Driving Hard Bargains : Downshift in Economy Doesn't Steer Collectors Away From 14th Annual Newport Auto Auction

TIMES STAFF WRITER

It was deja vu for Ed Breitung, who in the beginning of World War II sold his new Ford convertible before he was shipped out to fight in Europe.

"We didn't know what would happen to us," said Breitung, now 69 and a real estate broker in Moorpark, a city in Ventura County.

On Saturday, he drove a 1966 black Corvette onto the auction block for his son, an Army helicopter pilot preparing to go to the Persian Gulf.

"I guess history is repeating itself," Breitung said, minutes before his son's mint-condition collector's dream sold for $16,500.

"He hated to sell it, but sometimes you have to do what you have to do. You sometimes don't know what your future will bring."

Breitung's car was one of about 300 collectors' cars offered for sale during the 14th annual Thanksgiving weekend auto auction here, sponsored by North Hollywood-based Rick Cole Auctioneers.

The show, which ends today, includes collectibles ranging from the whimsical cars of George Barris--who designed the coach for the old "Munsters" TV show and a golf cart resembling Bob Hope--to a brand-new $284,000 Vector, touted by U.S. auto makers as their challenge to the Italy's Lamborghini.

The event, held at the Hyatt Newporter, drew hundreds of collector car buffs from throughout California and as far away as Germany.

"It's really gotten to be a tradition that people look forward to," auction spokeswoman Denise Norman said. "Everybody loves coming to Newport Beach at this time of the year."

Despite indications that cars were not fetching the best of prices because of fears about a faltering economy, Norman said most car sellers were not disappointed by the bids for their prize possessions.

From Dodges to DeSotos, from Bel Airs to Biarritzes, the cars stood door to door, filling the Newport Back Bay hotel's parking lot until it looked like an eclectic movie set. Also included at the show were a 1987 GMC Jimmy S-10, owned by rocker Eddie Van Halen, and a 1956 Ford Sunliner convertible, owned by actress Sally Struthers.

Tom Therp, whose Northern California-based car collection is ranked one of the best in the state, turned down a $63,000 offer for his award-winning 1954 Corvette sportster. He wanted the bidding to start at $75,000.

One admirer sidled up to the spotless but unsold car after it was driven off the auction block. "Too bad," he told Therp. "Looks like you were short."

"Nope, not me!" shouted Therp, chuckling as he wiped at the creamy paint job. "The buyers were short!"

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