, Ford’s racing history is motorsports’ racing history, a century of competition from Indy to the Formula One, from Daytona to the drag strip.

However, one thing you won’t get is something my copies have. Back in 1992, I knew Leo was coming to the AutoWeek magazine offices the next day to visit his long-time friend and our publisher, Leon Mandel. Since that visit, my copies have included not only words and pictures about Ford racing, but Leo Levine’s autographs.


Stylish Buick Riviera shows enduring appeal

The 1963 Buick Riviera was a groundbreaking design statement | Steve Evans
The 1963 Buick Riviera was a groundbreaking design statement | Steve Evans

The proclamation last weekend at the Detroit Autorama of a spectacular custom 1964 Buick Riviera, named Rivision, as winner of the coveted Ridler Award got us thinking about the first generation Riviera coupes,  one of the most beautiful car designs of their era.

The 1963 Buick Riviera was a startling creation when it was unveiled in October 1962 as General Motors’ “personal luxury coupe” and challenger to the Ford Thunderbird. Today, the original Riviera is considered a true milestone of automotive design (officially pronounced so by the Milestone Car Society).

The uniquely expressive front end of the ’63 Riviera | Larry Edsall
The uniquely expressive front end of the ’63 Riviera | Larry Edsall

Lavishly proportioned with a look that was utterly unique, the Riviera was a product of GM’s design studio headed by Bill Mitchell and originally drawn by stylist Ned Nickles. It had been intended as part of Cadillac’s stable of luxury cars, but when the Caddy people said they didn’t need another model, Buick won the car in a GM-division shootout and dubbed it Riviera, a name Buick had used off and on since 1949 for trim and styling packages.

Highlights of the Riviera’s “knife-edge” styling include the Ferrari-like egg-crate grille flanked by towering fenders, a long and sharply detailed hood, bold flanks detailed with subtle chrome accents, a squared-off roofline akin to the contemporary Rolls-Royce, and small rectangular taillights decorated with the Riviera emblem.

The ’64 Riviera was essentially the same with slight trim variation, while the ’65 version wowed the public with hideaway headlights concealed behind the vertical features on either side of its sweeping grille. The covers opened like clamshells when the headlights were switched on.

The early Riviera has long been a popular collector’s item because of its looks, but the big coupe also boasts a decent level of performance. The standard 401cid “Nailhead” V8 made 325 horsepower and a prodigious 445 pound-feet of torque, while the rare 425cid V8 with dual four-barrel carburetion raises horsepower to 340. Zero-60 was accomplished in less than eight seconds despite a curb weight of around 4,200 pounds. GM claimed a top speed of 122 miles per hour.

Nathan Evans gets a kick out of his dad’s Riviera | Steve Evans
Nathan Evans gets a kick out of his dad’s Riviera | Steve Evans

Steve Evans of Anthem, Ariz., remembers when he first laid eyes on a Riviera when he was a teen-ager in Holden, Mass.

“A guy down the street from us, he had a Riviera,” Evans recalled. “I thought, ‘Oh my God, that’s the coolest thing I’ve ever seen.’ When I got my license about a year later, I said, ‘I’d really like to have one of those Rivieras.’ ”

Fortunately for Evans, now 46, his father is a classic car hobbyist and was eager to indulge his son with the ride of his choice. First, it was a ’64 Riviera, but after about a year, his dad decided the car was too shabby and offered to supply a better one. That turned out to be a handsome ’63 model in a paint hue that GM called Glacier Blue.

“I found the car that I have in New Jersey,” Evans said. “My folks effectively bought it for me for my high school graduation. And I’ve had it ever since. I drove that car from Massachusetts to Arizona.”

“I had it out here for awhile, but I was young and not married and didn’t have any garage space. I was beating it up, so I shipped it back home. It sat on blocks in my dad’s garage for eight years. He took it on himself to do a little mechanical work to get it back on the road and had it painted.

“So it got shipped back to me. I’ve only had it out here with me about a year. In which time, I fell in love with it all over again.”

Ed Mell’s Riviera at Tempe Diablo Stadium in Arizona before the Copperstate 1000 road rally | Larry Edsall
Ed Mell’s Riviera at Tempe Diablo Stadium in Arizona before the Copperstate 1000 road rally | Larry Edsall

Another Arizonan who owns a Riviera is Ed Mell, an acclaimed landscape painter and sculptor. Mell has driven his Buick in such events as the Copperstate 1000 road rally. He has been the owner of several landmark cars, and his choice of the Riviera speaks to its appeal even under the most critical artistic eye.

Evans drives his Riviera on occasion around the Phoenix area and puts it on display at car shows. The coupe is painted in the Glacier Blue factory color with its original wire hubcaps (a $55 option) and powered by the 401cid V8. He has the original paperwork on the car, showing its base price as $4,300, which rose to a then-lofty $5,409 with sundry options, including a Wonderbar radio with electric antennae.

As with most enthusiasts, Evans is mostly intrigued with the Riviera’s looks.

“I love the styling,” Evans said. “It’s just an iconic piece of American automobile design.”

Despite its status as a stylistic breakthrough, the ’63-’64 Riviera has remained a fairly low-hanging fruit among collector cars, with average values starting out around $12,000 and topping off just above $40,000 for pristine examples, according to Kelley Blue Book.

Rivieras have provided the template for countless custom-car efforts, and it’s a popular model for custom lowriders. The magnificent Ridler-winnng Rivision is the latest example of the enduring appeal of these cars among customizers at the top of their game.


Chart provides entertaining perspective on what makes cars appealing at auction


Did you know that 28 percent of the vehicles offered for auction in January at Barrett-Jackson’s Scottsdale sale were red? Or that 19 percent were black? And if you add in the 16 percent that were blue, those three colors covered more than half the lots that crossed the block?

But get this: Among the cars that sold, those which brought the most money were painted black, followed by silver, yellow, blue, red, orange, white and green.

Or did you know that cars with darker-colored interiors sold for nearly $10,000 more on average than those with lighter-colored passenger compartments?

Or did you know that vehicles with manual transmissions brought more than $10,000 on average compared to those with automatics?

Says who? Says Spork Marketing, a data-driven Internet marketing company from Denver. Spork’s staff spent 30 hours analyzing the results of Barrett-Jackson’s Scottsdale sale and produced a colorful, informative and entertaining graphic display. The chart was produced on behalf of Spork’s client, H&H Classic Parts, a Bentonville, Ark., business that sells some 20,000 parts from more than 120 producers to people restoring or maintaining classic Chevrolet vehicles.

We hope it’s interesting and entertaining, and possibly gives them room for thought.”

— Spork spokesperson


While knowing that every visit to a client’s website doesn’t result in a sale, a  Spork Marketing spokesperson explained that the goal in producing the Barrett-Jackson chart was to generate increased traffic for One hope is that the chart demonstrates, she said, that H&H “is invested in thought leadership and wants to have an impact on the industry.”

The chart, the spokesperson added, isn’t “all-encompassing, an end-all and be-all, but it is interesting and gives somebody collecting cars a view of what’s current for 2014 and maybe they can glean something from it.

“We hope it’s interesting and entertaining, and possibly gives them room for thought.”

For example, were you preparing a car to sell at Barrett-Jackson in Scottsdale, you might have been wise to paint that car black or silver — or even yellow — and to make sure the interior was darker rather than lighter in shade. Oh, and as the chart notes, there was a 20-percent premium for vehicles with manual gearboxes.

To enhance the statistical significance of its research, Spork eliminated the top and bottom five percent of vehicles in line with standard statistical deviations. However, it could be that Plymouths sold for more on average than Dodges, Chevys, Fords or Pontiacs simply because the quality of the Plymouths in the Barrett-Jackson catalog was particularly strong.

Or maybe Barrett-Jackson bidders just really like Mopar products.

Or maybe Chevys really are worth nearly $10 grand more than Fords. Or maybe there simply were a lot of Fords for sale and that brought down the average price.

Whatever, the chart is interesting and informative, and we’re guessing it also is likely to spark some interesting conversations over the work bench and at cruise-ins. Perhaps even in the “Share your thoughts!” box below.


Hooves? No, Clydesdales had four wheels (and other things we learned reading McFarland books)

Photo by Larry Edsall
Photo by Larry Edsall

Think “Clydesdale” and the images that probably come to mind are those strong and majestic horses in the Budweiser beer commercials. But did you know that a couple of decades before the Anheuser-Busch brewery trotted out its now iconic horse-drawn wagons in 1933, the Clydesdale was the emblem of a car company?

Well, not exactly a car company, but the Clydesdale Motor Truck Company?

I’d never heard of Clydesdale trucks, let alone their “Driver Under the Hood” engine governor system or their pioneering work in diesel technology, until receiving notice of a new book, The Clydesdale Motor Truck Company An Illustrated History, 1917-1939, from what has become my favorite book publisher, and if you really like classic cars, should become yours as well: McFarland & Company, Inc., Publishers.

Based in Jefferson, a small Blue Ridge town in northwestern North Carolina near the state’s borders with Tennessee and Virginia, McFarland was founded in 1979 by Robert McFarland Franklin to publish library-oriented reference books and “scholarly monographs on a variety of subjects,” according to the company’s website. McFarland publishes about 400 books a year, several of them on automotive history.

I’ve read more than two dozen of McFarland’s automotive books and have seven more on my “yet to read” stack (see photo).

Among those I’ve yet to read is one of McFarland’s newest, Tiffany Willey Middleton and James M. Semon’s book on Clydesdale.  Although, I have peeked into the book enough to learn that while the Clydesdale Motor Truck Co. used the big work horse as its emblem, the company’s name really traces to Clyde, Ohio, where it was founded and where Middleton was born.

Semon, whose specialty is the history of railroads, also is from Ohio.

McFarland books not only are well-written histories — often with appendices, vehicle specifications, chapter notes, bibliographies and complete indexes – but they are wonderfully illustrated histories as well, though by their nature most of the photographs are black and white.

I’ve also thumbed through American Automobiles of the Brass Era: Essential Specifications of 4,000+ Gasoline Powered Passenger Cars, 1906-1915, with a Statistical and Historical Overview, by Robert D. Dluhy. While short on words and pictures, it’s chock full of charts and statistical tables.

For example, a 1907 American Napier 18/20hp Nike Runabout sat two, had a four-cylinder engine with a 3.5-inch bore, 4-inch stroke, displaced 153.9 cubic inches, produced 18 horsepower, had a 90-inch wheelbase, was steered from the right-seat position, was priced at $2,250, rode on 32 x 3.5-inch tires, and weighed 1,500 pounds.

And there is similar information for more than 4,000 such vehicles from that period.

In that pile of books I’ve yet to read, you might notice Gold Thunder, Autobiography of a NASCAR Champion, by Rex White as told to Anne B. Jones. While I haven’t read it, I have read several other McFarland books on motorsports, including a couple of early accounts about NASCAR, a book on American sports car racing in the 1950s, a history of the auto races held in Philadelphia’s Fairmount Park from 1908-1911, and the amazing biography of Joan Newton Cuneo, the Lyn St. James or Danica Patrick of her era, which was 1905-1915.

I also made mention of McFarland publishing scholarly books. The Corvette in Literature and Culture: Symbolic Dimensions of America’s Sports Car actually started out as author Jerry W. Passon’s Ph.D. dissertation at Southern Illinois University.

As I said before, if you’re into classic cars and their specifications and corporate histories, or into the early history of auto racing, McFarland probably should be your favorite publisher as well.

To learn more about McFarland and its books, visit the website.


Reading this could win you a free classic car book


Did you know that the names of nine Spanish cities — Cordoba, Granada, Ibiza, Leon, Malaga, Marbella, Rondo, Seville and Toledo — have been appropriated by automakers for their own vehicles?

You no doubt know that England’s national racing color was green and Italy’s was red. You even may know that Spain’s was red with a yellow hood. But did you know the national racing color assigned to Jordan was brown, or that Egypt’s color was purple?

Neither did I until I spent a dollar Sunday to buy a copy of Chapman’s Car Compendium: The Essential Book of Car Facts and Trivia. When British auto writer Giles Chapman wrote his book in 2007, it cost $21.95 to buy a copy.

Seven years later, it carried a $2 sticker at the 58th annual VNSA (now known as the Volunteer Nonprofit Service Association but originally the Visiting Nurse Service Auxiliary association) Used Book Sale in the huge Exhibit Hall at the Arizona State Fairgrounds.

There are somewhere around half-a-million books available at the sale, and all of them have been separated into one of 27 categories to make finding what you want that much easier. I usually go to the sale Sunday after church, partly because the church I attend is 25 blocks east of downtown Phoenix and the fairgrounds is 19 blocks west of downtown, partly because on Sunday almost all the books are half price.

In addition to Chapman’s book of car facts, I bought a copy of Cars of the World in Color, by J.D. Scheel, translated by D. Cook-Radmore and illustrated by Verner Hancke.

I paid a whole $1.50 for this book but, after all, it is a first edition, begins with a 35-page historical survey of automotive history, has color illustrations of everything from an 1875 Markus to a 1962 Pontiac Tempest, and concludes with 10 gorgeous illustrations of famous auto races.

And even though I already have a copy, I also bought Driven: The American Four-Wheels Love Affair, because it was written (in 1977) by my former publisher and AutoWeek mentor Leon Mandel.

I also bought a book on the 1960 Rome Olympic Games, three books on baseball (including a collection of baseball stories by Zane Grey, the minor-league player turned Western novelist) and, as a gift for one of my daughters and her daughter, Clues for Real Life: The Classic Wit & Wisdom of Nancy Drew.

And for those eight books and the hours of enlightenment and entertainment they’ll provide, I spent a grand total of $7.50.

Actually, though, I’ll be spending a little more than that. As I mentioned, I already have a copy of Leon’s book, Driven. So here’s what I’m going to do: Use the comments section (Share your thoughts) below to share the title of your favorite automotive book and I’ll enter your name into a drawing. If you win, you’ll get my “barn-found” copy of Leon’s book.

Did someone really pay half-a-million for dirt and grime?

Photos by Larry Edsall
Photos by Larry Edsall

What do we do when we erase patina, when we cover over the historic evidence of the object’s travel through time to the present day? What do we do when we eliminate the very finger prints of the past by restoring cars to “original,” or “improving” them to make them better drivers or more successful racers? Once the evidence of an object’s travel through time disappears, history disappears. For an historical object to lose its history is to lose its reality, the only thing of any great value in the first place.

Miles Collier, The Stewardship of Historically Important Automobiles

If you’ve ever watched Antiques Roadshow on your local PBS television station, you no doubt have seen the reaction when one of the Keno brothers tells someone their family-heirloom, circa-1750 Queen Anne cherrywood bookcase on desk is worth $5,000 —  its value would be $120,000 had grandpa not refinished it.

Can you imagine one of them saying the same thing to the owner of a classic car while it is displayed on the fairway at Pebble Beach, where the brothers — experts not only in old furniture but in old cars — serve as judges?

Don’t laugh. It could happen.

In fact, it already has, perhaps not at Pebble Beach but at the recent Arizona auctions.

We quote Miles Collier, automotive historian and passionate preservationist, and mention that cherry-wood case and desk in the aftermath of the recent classic car auctions in Arizona. At Gooding & Company’s Scottsdale auction someone paid nearly $1.9 million for a dirty, dusty 1956 Mercedes-Benz 300SL “gullwing” with ripped interior and torn headliner that had been found after being parked for several decades in a garage. At that very same auction, someone, presumably someone else, bought a seemingly identical, black-with-red interior ’56 gullwing, except this one had been completely restored with gleaming paint, gorgeous interior and was ready for the road — and yet it sold for a mere $1.4 million.Did someone really pay half a million dollars for dust and wear and tear?

Which car is with more: Unrestored or restored?
Which car is with more: Unrestored “barn-find” or fully restored version?

“It was a very significant car in that it was an ‘unknown’ car to the collecting hobby and that’s certainly worth something,” said Garth Hammers, a car specialist at Gooding. “It had its original paint, and that probably should be in boldface print. They made 1,400 gullwings, and how many still have their original paint? Twenty, maybe 25.

“We have pretty stark and equal comparisons at this auction,” he added, noting the pair of black-and-red gullwings in the same catalog.

“The fact is, the original car is less replaceable than the restored car.  I drove the restored car more than 100 miles and it is the best-driving Gullwing I’ve ever been in. Everything was perfectly attended to and dialed in.

“But the car originally was red with a plaid interior. There’s a premium for original black cars, just like there is for original Rudge cars. Black was not as rare a color as you might think, I think they made around 100 of them. But over the years, a number have been painted other colors. Now, more and more are going back to their original color combinations (which can add $100,000 to the vehicle’s price when it is sold).”

Combine originality and rarity with a car that had been forgotten in storage for several decades and collectors get excited.

“It was the market speaking on an iconic car that has not been restored,” Hammers said.contrastgooding

And that dusty gullwing wasn’t the only unrestored car that drew a lot of attention — and money — at Goodings’ Scottsdale auction. A dingy (can any Ferrari really be termed “dingy?”) 1967 Ferrari 330 GTS that had been parked in a garage in Pennsylvania since an engine fire in 1969 sold for more than $2 million.

The Stewardship of Historically Important Automobiles was published in 2012 by the Simeone Automotive Foundation and presented the case for preservation instead of restoration. Collier and the Keno brothers wrote chapters for the book. Last fall, Collier and Leslie Keno were part of a panel that spoke about the Art of the Automobile before the RM/Sotheby’s auction in New York City.

As Collier noted in New York, “The vast majority of restorations are not original restorations. They are re-restorations of cars already restored once, twice, three times.”

What Collier and others like is the growing trend in the classic car hobby to apply “archival standards” that preserve rather than recreate history.

At that same seminar, Peter Mullin, who in addition to his own collection and museum is chairman of the Petersen Automobile Museum, said that in the last few years, collectors in the United States have “awakened to the fact that you ought to preserve things if they’re still in their original state.

You put your hands on the steering wheel that Rene Dryfus set a record with and you don’t want to change that.”

— Peter Mullin


“You spend a quarter-of-a-milion or $350,000 restoring,” Mullin said, “and it’s worth less than if you hadn’t done anything to it.

“We’re very much in the mode of appreciating originality, provenance. Original leather smells different. You put your hands on the steering wheel that Rene Dryfus set a record with and you don’t want to change that.

“But,” he added, “(unlike collectors in Europe) the U.S. has come to the table slowly on this subject.”

Slowly, but surely. Hammers noted that judges at a major concours d’elegance, the Elegance at Hershey, last year awarded best-in-show honors to an unrestored car, Robert and Sandra Bahre’s 1938 Alfa Romeo 8C 2300B Touring Spider. The car was repainted in 1950 but otherwise had been left as is.

It was only the third time such a car had won such honors. In 1989, another Bahre car, a 1934 Packard 1108 sport phaeton with LeBaron bodywork, was best American car at the Meadow Brook concours in Michigan. In 2010, yet another of the Bahres’ cars, a 1940 Duesenberg SJ with Rollson coachwork, was honored as the best “domestic” car at the Fairfield County (Conn.) concours, where Mullin’s 1931 Bugatti Type 54 got the other Grand Prix d’Honneur award as best “foreign” car.

Bob Bahre, said Jeff Orwig, curator of the Bahre Collection, “has a philosophy that a great car is a great car regardless of its condition, and if it’s an unrestored car, that makes it greater yet.

“He had the foresight to figure this out some 30 years ago. When he found cars, their lack of perfection didn’t phase him.”Orwig said Bahre had a group of cars that didn’t leave the building because the hosts of shows and concours didn’t find them pretty enough. “Anyone else would have restored or sold them,” Orwig said.

Instead, Orwig said, when others also began to see the beauty through the dust, “suddenly, he (Bahre) is a hero.

Orwig said the cars are cleaned and kept in good mechanical working condition and can be driven.

“You change fluids and belts, the normal mechanical maintenance,” he said. “If a component fails, you make it functional without impacting its outward appearance unless you absolutely have to.

“They’re only original once,” Orwig said of Bahre’s philosophy.alfaconcours1

Or maybe not… The inaugural Arizona Concours d’Elegance was held on the eve of Arizona Auction Week. Among the cars arrayed on the lawns within the Arizona Biltmore was the world’s oldest remaining Alfa-Romeo, a 1921 Alfa-Romeo G1, that looked like it had just completed the Mille Miglia race (see photo).

In fact, the former racing car had been converted for regular road use after its racing career and later served as a farm implement in Australia. But when Tony Shooshani of Beverly Hills, Calif., bought the car in 2012, he thought its history should be preserved so he asked Craig Calder of FastCars Ltd. in Redondo Beach to do what Shooshani calls a “destoration” to return the car to its original look and operating capabilities.

The Alfa won an award last summer in the pre-war open-wheel racing class at Pebble Beach. Shooshani hopes to drive the car on the modern Mille in Italy, and to continue show it for several more years before letting it live out the rest of its life in an Italian car museum.


Strong Arizona auctions set the stage for solid 2014

A rare 1967 Corvette L88 coupe at Barrett-Jackson hit $3.85 million, the top American-car sale during Arizona Auction Week. (Photo: Barrett-Jackson)
A rare 1967 Corvette L88 coupe at Barrett-Jackson hit $3.85 million, the top American-car sale during Arizona Auction Week. (Photo: Barrett-Jackson)

Arizona auction week started off the 2014 collector-car calendar with a bang. The six auctions sold 2,312 vehicles for a total of nearly $249 million and an average price of $107,096, all significant gains over 2013 results.

The premium auction houses – RM, Gooding and Bonhams – stepped up with great collections of cars, and the 43rd annual Barrett-Jackson auction in Scottsdale had the highest number of cars and highest total results in its history. Barrett-Jackson was so big, it made the Guinness Book of World Records.

There was even a classy new starting point for auction week, the first-ever Arizona Concours d’Elegance at the Arizona Biltmore Resort.

The Arizona auctions are considered a bellwether for the year ahead, so last week’s huge success bodes well for collector-car sales and values during 2014. As Corky Coker of Coker Tires said during one of the week’s many classic-car seminars: collecting old cars has become less of a hobby and more of an industry.

A 1958 250 GT LWB California Spider soared  at RM in Phoenix to a $8.8 million sale. (Photo: Bob Golfen)
A 1958 250 GT LWB California Spider soared at RM in Phoenix to an $8.8 million sale. (Photo: Bob Golfen)

While there are just about as many stories and lessons learned as there are vehicles on the dockets, here are a few observations from a hectic week:

Rising tide of values goes across the board – There were more than two dozen sales that reached over a million dollars during the week, but prices for more-modest cars and trucks also had strong gains this year.

The $25,000 to $50,000 range shows a healthy market of cars for regular Joes, although the price of entry has sailed upstream, leaving many left behind.

As usual, spending more up front for a well-restored or highly preserved original will pay off in the long run. Restoration costs are through the roof these days and can quickly take the bloom off a bargain purchase price.

“Barn finds” cast magic spell – Preservation verses restoration was a hot topic of conversation, with most savvy collectors heeding the old adage: It’s only original once. A well-preserved car or truck is a thing of beauty, with an air of authenticity and patina that cannot be duplicated.

But there is a flip side to that, as Sports Car Market and American Car Collector publisher Keith Martin observed, “There’s a difference between a preserved car and a nasty old thing.”

A 'barn find' 1956 Mercedes-Benz 300SL reached a surprising $1.88 million at Gooding. (Photo: Bob Golfen)
A ‘barn find’ 1956 Mercedes-Benz 300SL reached a surprising $1.88 million at Gooding. (Photo: Bob Golfen)

And the debate is on after the sales of two rare and valuable “barn finds” at the Gooding auction in Scottsdale. Both results were very surprising, to say the least, because while they were highly desirable cars at the top of the pecking order, neither of them were very appealing. Though original dirt does have its charm.

The first over the block on Friday was a dusty, musty 1956 Mercedes-Benz 300SL Gullwing that shocked with a $1.88 million selling price, including auction fee. That should buy you the very best restored Gullwing (steel body, not alloy) and seemed excessive for this survivor. Indeed, several beautifully restored examples sold for much less during the week.

The other one, a 1967 Ferrari 330 GTS Spider, soared to exceed $2 million, including fee. This car was a crispy critter, the victim of an engine fire and many decades of subsequent storage. It was in no way preserved and deserves an extensive – and no-doubt wildly expensive – restoration. According to the price guides, the Ferrari is already fully priced for one that’s in top condition.

So there you go. Such is the romantic lure of the great “barn find.”

Ferrari prices are on fire – Beyond the lofty price tag of the soot-smudged 330 GTS, the top sale of the week was a mighty $8.8 million, including fee, for a 1958 250 GT LWB California Spider, a record result and the highest-ever sale at an Arizona classic-car auction. All the Ferraris were hitting big numbers, going well into seven figures for anything of any rarity and history.

The famed 1969 Chevrolet Corvette #57 Rebel L88 convertible sold for $2.86 million. (Photo: Barrett-Jackson)
The famed 1969 Chevrolet Corvette #57 Rebel L88 convertible sold for $2.86 million. (Photo: Barrett-Jackson)

Dinos are rocking the house, with a 1973 246 GTS hitting a lofty $500k at Gooding. Even such high-production runabouts as the 308 climbed into six figures; a 1976 fiberglass 308 GTB sold for $114,400 at Bonhams.

Likewise Corvettes – Barrett-Jackson, always Nirvana for aficionados of the Chevy sports car, hit the ceiling with the sales of two very rare and special Corvettes: the 1969 race-winning Corvette dubbed The Rebel, which sold for $2.86 million, and an ultra-rare 560-horsepower 1967 L88 coupe that hit the heights at $3.85 million, becoming far and away the highest-priced Corvette ever sold at auction.

But Corvettes across the board were fetching premium prices as well. For example, among the top sales at Russo & Steele in Scottsdale were a 1971 454 SS convertible sold for $250,250 and a 1953 roadster for $225,500.

Many classic-car hobbyists are feeling priced out of the auction scene, and with good reason. There still are some worthwhile deals out there, and many examples of American muscle cars seem underpriced, but by and large, it takes deep pockets to buy anything of value.

For those still able to take part, 2014 should be a golden year for classic-car auctions if nothing bad happens to dampen prices, such as war, pestilence or another economic collapse like the one that killed the market in 2008. We have now fully recovered from that downturn.


Arizona bids for title of best wintertime car show

Photo by Larry Edsall
Photo by Larry Edsall

For many people, the annual classic car auction week in Arizona presents a wonderful opportunity (1) to escape way-too-cold weather and (2) to buy or sell classic cars. But for many more people, the auctions are simply one of the biggest and best classic and exotic car shows on the planet.

For example, where else can you see not one, not two, but nine Mercedes-Benz 300SLs, including five with gull-wing doors?

Where else can you see 39 Ferraris, including a 1951 212 Export Berlinetta and a 1952 212 Inter Coupe, as well as four 250 GTs, one of them a California Spider?

Or three Model J Duesenbergs?

Or cars with bodywork by not only by Touring, Franay, Zagato, Scaglietti, Vignale, Bertone, Ghia, Murphy, LeBaron, Brewster, Mulliner, Gangloff, Chapron, Figoni et Falachi, Scaglietti and all the Farinas — Stablimenti, Pinin and Pininfarina — but by the Rippon Brothers and the Ringbrothers?

Or cars formerly or currently owned by the likes of Nick Cage, Gregory Peck, Ray Milland, Roy Rogers, John Dodge (that’s Dodge as in the car company), James Gandolfini, Winthrop Rockefeller, Richard Carpenter, Simon Cowell,  Matthew Fox, Rudolph Valentino’s manager, Tom Hanks and Rita Wilson, Carroll Shelby or even Dr. Jonas Salk?

You also can see (or even buy) the Testarossa used in Michael Jackson’s Bad Pepsi promo and the herringbone tweed jacket Steve McQueen wore in Bullitt.

There are a Bugatti that raced at Monaco in 1930, the Osca that won the Index of Performance at Sebring in 1960, one of Jim Hall’s 1966 Chaparral 1 racers, Shelby’s race-winning 1963 King Cobra racer, Donna Mae Mims’ pink H-Production national championship 1959 Austin-Healey Sprite, the “longtail” McLaren F1 GTR Global GT racer, a Sox & Martin A/FX Hemi ‘Cuda, the 1998 Ferrari F300 that Michael Schumacher and Eddie Irvine used for testing, and not only the Snake & Mongoose funny cars but the trucks that carried them to the drag strips.

And those numbers and those lists come only from perusing the thick, glossy, printed and heavy catalogs for the RM, Gooding & Co., Bonhams and Barrett-Jackson Salon Collection/Series 5000 portion of the Arizona auction week.

We have yet to click through Russo and Steele’s 409-page online catalog or the ginormous printed catalog for the rest of Barrett-Jackson’s 1400-car docket. And don’t forget that Mitch Silver will have an additional 350 or so vehicles out at Fort McDowell for your viewing (and even bidding) pleasure.

Photo courtesy Arizona concours
Photo courtesy Arizona concours

Nor do those numbers include the cars to be arrayed around the lawns at the Arizona Biltmore for the inaugural Arizona Concours d’Elegance that kicks off auction week on Sunday.