Veteran to classic: The American collector

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Reborn in the USA

It is easy to feel pleased, or even smug, about the old car scene in Britain: we have a huge number of ancient vehicles and run the best-known meeting for them every December between London and Brighton; many of our various enthusiastic clubs are venerable in their own right, and old car racing, from Edwardian monsters to ferocious Seventies Can-Am sportscars, is more prolific, intense and truly competitive than anywhere else.

This interest has been a thriving one right back to when old cars were so much obsolete metal to everyone except a restricted number of enthusiasts who rescued, nurtured and used them, mostly without any conception of the vast sums they might one day be worth.

Today the historical value of prime old cars is well appreciated, and their financial value not only realised but arguably frequently exceeded as they become targets for wealthy collectors with more interest in their future investment performance rather than any other sort of performance. This process is being accelerated by the sudden interest of the auction houses, who, having with laudable acumen identified an area of valuable exchange where they have so far been failing to make a commission, have interposed themselves between buyer and seller. Lavish theatrical productions, mere entry to which is more costly than a night at the theatre, have become media events in themselves, while glossy catalogues are filled with phraseology borrowed from estate agents’ windows.

But the chief villain for many years, as perceived by those with less cash but the conviction of automotive enthusiasm, has been “the American collector”. Although just as many valuable cars are nowadays crated up for the trip to Japan or Germany this mythical archetype remains as a symbol of the excess of dollars over devotion, bringing over-restoration to a fine art by replacing any part which looks less than perfect and keeping its tyres off anything as dirty as a road.

A fair view? Not so. A recent visit to the east coast of the USA showed me that the Stateside old-car man, collector or restorer, is as genuine about his passion as anyone else. I have met an American who bemoaned the fact that the last restoration of his Model T Ford had been over 18 months ago, and that therefore he could not expect to win any more major concours awards until the next rebuild; but then I have also met his English counterpart. As it was, any lingering visions of the collector gloating over unsullied paintwork in an airtight garage were soon dispelled.

In a short trip crammed with visits to collections, repair shops, and tumbledown sheds, I met the owner of a staggering secret garage full of race-winning sportscars of all eras, all in excellent shape and most taxed for road use and regularly driven hard. I was taken to see a barn full of some of the most desirable American cars which had lain forgotten for 40 years; I was entertained by a lover of French machinery who collects Hispano Suiza aero-engines and cars, but in 40 years has not quite got around to fixing all of them. Several sit outside in open sheds with ivy growing over them, their owner preferring to drive his cut-down Bugatti 57 with home-made body, or race his Grand Prix Talbot-Lago.

Giving the lie to the accusation of “too much care and too little racing” I inspected a thoroughly used but well-kept single-seater Bugatti T35 (apparently converted before the war) which sees much action in mixed racing. And as we drove through the rolling and lush Pennsylvanian countryside in a Bentley Continental, my host for much of the time, restorer David George of Frazer in that state, smilingly pointed out a barn full of Phantom II Rolls-Royces owned by a farmer who still drives to the store in a PII pick-up.

It may be distressing to hear of great cars mouldering away, but I found it refreshing to talk to the Hispano man who bought his Bugatti years ago for a handful of dollars: his view is that the only purpose of a car is to please its owner, and he has had over 40 years of pleasure from this shortened, untrimmed, unpainted machine which he parks in the street.

In his cellar he showed me a 1923 Bedelia cyclecar he was repairing, whose rear axle slides fore and aft to adjust the gearing; alongside another Hispano awaited a part cannibalised from one of the outdoor cars. In a great barn an elegant but dust-covered two-seater BNC crouched in the shadow of a huge pre-war speedboat powered by a 3½litre Hispano aero-engine, of which several others stood around adorned with straw and chicken droppings. Under a lean-to, ivy, moss and junk conspired to obscure a 1928 Lincoln and a Hotchkiss, while nearby, slowly collapsing hood-canvas concealed the rotting upholstery where once sat Countess Holstein when her Hispano H6B Transformable was new. There was something rather Gothic about the place, almost as if it would be a shame to disturb these relics.

It was in a private cemetery that the collection of American luxury cars has come to rest. The 15 or 16 we inspected were extracted from a huge shed packed with cars hoarded by an eccentric gentleman in Philadelphia who refused to do any work at all on them. Local children grew up with rumours of 80 or 100 old cars locked away, but it was only on the old man’s death recently that the doors were opened and the cars quietly sold. The best of them were picked out by Mr James D Houck Star, owner of the cemetery, and had only just been moved to the big barn when David George and I went to see them in the company of a collector who thought he might buy the lot to swap for European cars. Still with the dust of decades clinging to them but essentially sound, there in the gloomy interior were phaetons and victorias, coupes and limousines, all built on an enormous scale, with dull chrome and cracking paint reflecting the strips of sunlight filtering through the wooden walls. A brace of 1939 V12 Packards, a ’38 Lincoln convertible, Cadillac and Packard V8 coupes of 1930, the latter with dickie seat, 1935 Ford Phaeton and a completely unused ’51 Ford truck clustered round a massive Cadillac V16 limousine known with mysterious grandeur as the “Poindexter Madam X” car. Its cavernous interior was trimmed with silk tassels and faded brocade, and marquetry companions contained smoking accessories on one side and toilet requisites on the other.

Now that they have been “found”, these cars will all in time be restored by US craftsmen with all the skills but perhaps more lavish premises than our equivalents. On a visit to a vintage restoration shop, white-fenced within neat lawns west of Philadelphia, I was shown into a comfortable office with leather armchairs and elaborate draughting equipment. On a light-table lay X-rays of deteriorating cylinder heads from a Monza Alfa, and the large workshop itself boasted elaborate machining tools and hoists.

Such facilities do not in themselves guarantee fine work, but good presentation no doubt helps to convince potential clients of their choice, though like several east coast restorers I met this one has so many owners clamouring for his skills that he operates a restricted-client scheme, selling blocks of his time for the year ahead.

Most owners of interesting cars I came across were reluctant to be mentioned by name, citing business or security reasons, and displayed an almost English diffidence over their possessions. It was some time before David George modestly asked if I had ever heard of the Lamborghini P538? Since this fabulous machine is the only pure racing car to have been built by the Sant’Agata factory, I was bowled over to discover that it was sitting quietly in David’s own garage a few miles away. The story of the car’s career will have to wait for a future issue of Motor Sport, but my being allowed the chance to clamber over it and fire up the ear-shattering lump seemed to me to sum up the friendly enthusiasm and knowledge of old car collectors on both sides of the Atlantic. GC

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