TV Star Cars Highlight a Labor Day Auction

Jim Motavalli

Jim Motavalli | Aug 30, 2017

WESTPORT, CONNECTICUT—Were you a fan of My Mother the Car? The comedy ran for only one season on NBC, with featured actor Jerry Van Dyke as attorney George Crabtree, who buys a beat-up 1928 Porter roadster that talks to him in the voice of his deceased mother (Ann Southern). Sounds a bit like Mr. Ed? I thought so too. TV Guide said in 2002 that it was the second-worst TV show of all time, after only The Jerry Springer Show.

Does this "Porter" look familiar from My Mother the Car? Were you one of the five people watching that show in the '60s? (Jim Motavalli photo)

Yes, but it’s a TV car! How much mileage has the Volvo P1800 gotten from being driven by Roger Moore as The Saint? The “Porter,” which is part of the Dragone Auction at Connecticut’s Lime Rock Park on September 3, adds a modern powertrain to a car that started life as a Model T hot rod.

As built by legendary customizer George Barris, the Porter packs a 283 Chevy V8, two-speed Powerglide auto box, Barris’ own suspension and four-wheel hydraulic brakes. There were two cars built for the show, and this is the one used for stunts. At Dragone’s workshops in Bridgeport, Connecticut, it looked quite good. The estimate is $50,000 to $75,000.

Last-minute work on Joe Mannix' Olds Tornado convertible. (Jim Motavalli photo)

Also from the world of TV is a unique Olds Tornado convertible used on the ‘60s detective show Mannix, also built by Barris. Unlike My Mother the Car, this show was popular. Mike Connors went after the bad guys as Joe Mannix, and in the first two seasons he drove this ’67 Tornado. GM never built a Tornado convertible, of course, but George Barris built this one—by cutting the roof off, taking out the back seat and adding a custom tonneau to cover the rear compartment. The front-wheel drivetrain that made this car such a sensation was retained.

Mannix used that rotary telephone to track down the bad guys. (Jim Motavalli photo)

The Tornado is pretty much as it was when it left the show in ’68—it’s been in museums since then. The rotary telephone is still there, as is the “secret hidden gun compartment.” Buyers can pretend to be Joe Mannix and go after the miscreants. Estimated at $125,000 to $175,000, this TV car is a lot cheaper than anything 007 drove.

George Barris and his "Ricksha Taxi." What did the Japanese make of it at the World's Fair in Tokyo? (Jim Motavalli photo)

Also at the auction is another outlandish Barris car, the Ricksha Taxi, a Japanese-themed conveyance that was displayed at the Tokyo World’s Fair in 1970.  

My buckin' bronc: A 1970 Shelby GT500 convertible, one of just 89 built. (Jim Motavalli photo)

I didn’t get to drive those cars, but I nonetheless had some vivid moments in the auction vehicles. Until last week, a 1970 Shelby GT500 Mustang convertible was only exciting on paper—now it’s a highlight in the memory bank. I found it almost impossible to drive smoothly. I got neck-stretching acceleration and tire screech in every gear—even if I started from idle!

Carroll Shelby's signature inside the '70 GT500. It looked blurred at speed. (Jim Motavalli photo)

The 428-cubic-inch Cobra Jet V-8, boasting 335 horsepower, will do that to you. The four-speed was coupled to a heavy clutch that would suddenly engage halfway through its travel, sending the blue rocket barreling down the highway and rapidly gaining on SUVs and minivans. I had about as much control over it as a rodeo rider has on a bucking bronco. And all that power with drum brakes at the rear….

Incredibly, the Shelby is original and unrestored, a one-owner car and, according to George Dragone, spent decades squeezed into a one-car garage in New York. It’s one of only 89 GT500 convertibles in 1970 , and has just 43,000 miles on the odometer. It’s estimated at $175,000 to $200,000.

This '49 Packard droptop was among the last great ones from a storied brand. (Jim Motavalli photo)

A complete contrast was a 1949 Packard convertible, one of the last great ones before the proud marque succumbed under Studebaker ownership in 1958. Cars of this era were whisper quiet and basically effortless to drive, riding on soft springs and boasting one-finger steering. The Packard (estimated at $60,000 to $70,000) offered three-on-the-tree, which I hadn’t experienced since my ’62 Chevy Bel Air and ’59 Mercedes 220S. Whoever gets the Packard will enjoy great Sunday drives, unless they lock it away somewhere.

Inside the magnificent supercharged 1935 Auburn. Like the Packard, it was the last gasp from a great marque. (Jim Motavalli photo)

I totally fell in love with a 1935 Auburn 851 SC Phaeton, from the Indiana company that also gave us Cord and Duesenberg. Powered by a supercharged Lycoming 279.9-cubic-inch straight eight (150 horsepower), it was easily the most fun-to-drive 1930s car I’ve ever driven. The manual gearbox worked without drama or grinding, the steering was admirably light, and it actually stopped with its four-wheel hydraulic drum brakes.

You'd notice a supercharged Auburn 851 SC if it drove by, wouldn't you? (Jim Motavalli photo)

I’d drive this buggy anywhere, and it was no problem steering it through Westport’s busy shopping district. I’m always amazed when people don’t stop to stare at something like this—do you see supercharged Auburns every day?

If looks triumphed over engineering, this Alfa would have run rings around my Honda Fit. (Jim Motavalli photo)

Finally, I got behind the wheel of a 1963 Alfa-Romeo Giulia Sprint, estimated at $55,000 to $65,000. I love Alfas, and owned two of them back in the day. This is a particularly beautiful example, and it’s also a 101 Giulia, meaning it offers the 1600 twin-cam four with a five-speed gearbox. Added on are period performance mods, including Veloce manifold twin Webers and tubular headers.

Nonetheless, I found the Alfa curiously disappointing to drive. Although it made the right noises, my Honda Fit would run rings around it. It goes to show that automotive development hasn’t stood still for more than a half century.

Richard Petty's Dodge Monaco. Own a piece of history. (Jim Motavalli photo)

There are plenty of other great cars to sample in the Lakeville auction, including Richard Petty’s last race car (a ’78 Dodge Monaco, the only Petty racer outside a museum), King Midget, 1903 Cadillac Rear Entrance Tonneau, ’48 Pontiac woody (Dragone pointed out its original features—the car has less than 5,000 miles on it), and more than one V-16 Cadillac.

That's not a restoration, it's an all-original 4,500-mile '48 Pontiac woody. (Jim Motavalli photo)

Prices have stabilized in the classic world, and even fallen a bit, so maybe this is your chance to pick up your dream car—and have fun at the Lime Rock weekend in the process.

Also on Labor Day weekend, the legendary concept car collector is auctioning his 1955 Cadillac die Valkyrie, a Brooks Stevens creation that is so gaudy it might be great. It’s one of only two in existence.

The die Valkyrie looks a bit over the top now, but it won major design awards in the 1950s. (photo courtesy of Joe Bortz)

The die Valkyrie certainly fit the times. Bortz told me, “It won more design awards in Europe than any other American car during the 1950s,”


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