Owning a classic car, reflected one automobile lover the other day, is a little like playing the horses. Having been hooked hard in the current widespread revival of interest in restoring and driving the beautifully turned-out vehicles of the decade and a half before World War II (shown in color on the following pages), this enthusiast discovered that his new possession was exhilarating but demanding, and that he dared not disclose to his wife how much time and money he was spending on it. Such dissembling is not necessarily typical of the classic car enthusiast. It is, however, a key to the zest with which a big new crop of collectors is poking through the nation's automobile graveyards, bidding it up at estate auctions and scanning classified ads.
The golden age of motoring, this new breed maintains, was the period between 1925 and 1942, and the classic car was the luxurious, usually custom-styled, powerful and dependable headliner of that era. The dates are not hard and fast. British Rolls-Royces and Spanish Hispano-Suizas, to name two makes, were providing luxurious and dependable transportation in classic equipages before 1925. That year, however, is generally taken to mark the time by which problems of fuel feed, ignition, braking and tires had mostly been licked, and after which the great coachmakers executed some of their most famous vehicles.
Whether it was the stately conveyance of a society matron or a playboy's rakish runabout, the classic car tended to be of great length. Behind the massive radiator was an engine compartment of imposing size. The wheels, which were considered objects of intrinsic beauty, were not covered up. Spare wheels were side-or rear-mounted as an integral part of overall design. The front wheels were set right up forward with the radiator to communicate a sense of urgency. The fender line was long and sweeping. And interior decoration was lavishly conceived—bars and vanity cases adorned many a wood-paneled tonneau, and refrigerators were not unheard of.
Collecting cars is not new, but until recently much of the emphasis has been on curiosities. This is true no longer. The classic car man does not want to get out and get under when he is on the road; he is convinced that his machine not only is the best looking ever but also one of superlative and utterly reliable performance. He enjoys the sport of searching out the car of his choice (and the numerous, usually missing parts), of restoring it to prime (the technical word is "mint") condition, showing it in competition and parading it before bug-eyed fellow townsmen. Picture Mrs. Leonard Hall Jr. of Cleveland, for instance, driving up to the supermarket in the elegant maroon Duesenberg that Greta Garbo once owned (see page 35). The stir this creates is one of the collector's tangible rewards.
January 2, 1956
It is a stir that also delights the Classic Car Club of America, a fledgling group that is crisply asserting its identity and its right to a label which sets it apart from the clutter of older or overlapping antique, veteran, Edwardian and vintage-car-fancying organizations. Three years ago, in its bootstrap-tugging days, the club had only 80 members, some of whom were recruited by devotees who spotted likely cars and traced the tags through license bureaus. Today it has 1,300 members representing 2,500 cars (some have extensive collections, others only a photograph of a car and a dream), and club officers confidently predict that the roster will be doubled in 1956. They also confidently expect at least a thousand new variations on the theme of just what makes a classic car; one of the attractions in joining is that a member may get into a lively debate on this issue at the same time.
"The line between the antique automobile and the classic car," said the CCCA in the first issue of its quarterly, The Classic Car, "is drawn darkest in the field of performance. The classicist invariably admires, may even collect and restore, antiques, but he does not feel that these lattice-trimmed, bicycle-built specimens ever included anything approaching a perfect car...The horseless carriage was at its best behind a horse."
The question of the types and makes of cars which qualify as classics is as open to debate as what makes a classic. Every classic car collector has his own list, which he is prepared to defend with considerable vigor, but a basic roster of the makes which no compilation would leave out includes American Auburns, Brewsters, Cadillacs, Chrysler Imperials, Cords, Duesenbergs, Lincolns, Marmons, Packards, Pierce-Arrows and Stutzes; and European Bentleys, Bugattis, Daimlers, Hispano-Suizas, Isotta-Fraschinis, Mercedes-Benzes and Rolls-Royces.
BOOM, BUST AND OUT
The enthusiast pays his greatest homage to the designers and coach builders who flourished in the lush 1920s and lasted into the Depression '30s, to be forced out finally by war and a new economic era. The only American survivor of that illustrious group, which includes such names as Rollston, Brewster, Hibbard, Darrin, Murphy, Buehrig, Brunn, Dietrich, Kellner, Weyman and Saoutchik, is the Derham Custom Body Co. of Rosemont, Pa. The brothers James and Enos Derham have cut their payroll from a prewar 200 to 50 and are getting along principally by modifying stock automobiles to the tastes of wealthy clients. They occasionally have an opportunity to build a car from the chassis up, as in 1947, when Ahmad Ibn Jabir, Sheik of Kuwait, ordered a red convertible sedan 21 feet 6 inches long and suitable for desert travel, but their heyday is past and they do not expect to see its like again.
The most sought-after models, naturally enough, are those of which only one or two were executed by a classic designer. In the golden age a Duesenberg chassis and engine cost $8,500, and when a customer, after first perhaps trying out the skeletal car in a temporary wicker driver's seat, selected the coachwork, he could expect a bill for possibly another $10,000 or more.
However, most collectors are content with models which, while displaying the technique of a fine bodymaker, were ordered in numbers by the manufacturer rather than by individual customers. Of these, Packards were turned out in the largest quantities, a fact which is reflected on the rolls of the CCCA; it is called the Packard Used Car Club by the disrespectful.
How does the collecting bug bite? If you ask George Lamberson, whose Duesenberg is shown on page 30, he will shrug his shoulders and say, "How do you get cancer?" But if you put the question to Margot Rebeil, the CCCA's first female owner-driver, she will recall a moonlit night of her youth and a ride in a borrowed Packard at 95 mph. "When I found one just like it a couple of years ago," she reminisced recently, "I put my arms around it and we became engaged. It is beautiful and long and black and sleek, and riding in it is like sitting in the best chair in the living room."
Once bitten, the prospective collector is an immediate candidate for a visit to the junkyard. That is where many a treasure has been found and junkmen more and more are becoming aware of the boom. Prices are going up. A mendable ruin that could be snatched up for $20 not long ago may cost $500 or more today.
If it is to be shown in competition, a car must be restored authentically down to the correct color and tires. The CCCA annually sponsors a dozen or so meetings at which cars are judged in as many as seven classifications: production, custom, Rolls-Royce, other foreign makes, sports racing, Lincoln Continental and special interest. The last is a diplomatic concession to owners who show up with cars that officials cannot bring themselves to call classics.
Many owners do a sizable part of their restoration work themselves, needing outside help chiefly for rechroming and topwork. For missing parts they may call on specialists like Sam Adel-man of Mount Vernon, N.Y., whose dusty bins hold a fortune in unlikely hardware. Owners who are not able to take on a restoration send their machines to special shops which make a business of it. The cost, depending on the condition of the car and special difficulties involved, may vary from $750 to more than $4,000. Some enthusiasts have maintained their cars since they were new, and a few others have finessed the restoration problem by picking up handsome models at estate auctions. The most notable success in the auction category was won by William Wharff of Clinton, Iowa, who bid in a Packard of such excellent condition (see page 34) that he had to replace only the battery to win the 1955 CCCA Grand Classic Trophy—the club's top award.
Once into the field the neophyte can pick up the thread of the fanciers' intramural debates. Open vs. closed cars is the most enduring. One school maintains that only a closed car of the formal town variety should be called classic; the other insists that only an open touring model deserves the label. Those of the latter persuasion draw sustenance from a line from an old Michael Arlen novel: "Open as a yacht, it wore a great shining bonnet, and flying over the crest of this great bonnet, as though in proud flight over the heads of scores of phantom horses, was that silver stork by which the gentle may be pleased to know that they have just escaped death beneath the wheels of a Hispano-Suiza car."
However he declares himself, the collector is likely to agree with Griffith Borgeson and Eugene Jaderquist, who salute the golden age in a new book, Sports and Classic Cars (Prentice-Hall, $12.50):
"The classic car makes you a man of distinction even before you start it on its majestic journey. Anyone with his foot resting possessively on its running board is the psychological equal of a millionaire."
Duesenberg J Rollston Victoria, restored from "absolute junk" to gleaming elegance for Jim Aiken, Los Angeles car dealer, develops 265 hp and exceeds 100 mph. One of the most powerful and luxurious of all American cars, it cost $19,000 in 1932.
Lincoln Continental, last of the classic cars, was considered such a "fine piece of sculpture" by Warren Custer that he cashed in a soybean crop from his Newtown, Pa. farm and a station wagon for this 1941 convertible, which has run 85,000 miles.
Pierce-Arrow town cabriolet, built in Buffalo in 1931 with a Le Baron body, has been in the family of Phil Hill, Santa Monica, Calif, racing driver, since it was new. Distinguished by its well-remembered headlights, it is a consistent prize winner.
Packard 12-cylinder roadster, a 1933 revival of the twin six of the early 1920s, was a $60 find (original price: $4,500) for E. Charles Last, an Alhambra, Calif, garage owner, who knows of only three like it remaining in the U.S. The $60 was just a starter. "I put $2,500 and two and a half years of my spare time into it," said Last, whose labors included applying 18 coats of lacquer.
Cadillac dual cowl phaeton, a 1929 V-8, has an unusual but authentic brown, tan and black finish. Owner Russell Gage, a Janesville, Wis. manufacturing executive, and his son Bill spent some 1,200 hours on reconditioning. On the road the powerful roar of its exhaust is such that Mrs. Gage once thought the car was doing nearly 90 mph until a policeman ordered them into the slow lane
Duesenberg SJ Torpedo, a rakish, supercharged 320-hp phaeton with coach-work by Weyman, was built for motor car tycoon E. L. Cord in 1934. George Lamberson of Hinsdale, Ill., who bought it in 1950, says he has accelerated to 98 mph in second gear. The huge eight-cylinder engine makes the front seat uncomfortably hot, but the car boasts an altimeter, stop watch and tachometer.
Packard phaeton of 1929, with custom styling by Dietrich and Super 8 engine, is used daily by S. Phillips Steen, Westwood, N.J. A television engineer, he paid $150 for the car, canvassed the nation for parts and spent $2,000 more for reconditioning.
Chrysler Le Baron phaeton, a long, low 1932 model built at a loss to crack the prestige market, served as a vehicle for Charlie Chaplin in The Great Dictator. A rare car, it was picked up by Robert Gottlieb, a Los Angeles lawyer, for only $225 in 1948.
Cadillac roadster, a 16-cylinder mammoth built for Samuel Insull in 1930, has been babied ever since. Bought at auction by S. J. McDonald, Clinton, Iowa, it has a 148-inch wheelbase, original paint, fitted luggage in trunk and a golf-bag compartment.
Packard Super 8 Coupé Roadster was found in near-perfect condition at an auction by William Wharff of Clinton, Iowa, who had to replace only the battery. A 1936 model, it narrowly won the 1955 Grand Classic Trophy over the stylish Duese below.
Duesenberg J dual cowl phaeton, an $18,000 item for Tommy Manville in 1930, is one of a pair whose coachwork was conceived by Walter Murphy in Pasadena. Restored by C. Richard Bell, Laureldale, Pa., it has a gold-plated dash, downswinging rear cowl.
Auburn Speedster is a 1935 boattail 100 mph sports model designed by Gordon Buehrig and powered by a 150-hp. straight-eight supercharged Lycoming engine. Jerry Whitaker of Penn Yan, N.Y. spent 18 months restoring it to prize-winning form.
Rolls-Royce Pall Mall tourer, American-built in Rolls plant at Springfield, Mass. in 1927, was refitted for Stanley Tarnopol, a Philadelphia furrier, with white kid tire, trunk and spring covers, white fox tonneau rug and burnished aluminum hood.
Duesenberg landau by Fernandez and Darrin of Paris provided locomotion in the grand manner for Greta Garbo. Only one duplicate was made—for an Indian prince. Price new in 1933: $26,000. In 1952 it cost Leonard Hall Jr., Cleveland, $2,500.
Stutz DV-32 phaeton, a superb 1930 reminder of Indianapolis' automotive heyday, has a dual-valve, double overhead camshaft straight-eight engine, mahogany dash, tonneau windshield. It is now in Joseph Murchio's auto museum at Greenwood Lake, N.Y.
Cord Sportsman convertible (above), distinctive for its front-wheel drive and disappearing headlights, is a supercharged 1937 product of the diverse E. L. Cord operation at Auburn, Ind. Dr. Anthony Simeone of Philadelphia restored the car for relaxation.
Packard Speedster runabout (below), a sporty 1930 boattail model, is one of 10 elderly cars owned by L. Morgan Yost of Kenilworth, Ill. His daughter (no fancier of classics) used to ride on the floor rather than be seen by friends in so ancient a vehicle.