A Big Classic Car Weekend--With Lots of Stories to Tell

Jim Motavalli

Jim Motavalli | May 12, 2015

It’s not the Autobahn, but Connecticut’s Merritt Parkway was offering a fair approximation as I took a fully optioned, 335-horsepower 1989 Porsche 930 Turbo up through the five speeds in its close-ratio gearbox. I’m not sure I was getting the full 4.9-second zero to 60 time and certainly not hitting 161 mph, but I was at least making the tires squeal a bit.

The custom-ordered 1989 Porsche 930 Turbo packed a more than 300-horsepower wallop. (Jim Motavalli photo)The Porsche is just one of many cars on offer at the Dragone Classic Cars auction May 30. That date also coincides, by design, with the 20th anniversary Greenwich Concours d’Elegance. So Connecticut will be the place to be for old car people that weekend. If the events coincided with the fabulous Caffeine and Carburetors (held earlier in May, and next on September 13), the state would be a destination to rival Pebble Beach.

This Porsche look is very familiar, but most are fakes. This is a real one. (Jim Motavalli photo)My companion in the two-seater is Manny Dragone, half of the affable brother duo whose name is synonymous with automotive royalty. He says the Greenwich Concours crowd is simpatico. “Everyone will be in town,” he said, adding some salient facts about our chariot. The Porsche was ordered new by Peter Thomson of the famous Canadian media family, and he checked nearly every box on the options list. The Euro-spec power plant makes an additional 90 horsepower, and then there are those quad pipes, Fuchs wheels and rare factory air ducts in the rear fenders (copied by many kit cars).

If you’re interested in the 930, better have at least $125,000 handy. That may seem like a lot of money for a model based on a 911, but Dragone explains that European classics are hot now, especially Ferraris and early 911 S cars. Add a famous owner and the value goes up. The best cars always have good stories attached to them.

The BMW 600 is a rare model, just 35,000 sold.The gearbox gave me hives. (Jim Motavalli photo)The other car I drove was a rare BMW/Isetta 600. Only 35,000 were produced, and few made it to the U.S. The Isetta bubble car, with the famous single door that opened up the whole front of the car, was retained, but a stretch meant there was room for four. As in the Fiat 500’s transformation to the 500L, some classic style was lost, but practicality added.

Under the hood was a 35-horsepower motorcycle-derived twin-cylinder engine, stirred by a four-speed manual transmission. A semi-automatic was also available, and I wish this car had one, because the four-speed was diabolical. The 600 wasn’t as odd to drive as its looks, but you’d have to be German (or maybe Italian) to get along with that gearbox. I managed to stall it in right front of police headquarters. No, I wasn’t speeding—the inability to go fast is a built-in safety device. Sixty-one mph was claimed, but you’d need a tailwind.

The exquisite Simca-Abarth is one of a kind, which didn't stop it from being abandoned in a New York garage. (Jim Motavalli photo)a I much admired a 1951 Simca-Abarth S Cabriolet that Dragone has owned for more than 20 years, but only recently restored. And there’s a great story attached. The man behind this unique car was Roger Barlow, a racer (and founder of the California Sports Car Club) whose International Motors sold exotic Mercedes, Rolls and Jaguar cars to movie stars like Clark Gable (who got an early Jaguar XK120) and Bing Crosby. He was particular, and he raced blue Simcas.

The Simca-Abarth Cab isn’t a racer, but the kind of elegantly designed sports car that “gentlemen” could order in the ‘50s. Today, commissioning such a car would cost millions, but it was a bargain back then. The 1.3-liter Fiat-derived drivetrain was supercharged and prodded by 100 horsepower by Abarth, and an absolutely gorgeous Stablimenti Farina body (with some similarities to contemporary Cisistalias and early Ferraris) was commissioned.  The interior is a designer’s work of art, too.

Stored for decades, but now out in the open--a 1937 Rolls-Royce Phantom III with Brewster coachwork. (Jim Motavalli photo)One-off cars can sometimes do disappearing acts, like the worth-millions Delahaye Type 165 Cabriolet with art-deco body by the coachbuilders Figoni and Falaschi that ended up derelict in Hawaii, then abandoned at a California garage. The Simca-Abarth has a similar story—it was sold to someone in New York City who left it at a garage in New Rochelle, New York for clutch work—then never picked it up. Dragone found it, still there but fairly banged up, in 1991. Now it’s worth half a million dollars.

OK, similar story, a V-12-powered 1937 Rolls-Royce Phantom III with coachwork by Brewster (later updated by Inskip). Yes, an American body on a British car. After Rolls stopped building cars in Springfield, Massachusetts (circa 1931) it still sometimes sent cars over as bare chassis, and that was the case with 35 Phantom IIIs. This one was delivered new to playboy Tommy Manville (famous for his 11 marriages, one lasting less than a day), then acquired by a Connecticut collector and stored in 1970. Dragone hounded the owner for decades before he agreed to sell.

I camped out briefly in the absolutely original—and cavernous corduroy-clad back seat of the Rolls. The roof was low, and the coachbuilder compensated by giving rear passengers an almost recumbent seating position. Five minutes, and I’d have been asleep. But the $185,000 to $225,000 estimate sure woke me up.

Manny Dragone with an only-one-in-the-world 1933 Cadillac Roadster. (Jim Motavalli photo)I also admired a 1933 Cadillac 355 Roadster (meaning side curtains instead of roll-up windows). It was one of just three made for shows, and it’s not only the last Cadillac Roadster ever but now the only one left in existence. Ferraris in the auction include a ’74 Dino (now zooming in value) and a ’90 Testarossa.

A row of Morgans at Caffeine and Carburetors. (Jim Motavalli photo)Right after seeing the Dragone cars I went to the casual Caffeine and Carburetors extravaganza, where cars are shown off, but not judged or anything so formal. The formula works, because similar events are popping up all over the country. This one, in hedge fund-friendly New Canaan, Connecticut, attracts real heavyweights—including British cars (Lotus, MG, Morgan, Jaguar, Rolls), Italian (lots of Ferraris, Maseratis and even a row of Lamborghinis. If you couldn’t reach the Aventador because of the crowds, there were two other Lambos next to it).

If 356 Porsches are your game, here's a brace of them at Caffeine and Carburetors. (Jim Motavalli photo)The star of the show was a tomato-red Shelby Cobra that was a show car for the company—Carroll Shelby painted it four different colors for the circuit. “It’s one of the most historically significant Cobras ever, and we somehow got it to Caffeine and Carburetors,” said announcer Peter Bush.

Carroll Shelby's famous four-color Cobra comes out in the open. (Jim Motavalli photo)Less well known about that car is that it also passed through the Dragone stable. I ran into George Dragone in the crowd admiring the lithe lines (familiar from innumerable kit cars). George said Shelby sold the car to a Bedford Hills, New York collector—who secreted it away for decades until he got tired of the Dragone brothers pestering him about it. In 2013 they sold it to the current owner, and this was its first public outing since. The value of cars like this keeps escalating--where will it end?

Bonham's auction in Connecticut will include this breathtaking Bugatti 57C. (Bonhams photo)The Greenwich Concours features a Bonhams auction of typically fabulous cars. The standout is a fabulous supercharged Bugatti Type 57C convertible. Bugattis always have fantastic histories, including the cars hoarded by a pair of French factory owner brothers. They were skinflints, and it isn't surprising the workers almost burned the Bugatti collection to the ground (it's now the French national auto museum in Mulhouse). The 57C in the sale was oowned by collector and Bugatti nut Miles Coverdale for more than 40 years.

I have to tell one more hoarder story. I was talking to another Connecticut resident, Wayne Carini, the host of Chasing Cars on Velocity. The seventh series of the show is kicking off, and expect to see on it such cars as a 1922 Rolls-Royce Silver Ghost, a Jaguar XK 150S and a Marmon Speedster, as well as a celebration of the fabled London-to-Brighton run. But the story that got me was about a humbler car, a 1954 Studebaker Commander Starliner coupe with only 7,000 miles on the odometer.

Wayne Carini's pristine Studebaker--safeguarded by a fanatic. (Wayne Carini photo)“The owner drove it 6,800 miles to 1959, and then parked it. The car came out for one 30-mile round trip every year, to get it inspected,” Carini told me. “He was a fanatic—anyone getting in had to take their shoes off and wear a sweatshirt to avoid scratching the paint. I couldn’t believe the Studebaker was that nice—not a nick, chip or scratch. And it’s a model I particularly like.”

I agree with Carini, who told me, “That kind of story is intriguing.” And telling stories is what Chasing Cars is all about. It’s also a lifestyle the Dragones live every day.

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