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The Curator of Cars : For Multimillionaire Ken Behring, Football is Football but Autos are Autos

Times Staff Writer

In his haul from nowhere to someone, in moving from ragged gofer at a cheese factory to rich builder of country club communities, Ken Behring has held two schoolboy passions sacred: football and cars.

Last month--resigned to the downside of his playing age--Behring settled for the next best thing to throwing professional footballs. He bought his own team, the Seattle Seahawks. For $80 million.

This month--accepting his lifelong inaptitude for tinkering with automotive innards--Behring proved you don’t have to be a grease monkey to own the zoo. He presided over the opening of his own automobile museum here. The building cost $10 million and the cars $100 million.

Following both events, Behring, 60, friendly, rumpled, a little shy, quite ordinary and almost $200 million lighter, did what most millionaires aren’t supposed to do.

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One of the Guys

In Seattle, Behring went to the locker room after his Seahawks’ 21-14 clawing of Denver and wandered amid the sweat and the beer and Ben-Gay to shake hands and compare plays. “It was really great, just being there like one of the guys,” he said.

And here, after the champagne and interviews had fizzled at the closing of the opening of the Behring Museum on Sept. 6, the boss climbed into his Cadillac, cleared the front seat of a Seahawks jersey lettered with BEHRING, drove himself home and talked about life’s beginnings and fun possessions and refusing to be short-sheeted by adulthood.

“When I was growing up in Wisconsin, a car was the most important possession in a person’s life and in our town you could tell who was somebody by the car they drove. I was always buying cars as symbols . . . a 1947 Buick convertible, a 1949 Cadillac convertible, a 1950 Jaguar XK-150 . . . and I guess I still am.”

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No denying that. Behring’s personal garage includes two Ferrari Testarossas (one the recipient of a $40,000 decapitation into a cabriolet), a 1973 Daytona Spyder, a 1964 Rolls-Royce Silver Cloud III convertible, two Cadillacs, a Clenet neoclassic and a couple of golf carts.

But it is his public congregation, the 250 cars he has quietly spent seven years picking from collections, auctions and back country barns worldwide, that is the ultimate symbol of the elevation of this son of a lumber yard worker from Monroe, Wis.

The museum building itself is a masterpiece, a Post-Modern exterior of polished Indian granite and black glass containing a sedate art-deco interior of stainless steel, leather, brass and more mirrored granite.

The collection--measured by expert opinion, by immediate overseas interest, by the enormous histories that come with his carefully chosen cars--is a world-class concourse of true sculpture.

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Here are the highest combinations of men and machines, the Bugattis and Duesenbergs whose original owners were Roland Bugatti and Fred Duesenberg. And similar, incalculable treasures designed and built for impressive owners--the 1924 Hispano-Suiza Tulipwood racer of French aperitif heir Andre Dubonnet, and the 1935 Duesenberg that was the trysting transportation of Clark Gable and Carole Lombard.

In keeping with their celebrity, William Vanderbilt Jr.'s 1931 Bentley and Rudolph Valentino’s 1926 Isotta Fraschini are center stage and spotlighted on stands. As a mark of his notoriety, Adolf Hitler’s 1939 Mercedes-Benz armored tourer is tucked in shadow against a side wall.

Said Behring: “It was done intentionally. We feel some people might be offended by putting it out front and giving it prominence.”

A beamy, black, pleasantly worn Daimler landau of 1955 drips oil on the museum’s polished floor.

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“It was owned by the Queen Mother,” Behring explained. Then it is allowed to drip oil any place it royally pleases? “Well, that’s why we’ve got a polished granite floor. I hate to put drip pans down. They just don’t look good underneath things of absolute beauty.”

Here also are examples from purer years when the science of building engines and chassis was distinct from the art of designing bodies. That’s when an Isotta Fraschini was by LeBaron & Fleetwood and a Duesenberg by Bohman & Schwartz and a Delahaye by Henri Chapron.

They were known as coach builders.

And it is Behring’s appreciation of that speciality, his desire to see the slender discipline remembered and revered as an art form, that may keep his collection from that image of being yet another millionaire’s dusty indulgence. More than a museum, he has conceived and stocked an educational facility and gallery of automotive culture.

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As with metropolitan and county art museums anywhere, said Behring, his two-story showcase will offer a rotating collection fed by new acquisitions, changing themes and his pool of 100 automotive classics (“some great Hispanos, Alfas and Mercedes . . . plus some (trade) show cars like the Chrysler Thunderbolt”) currently in storage or undergoing restoration.

As it is custom with Monets and Sisleys, Behring is negotiating to take 50 of his best cars on a tour of Japan and Europe. In return, he hopes that some of their Old Masters--in particular one of the world’s most expensive cars, a $10-million Bugatti Royale from the vaunted Schlumpf Collection in Mulhouse, France--may be sent to the Behring Museum on long-term loan.

Gift to UC Berkeley

To complete the gallery parallel, Behring has guaranteed permanence for his collection by forming the cars, the museum building, an automotive reference library and adjoining study center into the Behring Educational Institute--and made it his donation to nearby UC Berkeley.

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He learned a lesson, he said, from watching the disposition of two of the nation’s most impressive automotive collections--the 1,800-car Harrah’s Automobile Museum in Reno, Nev., and the 71-vehicle Briggs Cunningham Museum in Costa Mesa.

“After Bill Harrah died (in 1978), his corporation for profit was sold and the first thing they (new owners) did was dispose of the collection at auction,” he said. “The same thing happened when (81-year-old) Briggs Cunningham decided to close his museum (in 1987). Those collections were sold, the cars scattered and the public can’t enjoy them any more.

“But that doesn’t happen in Europe. It doesn’t happen with the Schlumpf because the French government is involved. So I started checking with some universities, tried UC and found that they never dispose of anything.”

There’s a certain irony in Behring’s massive gift to higher eduction. For he only completed one semester at the University of Wisconsin.

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Then he ducked out. For there were Hudsons to sell and a work ethic to satisfy, a drive that since the age of 8 had covered “a paper route to mowing lawns to caddying to working in a cheese factory.”

At 17, Behring was selling automobiles until he could afford to buy a used-car business. At 24, he opened a Lincoln-Mercury dealership. At 29, he sold the agency to buy land in Florida.

There, Behring caught the crest of the postwar retirement surge and helped accommodate it by raising 10 golf club communities--including Tamarac, now a city of 70,000 persons.

A modular home factory. The Miami International Merchandise Mart. The Summit Bank Group in Ft. Lauderdale. Behring developments all. He doesn’t talk numbers, has not made the Forbes 500 list, but some say he is worth $600 million and in 1985 had a personal income of $30 million. After taxes.

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Behring moved to Northern California 11 years ago. He built Blackhawk in Contra Costa County, 30 miles east of San Francisco. It’s a country-club community with a five-figure population living in mostly seven-figure homes.

And the capstone, its London Bridge, its Queen Mary, is the Behring Museum of automobiles.

“When I decided to start collecting, I was looking for something I could pass on . . . something that would in time become national treasures,” he said. “Like art.”

A Sea of Autos

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Tie off, shirt open, Behring has his feet propped on a coffee table in his museum office. A long window overlooks the sea of Simonize and chrome that is one floor and 100 cars on display.

“But I don’t really know anything about art. The only things I know about are football and cars.”

The Blackhawk Rams? That name had a definite panache. But Behring never considered buying an NFL franchise and moving it here.

Automobiles, however, were horsepower of a different color and “something to look at and admire, something to touch and feel . . . and although I’m not too mechanical, and I hate to polish them, I look upon cars more as things of beauty.”

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One other aspect was abundantly clear to Behring. Twenty-five years ago, a Bugatti Royale was worth $50,000. Today, the same cars start at $10 million. By this time next century, reasoned Behring, a $100 million collection of classic cars should be enough to retire the national debt.

First Came a Cord

Behring’s first bite was on a 1937 Cord convertible. He bought it at a Phoenix auction. He also hired away Don Williams, an auction executive and one of the nation’s leading classic car authorities. Together, they window-shopped the world and no deal was left unturned.

Behring accepted classic cars as down payments on homes in his developments. He agreed to loans of certain valued cars that had no place to be shown. And once, he bought a 179-car collection just to get six--including a Mercedes roadster supposedly owned by Joseph Stalin and a Rolls-Royce Phantom IV Sedanca de Ville most certainly owned by the Aga Khan.

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Phrasing the collection was easy. Harrah’s had been a complete chronology of automotive development. Cunningham’s concentration was on industry pacesetters. Another major California museum, the collection of cosmetic millionaire Jack Nethercutt at Sylmar, is dedicated solely to aesthetics.

Behring voted for “big powerful cars with a lot of flair, a lot of design . . . and because of that we are quite heavy with European creations, the Hispanos, the Delahayes, the Bugattis, the Bentleys.”

Pieces of Art

He also sought “pieces of art, sculptured cars . . . and that’s most of the French and Italian cars, the Delages, Buccialis and Ferraris, plus Rolls-Royce and Mercedeses.”

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Impossible dreams, the Tucker, the Edsel, are in the collection. So is the impossibly posh, a nickel-plated Daimler built for the Maharaja of Rena, and a matched pair of 1934 Hispano-Suizas made for Anthony and Yvonne de Rothschild.

And the historical cars, admits Behring, were quite irresistible.

“History gives them a personality,” he said. “You can look at that Duesenberg and see Clark Gable and Carol Lombard sitting in it, going from Hollywood to Oregon.

“When Lombard was killed (in a 1942 airplane crash), Gable couldn’t stand to look at the car. He wrote his attorney and told him to get rid of it. We have that letter.

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“In 1908, Emily Post drove a 1908 Mercedes from New York to Los Angeles, got to Phoenix, put the car on a train and finished the trip by rail. She wrote a book on that journey. We have the car and we have the book. It’s an entirely different image of Emily Post than I had before.”

Look and Smell

There are no silken ropes, no walkways, no printed admonitions on cars at the museum. “We want people to walk around the cars, to look underneath them, to look inside and smell them,” explained Behring. “We want people to enjoy them as we do, as pieces of art.”

On the other hand, he said, general admission risks scratched leather, stolen hood ornaments and ice cream droppings on the Queen Mother’s Connelly leather.

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So admission is by reservation only. Call (415) 838-0728. Guided tours are mandatory. Groups are restricted to two dozen persons and the cost is $20 per visitor.

Connoisseur that he is, Behring does maintain a private stock.

It is formed by five cars used to decorate his house the way most people display Boston ferns.

This shiny quintet rims the 7,000-square foot ballroom of Behring’s 30,000-square foot home with its elevators, Cambodian tapestries, a wine room larger than most Trader Joe’s and an ugly green doorstop that turns out to be a three-ton chunk of uncut jade.

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The Clark Gable Duesenberg is here. So is a Bugatti owned by the late Shah of Iran and a Delahaye once beloved by the present Prince Rainier. Also, a relatively mundane Ferrari Daytona and a Lamborghini Countach.

Polished Floors

Their yellow, midnight blue, black and red images shimmer and bounce from polished floors through crystal chandeliers to mirrored ceilings and back.

Behring says they are far more impressive than any painting sitting flat and still against a wall and he is right.

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Sometimes, in new conversations, he seems a little embarrassed by the wealth of it all. Then Behring remembers Monroe, Wis., and decades of business risks where the only collateral was his self-confidence. He considers a patient wife, five sons, achieving so much without inheritances and on one semester of college, giving back--and decides his indulgences are just.

Recently, Behring became interested in Oriental art.

So he is negotiating for two Han Dynasty (202 BC to AD 220) horses and may close at $1 million each.

He also is a devout blue water angler.

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He says there is no truth to the rumor that he plans to buy the Caribbean.


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