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Driving the High-End Auction Cars

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Car auction prices are going nuts. I like classic cars, too, but is a Ferrari 275 GTB/4 NART Spider really worth, gulp, $27.5 million? That’s what a buyer at RM Auctions paid at Pebble Beach last August. Sure, it’s a sexy car, but is it worth crazy money?

This 1967 Ferrari 275 GTB/4 NART Spyder fetched $27.5 million at auction. (Ferrari photo)Manny Dragone, an international classic car dealer based in Connecticut, told me that despite mixed signals from the economy, the market is very strong at the high end. Some muscle cars are a bit down, but the true senior classics are still bringing in stupefying, record-setting prices. That Ferrari fetched the most ever paid at an auction for a street car. The total was topped only by a 1956 Mercedes W196R race car, which brought $30 million last July.

Dragone Classic Motorcars is holding an auction of its own December 7, and there are a bunch of big-ticket items. I even got to drive two of them. There’s something unnerving about being at the helm of a million-dollar-plus Packard Speedster with period brakes and steering, as it dodges around impatient modern traffic. But something hugely cool, too.

I got to pilot this 1933 CL Chrysler Imperial phaeton. It was surprisingly modern on the road. Imagine commuting in this! (Jim Motavalli photo) The centerpiece of the auction is no less than eight early 1930s Chrysler Imperials from the David Huckins collection—big, hugely impressive cars that were unfortunately launched into the teeth of a national Depression. I drove the most valuable one, a 1933 CL Sport Dual-Cowl Phaeton with body by LeBaron. It’s estimated to fetch $500,000 to $600,000—not Pebble Beach Ferrari territory, but rich, even for the blood of Connecticut’s hedge fund traders.  

The car, once owned by Louis Marx of the toy company, is on a 145-inch wheelbase, and if you’re unfamiliar with the “dual cowl” designation, it means two windshields—rear passengers in this car get glass they can crank up. Only 36 of these were built in 1933. But I sat in the driver’s seat.

The surprise of this car (and the Packard I’ll get to in a minute) was how usable it is. “They drive like modern cars,” said Dragone. And that’s basically true. I recently piloted the Dragones’ supercharged 1934 Duesenberg Continental Touring Berline, and the Packard and Chrysler were comparatively much easier. I said about the Duesy last May, “I never completely got the hang of the three-speed transmission, and crunch-free upshifts were rare.” But the Imperial snicked easily into gear.

Improvements were coming thick and fast in the early ‘30s, and the Chrysler even had synchromesh. The steering was also much lighter than many cars of this era, including at parking speeds, and the brakes hauled it up long before it got scary. That led me to being a bit over-confident around a corner, but no damage done…If there’s a hang-up with cars like this, it’s in getting into them, and trying to adjust to fixed-place seating. The Packard, despite being three years older, was similarly fun to throw around the tony streets of Westport. We’re talking about a 1930 734 Speedster Phaeton (no roll-up windows), quite a rare car—only 15 remain. On a 134-inch wheelbase and sporting an unusual (for Packard) boattail configuration, the 734 was a hot rod of its day, with 145 horsepower on tap, a two-barrel updraft carb, high-compression head and finned brakes.

Consider the life and times of this Packard. Its original owner was the memorably named Alan Rutherfurd Stuyvesant, from an illustrious New York founding family and a Banker’s Trust heir. Just in his 20s when he was gifted with the car, he regularly moved it back and forth from his American estates and the Place Vendome in Paris. A plaque on the sill confirmed this (and the unusual spelling of "Rutherfurd").

This 1930 Packard Speedster, with a rare boattail configuration, was a hot rod of its day. That's Manny Dragone in the passenger seat. (Jim Motavalli photo)Both the Packard and Imperial are eight-cylinder cars; if you wanted ultimate smoothness back then, you could opt for a V-12 or even V-16 from other vendors. Cadillac, for instance, offered a V-16 (resulting in the classic gangster car) from 1930 to 1940. But it was still hard to believe that the ex-Tom Kerr Packard is 83 years old. I easily kept up with modern traffic and swept into the turns with elan. It’s a pity that most potential owners of cars like this own multiple vehicles, and aren’t likely to use the Packard for grocery shopping. Sure, this car is going to be a $950,000 to $1.3 million investment, but it really could be fun to actually use for commuting now and then—Jay Leno certainly does it with his classics.

Speaking of usability, some of the other cars in the December auction would really do it for me. I’m covetous of a 1966 Mercedes-Benz 300 SE convertible, which is estimated at $90 to $110,000. And a concours-level Jaguar E-Type roadster from the same year would be better on the road than on a show pedestal.

I love intriguing car stories, and there are two of them in the auction. A 1921 Brewster 91 limousine had a Kennedy connection—its original owner was Mrs. H.D. Auchincloss of Newport, Rhode Island, who had Standard Oil money. Her son married not only Janet Lee Bouvier, Jackie Kennedy’s mother, but novelist Gore Vidal’s mother, too. The car was used in New York and the Newport estate "cottage," Hammersmith Farm, where Jackie and JFK were married. Jackie also summered on the farm, so she may well have ridden in the car.

A time-capsule 1921 Brewster was used on a Newport estate, and has a unique Kennedy connection. (Jim Motavalli photo)The Brewster—an immense $10,500 at the time, with a distinctive round radiator, was a popular choice among Park Avenue matrons because its short wheelbase made it maneuverable in the city. This example was a true time capsule car, having been stored for 60 years on Long Island. With approximately 27,000 miles, this Knight-powered car is in very original condition. The brown cloth passenger compartment is intact down to the pink curtain on the beveled rear window. Started up, the sleeve-valve engine ran smoothly, with a curious whooshing sound. Brewsters, built by a famous coachmaker, aren’t hugely collectible, so you can own this piece of history for $50,000 to $60,000.

And a 1920 Rolls-Royce Silver Ghost roadster with body by Barker had a similar story to tell. Owned by a playboy of the period, it plied the streets of San Francisco until it was stored for unknown reasons in a garage there circa 1937. There were some gearbox issues with the Rolls, so I was a passenger instead of the driver, but it drove remarkably well considering it’s seen only minimal work since being resurrected (for the second time) in 2008. The odometer indicates 3,619 miles, and that could be original.

This 1920 Rolls-Royce Silver Ghost roadster with body by Barker slept in a San Francisco garage after 1937. That's the original green paint! (Jim Motavalli photo)The black leather upholstery of the two-passenger driver’s compartment was in tatters, but the rumble seat had survived amazingly well. I loved the intact period touches, including jump seats that slid out from the rumble seat, which would result in unbelted passengers essentially sitting on the running boards. Not likely to pass safety muster today. The tarnished spotlights, radiator grille and German silver windshield frame would shine up as new, but then what would happen to all that glorious period patina?

Cars to look out for in the auction if your taste is more modern: a high-performance 1957 E-code Thunderbird, a 1955 Corvette from the first year of the V-8, and a 1951 MG TD with some racing history.

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