Symbolically, at least, it was quite a turnout. Jay Gatsby motored down from Long Island in a beige Auburn whose spokes reflected a hundred suns with each turn of the wheel. Not long afterward, or so it seemed, Julian English pulled in from nearby Gibbsville with his butter-yellow Marion Bobcat—one of America's earliest sports cars. And as auction morning rolled around, the sun also rose on Jake Barnes, who arrived from San Sebastiàn in a quiet, wood-paneled Hispano-Suiza—the one they built for the Infanta Isabella in Spain back in 1910. Jake has style, at least. Even the Archduke Ferdinand was there, all spangles and waxed mustache ends as he peered from the velvet depths of his opera-box Renault. Ferdie was rather nervous. "He's always expecting another Princip to jump out of the crowd with a gun," said the Smart Set. To be sure, in this particular gathering there were plenty of suspicious looking customers—long-haired dudes with PEACE stenciled on their jackets and aggression bristling in their beards.
But this was Radnor, Pa., not Sarajevo, and a day for reality—if an auction of antique and classic cars can in any way be described as real. It was precisely that unreal blend of automotive fact and remembered fiction that made last week's gathering of car buffs on the Philadelphia Main Line such an experience. It was the first major auction since the late recession put a freeze on the classic-car market 14 months ago, and though the thaw was not yet complete, a few rivulets were running.
The locale was St. Martin's Episcopal Church, a slow green sprawl of tulip trees, sanctity and cool stone buildings situated in the heart of Philadelphia's wealthy western suburbs. The First Annual Kirk F. White Motorcars Auction, to give the affair its proper name, drew together more than 80 automobiles, 247 registered bidders and 2,750 paying customers. Before the sunny spring day was out, 48 cars had changed hands—along with $333,700, the highest auction turnover ever in this country.
Significantly, however, 32 of the grandest, most expensive automobiles on the auction block did not move. Kirk F. White, the wealthy young dealer in vintage Ferraris who is backing Roger Penske on the world manufacturer's championship trail this year, was pleased nonetheless. "This auction was a bit of a gamble," he said, "but we succeeded. We moved a large volume of cars, and while the action at the $50,000 to $60,000 level was slow, I don't think many people went home disappointed."
True enough. Champagne flowed beneath the willow trees, magnolias bloomed, hot pants came and went and there were always the cars to look at—if not to buy. They ranged in age from a 1902 "curved dash" Oldsmobile (with a tiller, not a steering wheel) to a 1966 Ford GT-40 (a model that is rapidly becoming a collector's item since its retirement from top-rank racing last year). In between were cars of every shape and degree of elegance. Rolls-Royces in plenty. A hardy, functional Model T wagon, a quartet of Model A's. A covey of early Cadillacs, far more massive and substantial than their descendants. A brace of Bugattis, a Marion, a Mercer, two Auburns, a Ruxton but a sad absence of Packards (two were promised but did not show). And there was Al Capone's limousine, a maroon 1940 Cadillac V-16 replete with an armory of pistols, machine guns and a hand grenade. Fortunately, none of the hardware was loaded—car buffs take auction defeats seriously.
Then there was the centerpiece: a 40-year-old Duesenberg Le Baron barrel side Phaeton, tricked out in tan and burgundy for its first public appearance since it was restored by Durland Edwards of Forty Fort, Pa. Estimates of what the Doozer would bring before the auction began ranged up to $80,000. The highest price ever paid for a car at auction was $45,000 for the legendary "Harry Johnson" Mercer back in 1968. Should the Duesenberg move, it would set a record. "I'll take $75,000 for it," confided Owner Milford H. (Tiny) Gould, 51, the Trucksville, Pa. collector. "The question is, who's got that kind of money today?"
While the crowd pondered that question, there was much to see. Just looking at the cars under the 15,000-square-foot yellow-and-white striped tent was a trip through automotive history. Compressed and foregathered in a much more lifelike setting than at any museum, the array of cars offered a study in design. The earliest machines, like the 1910 Hispano-Suiza ("Hiso" to its pals) were understated, reticent, almost anemic in the same degree as the European aristocracy whose taste determined their lines. Then came the ebullient, innovative cars of the teens and '20s—sometimes garish and gauche like the nouveau riche who bought them, often daring and strong. The 1914 Mercer type 35 T-head Raceabout was the finest example of that era: spare, sleek and sporting a "monocle" rather than a windshield, it spoke volumes about dirt roads and innocence and drivers like Barney Oldfield.
Then, circa the Great Depression, a colder, tougher look emerges. The Capone Caddie, the Rollses, a bulbous Buick once owned by the Maharaja of Jind; the cars seemed harder, more sophisticated, like a man who had doubled his fortune through the 1930s. Except for the racing machinery, the postwar cars seemed dull by contrast. Too slick, no exuberance. "Why doesn't Detroit reinvent the rumble seat?" asked one buff wistfully. "Ralph Nader," came the reply.
But now it was time for dealing, not dreaming. While a record of the Swingle Singers chirruped Bach and Vivaldi over the grounds, auctioneer Omar Landis of Ephrata, Pa. warmed up his tonsils. Omar had sold 220 of 250 American cars just two days before, and he was in fine voice. He moved the first car—a dapper 1936 Aston Martin built for Le Mans—in good order and for an encouragingly high $6,600. A Ford Model A roadster as green as the overhanging beech leaves went just as swiftly for $3,300.
Then came the first real test, the first of the "biggies," a 1928 Du Pont convertible sedan owned by Bob Marceca and desired by the duPont family. Marceca is a hip, hirsute Manhattan adman—a car freak of 26 who owns 45 antique and classic machines in the U.S. and another 15 in Europe. (Proof of what a soft-drink jingle can get you, fans.) The man who wanted the car was Jerry Riegel, a tall, crew cut and eminently democratic duPont up from Wilmington, Del. to buy a family car for his cousin, Reynolds (Chippy) duPont Jr., who is serving time in Vietnam as an Army clerk. Omar the Rent-Taker quickly escalated the Du Pont's price beyond $13,000 and kept on climbing. "Sir," he finally asked, "are you bidding? Oh, you're waving at your son.... O.K. you've just bought a $16,000 son." Laughs all around. But in the end Jerry had his 16-grand purchase. It looked like there was money to be spent after all.
Then recession set in again. A faultless red and black Bugatti was "no sale" at a top bid of $17,500. A splendid 1932 Alfa Romeo Gran Sport Roadster with a red paint job that could be used for a transfusion pulled a high bid of $22,500—again, not enough. A 1930 Ruxton with front-wheel drive, one of four open models still in existence, failed at $19,500. "The only people buying are the ones with a couple of five-grand bills," said Bob Marceca, shaking his head.
Precisely. An eight cylinder Auburn Speedster sold for $14,000, and the Capone Cadillac went for $14,000 (in a private deal), but a magnificent '31 Caddy V-16 Roadster owned by Herb Wetson, the hamburger king, was far too underdone at $32,000. Then it was time for Lot No. 32—the Duesenberg. Diners dropped their box lunches and raced for the tent to see the climax. Omar was at his most mellifluous as he drew four bidders from $50,000 on up to $60,000. Then a 34-year-old novice in the classic-car field, Ernie Krensel of Plymouth Meeting, Pa. bid $61,000. Omar's voice quickly blasted on past Krensel, and the price went by thousands up to $66,000. Or so Omar said. "Did I hear sixty-six five?" he barked. "No, the man in the red coat just dropped his cigar. Tiny Gould just took three more pills. Sixty-six five? Sixty-six five? Come on now, the house and the car and the boat will have to go." Nervous chuckles. "O.K., sorry. No sale at $66,000. Tiny says that's $8,000 to $10,000 short. And after all, Tiny don't need the money."
Omar could not later recall who had raised the ante above Krensel's $61,000—and some cynics suggested that those bids never existed. But Krensel himself was limp at the prospect of having come that close to the Doozer. "Something comes over you," he said, shaking slightly. "It's like falling down an elevator shaft and thinking, "What the hell....' "
In a way the case of the Duesenberg to sell told a lot about American affluence. To think that in the wake of recession men could be publicly bidding amounts of that scale for mere automobiles—and then not getting the car—bespeaks an economy of such size and abundance as to approach immorality. In the presence of these cars it was easy to wax poetic—to forget for the moment about the sins of the automobile: air pollution, the rape of the land by superhighway, the inequities of income reflected by these prices and those slums just down the road in South Philly. The nonsale of the Duesenberg snapped those problems back into focus in some strange way. Drifting away, people began pouring down the champagne.
The string of no-sales among grander cars continued apace. Bob Marceca's Hiso drew bids of no more than $12,000—not enough, not even with the champagne flowing. His opera-box Renault, which needed work but was already part of the way back to its 1910 elegance, failed at $4,200. "Absurd," said Jacques de Kervor, a French industrial designer who had helped Marceca prepare both the Hispano-Suiza and the Renault for the auction. "The car is worth at least $7,000."
Then came the sentimental favorite: the yellow Mercer. Where the Duesenberg had been powerful—so imposing in its length of hood and breadth of tires that one felt like knuckling the fore-knot in its presence—the Mercer was playful. Inside the eyes of watchers and bidders alike, silent fantasy films unwound—coursing the country roads of an earlier time, the duster flapping in the high winds of 60 mph, June bugs splatting on the heavy glass monocle, a girl, perhaps, and a Victorian mansion now converted to a country club. Still, none of the fantasies could raise the price beyond $37,000, and the Mercer remained unsold. "How's the chicken?" Omar asked the crowd.
But if fantasy films could not turn the trick, a real one did. Next on the block came a 1939 Plymouth station wagon—a "woodie" in moderate repair.
"Everyone has a Ford woodie," bellowed Omar, "but how many have a Plymouth woodie? What's more, this car recently starred in the movie version of The Godfather." Sold for $1,400!
No such luck attended the parading of one of the auction's weirdest machines—a 1932 Streamliner built by the avant-garde Hill Auto Body Metal Works of Cincinnati. No sale at $4,800. Sadder still was the fate of a 1912 Kisselkar—worth a small fortune for its name if not its looks. It could draw no more than $12,500—not enough.
The high point of the day was still the $16,000 paid for Marceca's DuPont—the third car on the block. Then up wheeled a cream-colored, mandarin-orange trimmed 12-cylinder Auburn Speedster, an outstanding example of the enamelist's art and the very car that graced the cover of the auction catalog. It was clear from the start that someone had come for this car. Omar rang the changes swiftly from $10,000 up to $19,000. From that level, the price tiptoed by hundreds of dollars up toward the magic 20 grand: nineteen-two, nineteen-seven, nineteen-eight. Finally, with only two bidders left, the price reached $20,000. Silence from the opposite party. Bango! Sold.
The buyer was E. D. (Don) Screes, 60, a gray, rather shy coal-company executive from Indianapolis. "I really came for the Duesenberg," he admitted as he drove his Auburn into the back lot, "but I didn't even bid on it. This one I had to have." Screes is the regional director of the Veteran Motorcar Club of America, Indiana branch, but owns just one other classic—a 1920 seven-passenger Cole Touring Car. What were his plans for the new addition?
"Well, first off, I have to get her back home. I figure I'll drive her back tonight." And risk disaster on the turnpikes? "I'll hold her at about 50 or 55 miles an hour all the way. Shouldn't take me more than 15 hours."
As the last of the bidding stopped, the sound of the Auburn's engine rumbled away from St. Martin's Church. Don Screes was heading into the sunset. It wasn't quite Jay Gatsby, nor even the Archduke Ferdinand for that matter. But it was nice to see, anyway.