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$6.5-Million Price : Classic Auto Bidder Lands ‘Biggest Toy’

Times Staff Writer

An immigrant from Russia who was so poor he didn’t own a pair of shoes until he was 12 has paid the biggest price in history for an automobile--$6.5 million.

Houston shopping center magnate Jerry J. Moore, 59, was the highest bidder for a 1931 Bugatti Royale Berline de Voyage limousine, the highlight of a three-day auction here this weekend of 237 cars from the famous Harrah’s Automobile collection.

“I just wanted the biggest toy on the block,” beamed Moore after a spirited 15 minutes of bidding Friday night for the huge yellow and black Bugatti, the epitome of high performance and luxury, one of six cars of its type produced by Ettore Bugatti in Mulhouse, France.

Among the Longest

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The 20-foot-long vehicle with a 170-inch wheelbase, one of the largest passenger cars ever built, was priced at $42,000 when produced 55 years ago and bought for $50,000 in 1964 by Reno casino owner Bill Harrah.

Moore, who owns more than 100 shopping centers, is adding the Bugatti to his collection of 260 classic cars, including 26 Duesenbergs, valued at upwards of $100 million.

He was one of 38 millionaires holding golden paddles entitling them to bid on the Bugatti Royale. To qualify, the international group of car collectors had to have at least a $1 million line of credit; Moore’s was $40 million.

Veiled by yellow curtains, the Bugatti Royale stood on a raised platform in the Reno Convention Center surrounded by yellow mums. There came a fanfare from one of the three orchestras entertaining at the prebidding party attended by 4,000. Smoke and laser beams suddenly engulfed the car.

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Moore started the bidding off with an offer of $3 million. A Minnesota millionaire upped the ante to $5 million.

Only a half dozen of those qualified bid on the car. By the time it got to $5.6 million, it became a horse race between Moore and retired Air Force Gen. William Lyon, 63, of Newport Beach, Calif., a builder and chairman of the board and chief executive of AirCal.

Reaching His Limit

The bidding went back and forth between Moore and Lyon for 10 minutes, until it went to $6.5 million, and the airline executive tossed in the towel.

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“It was pretty clear Jerry Moore was going to buy that car tonight,” lamented Lyon. “Everything has its price. I finally hit my limit.”

Moore insisted: “I got it for Houston. I love America. I love Texas. I love that car. I was prepared to go to $10 million or more.”

The highest amount previously paid for an automobile was $1 million. It happened twice last year, both times for Duesenbergs and both purchased by Thomas S. Monaghan, 49, owner of the Detroit Tigers and the Domino’s Pizza parlors, who was one of the unsuccessful bidders this weekend.

Harrah began collecting antique and classic cars in 1948 with the purchase of a 1911 Maxwell. By the time of his death in 1978 at the age of 67, he had assembled what is widely considered the greatest collection of automobiles in the world at Reno.

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His 1,800-car collection traced the history of the automobile from its inception. To Harrah, the automobile was “the most important thing in the growth of America. It was the root of our industrial explosion into the 20th Century.” At his huge museum, he employed 40 outstanding craftsmen, who devoted their time to the restoration of cars.

Although the collection was Harrah’s baby, it was part of his casino and resort corporation. When the Holiday Inn Corp. bought Harrah’s in 1980, the car collection went with the purchase.

Not Good Business

“The car collection wasn’t self-supporting,” explained Gene Evans, 65, marketing director for the museum. “After Holiday Inns bought the company, it started to cut back. It was in the business of running hotels, not old cars. The interest wasn’t there.”

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So, it was decided to get rid of all but about 300 of the cars. They have become part of the William F. Harrah Automobile Foundation, established by Holiday Inns.

The 300 cars, valued at $30 million, will be housed in a new museum to be built in downtown Reno. Among the cars is the second of the six Bugatti Royales, a Coupe de Ville, with an estimated value of $10 million, believed by Harrah to be the best car ever built.

The rest of the collection has now been sold off in three major auctions, which brought in roughly $40 million.

More than 1,000 automobile aficionados each paid $75 for the privilege of bidding on the Harrah classic and antique cars that included: Morgans and Mercers, Pierce Arrows, several one-of-a-kind Franklins, two Rolls-Royce Silver Ghosts, Hupmobiles, Pope Hartford and Pope Toledo touring cars, Darraco Runabouts, Stutz Bearcats, and a 1925 Doble/Steam Phaeton that brought $275,000.

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Plymouth for $200

They came here to bid for sentimental reasons and to add to personal and museum collections. The car bringing the smallest bid was a 1962 Plymouth four-door station wagon in terrible condition, full of rust, dents and paint-splattered upholstery. It went for $200.

Turkey farmer Glenn Ratteree, 49, and his wife Sharon, drove up from their place in Santa Margarita to bid on one car, like many others at the auction. They were after a red and white 1955 Ford Crown Victoria.

“That Crown Victoria was our favorite car when we first dated . . . We really came away with a bargain,” grinned Ratteree, who paid $6,750.

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For Gary Norton, 38, and his wife, Stacey, 31, of Seattle, it was love at first sight when the 1929 Ford station wagon, a classic “Woody” went up the ramp and onto a rotating platform.

Stacey, who did the bidding, got her “Woody” for $32,500. She and her husband also bought a 1916 Franklin touring car for $25,800, a 1929 Ford Cabriolet with a rumble seat for $26,500, a 1910 railroad complete with steam engine, a bunch of old rotten railroad cars, and three miles of track for $270,000 and a 1928 Ford Trimotor airplane for $1.5 million.

“We collect antique airplanes and fly them around, antique cars and drive them around, and now have added this railroad to our latest collection of toys. For us, it’s all for fun,” explained Norton, who recently retired as chairman of the board of ISC Systems, a big computer company.

Time for Memories

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For Candy Pearce, long-time public relations person at Harrah’s, who worked closely with Bill Harrah, this final auction was the end of something very special.

“Mr. Harrah loved cars. He enjoyed them immensely. It was never his intent in the beginning for all this. It was something that just happened. He was like so many other private collectors. Yes, it’s sad. But I think he would be happy to see the cars going to so many of his friends who love them as much as he did.”


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