“The history of a car is recorded in its wear patterns,” Keno told me. He showed me one nicely weathered antique that stuffed its seat piping with straw—who’d know if the car wasn’t original?
One half of television’s most famous twins isn’t checking the drawer pulls on an 18th century highboy, he’s trying to figure out if a car with 90,000 miles on it could have such pristine—and original—leather seats. Were just the side bolsters replaced? It’s all part of a new enterprise for the brothers, the “Rolling Sculpture” Fine Automobile Auction, to take place in New York City November 18 and 19. Each of the 40 cars in the auction will get a white glove pre-purchase inspection that will ensure no buyer goes home with question marks about a car’s provenance.
Leslie and Leigh Keno are best known for their work with American antiques, and appraising finds on the Roadshow since 1997, but they’re also longtime car guys. The brothers are concours judges at Pebble Beach, Amelia Island and other prestige events, and have long campaigned Leigh’s 1938 3.5-liter SS Jaguar. That car, which used to belong to their father, took them on the Louis Vuitton Classic China Run, 1,000 miles from Dalian to Beijing, in the 1990s. Leslie is well known for driving a Lotus 11, and Leigh a rather more fiery beast—Ferrari’s 500-horsepower 512 BB MM. "It was an easy transition for us to running our first-ever auto auction," Leigh said.
Antiques are in a bit of slump, but antique car values keep pushing up to dizzying heights. That’s one reason the brothers, in addition to the upcoming auction, have launched the Historic Motor Car Investment Fund to concentrate private equity on a pool of classic cars from the big names, including Alfa, Bugatti, Ferrari, Jaguar, Maserati and Lamborghini.
The brothers are investors themselves—the one car that’s not a consignment in their auction is a 1969 Lamborghini Miura P400 S, one of two made with “cinghiale” (wild boar!) interior. The other one went to Frank Sinatra. Despite rumors, the Kenos were able to confirm from veteran Lamborghini test driver Valentino Balboni that Sinatra did not come in with a bolt of boar hide; it was instead coachbuilder Nuccio Bertone’s idea.
The Miura S pushed out 370 horsepower from its mid-mounted V-12. The model was a landmark car in many ways. Says Jalopnik:
And so it’s this Miura, valued around $1 million, that Leigh lets me drive. On crowded downtown streets teeming with texting SUV drivers who don’t know a Lambo from a hole in the head. Surprisingly enough, despite the screaming V-12 inches from my head and the unfamiliar gated five-speed shifter, I wasn’t all that nervous. Probably because Leigh Keno was my passenger, and he’s such an engaging raconteur that I forgot all about the possibility of pranging this beautiful car. (This despite the fact that I’d heard that early versions of this car were prone to car fires—look at this tragic video.)
The Miura showed the world that the mid-engine layout was not only viable for road cars, it was the definitive future of the supercar. The McLaren F1, the Audi R8, the Carrera GT, even the litany of mid-engine Ferraris that have come out since then — they are all the children of the Miura.
Actually, it was huge fun to drive, with a surprisingly light clutch that was kind to my titanium knee, lovely weighted steering and excellent brakes. My one moment came at a stoplight on a hill, with a huge GM truck inches from my bumper. Do Lamborghini Miuras roll back on hills before the clutch engages? Fortunately, no.
When we got back, with Keno’s $1 million investment intact, he ran his fingers over the left fender, detecting some irregularities in the paint that were nearly invisible to the naked eye. If some part of the car was repainted, the catalog will reflect it.
The Kenos have surrounded themselves with an experienced team. Bradley Farrell is the chief operating officer; he's an engaging major collector of pre-war cars, particularly French ones. His one-off 1921 Delage woody was in the warehouse, but not in the auction. More’s the pity, because this coachbuilt example had the best original interior I’ve ever seen on a pre-war car. Just the Bakelite door handle was a work of art.
I didn’t see all 40 cars in the auction, but quite a lot of the eye candy. Jeff Ehoodin, the Kenos’ director of communications (he’s ex-Ferrari/Maserati), showed me a 1931 four-liter Bentley Le Mans Tourer with body by Vanden Plas. The Avengers’ John Steed drove a somewhat more sporting version of this car. “This is an ex-works car used as a press demonstrator,” Ehoodin told me. In British Racing Green, it’s estimated around $500,000.
A Type 40 Bugatti from 1929 was fitted with a truck body at one point, and completed a rally across the Sahara desert. It’s estimated at $400,000 to $700,000. That seems low to me, but Leigh Keno told me he tends to be conservative with pricing.
An absolute favorite for me was a big 1939 BMW 327 Sport Cabriolet with a lightweight body by a coachbuilder I’d never encountered before, Autenrieth of Darmstadt. The car, a barn find from Connecticut, was in “as found” condition—a filthy mess, but not a particularly difficult restoration, because it wasn’t rusty or damaged. The specification seemed very modern for the period—a 1.9-liter inline six, a four-speed transmission and independent front suspension. The 328, a competition favorite, is much better known, but this ragtop (estimated at $80,000 to $150,000) had style.
Covering all the cars would make this column endless, and detailed histories are on the website. I coveted a 1953 Ferrari 212 Inter that had belonged to Prince Bernhard of the Netherlands (who’d been a World War II flying ace). The car ($1.3 to $1.9 million) sports an early Pinin Farina body. An Iso Grifo from 1965, with Corvette 327 V-8 power and another Bertone body, was the ninth one built (price estimate, $550,000 to $650,000). Did I mention the ex-Steve McQueen Mercedes-Benz 6.3?
The Keno brothers are planning a different kind of car auction. The usual practice is to hold the event in a tent at an auto concours, and run the cars up a platform in rapid succession. There isn’t much time to appreciate their sterling qualities.
The Kenos have secured the showrooms at Skylight Clarkson Square in Sono, and as Farrell explained the cars will be on static display around the space, with the actual auction prefaced by a video showing the car in action and explaining its history. Using Near Field Communication (NFC) technology, registered bidders with tablets will be able to walk up to cars, tap a spot, and they’ll get more information. “Participants at the event will enjoy a cinematic experience individually curated to accentuate the substance of the individual vehicle,” the company said.
I had a delightful time with the Keno folks. Leigh himself, an identical twin just like me, is a very down-to-earth guy who loves to tell stories—about cars, highboys, whatever. He recalled a bonding experience (with Bondo) rebuilding an E-Type Jaguar with his father. Hey, I slapped mud with my dad, too. That’s the way we did it back then. Bondo is part of that car’s history. Here are the Keno brothers in that lovely Lamborghini Miura P400 S. You need to listen to it, not just look at it: