The California Collection

TIMES AUTOMOTIVE WRITER

It was agreed by the parties of all parts that this objet d'art would be bought and sold and moved in secrecy. Like a Monet landscape. Or an embalmed Lenin.

So only whispers leaked early last month when a 1931 Bugatti Royale, a ponderous king of limousines with a rampant elephant as an appropriately clumpish hood ornament, was rolled from its private museum in Orange County. Silence and security held as this very homely Quasimodo of French cars--built for European kings but not sold to a single sovereign--was crated and then air-freighted from Los Angeles to Germany.

The seller remains reclusive: Real estate developer and car collector William Lyon, 75, did not return several messages seeking to confirm that he was paid $8 million for his famed Coupe de Ville with coach work by Binder and wheels 3 feet across.

The buyer has gone to ground: Volkswagen of Germany, with holdings that include the heritage, nameplate and license to resurrect and build new Bugatti motorcars, declined to comment on its purchase of the old 12.7-liter Bugatti. Or of plans to make it the centerpiece of a company museum.

Yet in exchange for anonymity, those who buy and sell vintage cars like old coins, and several automotive insiders on the periphery of the negotiations, confirmed that the international deal went down. And that the covert, multimillion-dollar transaction was of definite interest--but of no great surprise--to Southern California's classic-car hobbyists, who constitute this nation's nub of a rich, lavish, elegant, quite private trove of very serious car collections.

Here, There and Everywhere

Nobody knows exactly how many collections are in the Southland. Certainly dozens, and maybe hundreds. And with more incoming, as prices for vintage cars stabilize, auction sales continue to soar, and a carport collection is born whenever an impassioned owner of a '50s Corvette and a '60s Mustang decides it would be cool to add a '70s Trans Am to the mix.

Total number of cars? There has been no census. But 100-car collections are common. Total value? "Don't ask, don't tell" is also the collector's credo. But some of the world's rarest and most expensive vehicles--such as Lyon's $8-million Bugatti, one of only six built and once a showpiece of the now-disbanded $42-million collection of Reno casino magnate William F. Harrah--have been housed in Southern California.

"My gut feeling is that there are more cars and collections squirreled away in California than in any other part of the country," says Keith Martin, editor and publisher of the Portland, Ore.-based Sports Car Market magazine. "You [California] have more people with money buying cars of the '30s and '40s they couldn't afford at the time. And you have a new, younger generation starting collections of what they remember: '50s cars and the early days of the Sports Car Club of America, belly-tank racers and hot rods.

"Sydorick's collection is a perfect example. It represents the hot period of collector cars, the Ferraris and Alfas, gathered by a man of impeccable taste, not trendy taste."

Sydorick. That's David Sydorick of Beverly Hills, retired investment broker and keeper with his wife and co-driver, Ginny, of a 20-car collection topped by a 1947 Ferrari Spyder Corsa. Its serial number is 002C, and that says it is one of the oldest Ferraris in existence.

"Some of the biggest and best car collections are out there" in Southern California, says Jeff Broadus, publisher of the 56,000-circulation Car Collector magazine, headquartered in Titusville, Fla.

"That will soon include the private collection of Glen Patch, who is moving his '57 Heaven to Palm Springs," Broadus says, referring to his magazine's former publisher and owner and his 70-car collection representing every American car built in 1957. "There used to be guys who collected only certain marques. Now there are multi-marque collectors."

And some California collections, he points out, have grown into museums: the Petersen Automotive Museum in Los Angeles, the Blackhawk Automotive Museum in the Bay Area town of Danville and the Nethercutt Collection, founded by J.D. Nethercutt of Merle Norman Cosmetics of Sylmar.

Letterman's Top 10 List

Many collectors, particularly celebrities, bury their holdings in personal countinghouses. Typically, only friends may call. Comedian Jerry Seinfeld has a gathering of Porsches, ancient and modern, in a warehouse near Santa Monica Airport. His neighbor is David Letterman, who owns Jaguars, Austin-Healeys, the pickup he drove to the West Coast when he was penniless and a 1951 Ferrari 212a he has described as "the homeliest Ferrari ever made--I drove it once and melted the clutch and my mechanic won't let me near it anymore."

Designer Ralph Lauren specializes in pristine exotics that rarely come out to play. But when they do, they're usually favored to win trophies at concours from Meadow Brook in Michigan to Pebble Beach on California's Monterey Peninsula.

"I know one collector whose people will ask for a copy of your driver's license before considering your application to visit," notes Ken Gross, automotive writer, restorer of hot rods and director of the Petersen museum. "Someone once said that this person owns 200 cars that have been seen by fewer than 150 people."

It used to be that people became celebrities because of their car collections. Now it is more a matter of only celebrities being rich enough to become car collectors.

Retired baseball slugger Reggie Jackson gathers American muscle cars he stores in Carmel. Tim Allen, true to that "Home Improvement" persona, is another muscleman who also likes hot rods and has raced a Saleen Mustang. Ford Motor Co. Chief Executive Jac Nasser, basketball legend Wilt Chamberlain and media man Ted Turner, who owns the Atlanta Braves and most of Georgia, are new collectors of fine automobiles. So is actor Nicolas Cage, whose 1938 Bugatti Atalante received an organizer's prize at last month's California Classic Concours on Rodeo Drive.

"Some guys do buy cars that sit in a warehouse and will never see the light of day," Broadus says. "To certain people, it is a hobby and a passion and they're just not interested in showing that much of themselves to the world. But Leno is phenomenal, open with his cars, always sharing his collection and its information."

Leno, of course, is "Tonight Show" host Jay Leno. He attends weekend car shows at the drop of a tire iron. Usually in a denim shirt and sans entourage, because he doesn't collect people. He's inevitably at the wheel of something from his collection, be it novel, rare, elderly, experimental, majestic or downright weird.

It might be a 75-year-old electric car or a Stanley Steamer. Maybe a vintage Harley-Davidson motorcycle or a Rolls-Royce Tourer powered by a Merlin engine from a World War II Spitfire. It is infamous for petrifying children with starts that involve flaming explosions from multiple exhaust stacks.

Home for Leno's 75 cars and antique bikes is a 43,000-square-foot warehouse near Burbank Airport where he tinkers, finds therapy and prepares tomorrow's auto du jour for his daily drive to the studio.

Ever the jester, Leno usually makes light of his lot.

"My wife collects English literature and I collect cars. They don't mesh. Except she learns a little about cars and I learn a little about literature. . . .

"Most people in my business have 35 women and one car. I have one woman and 35 cars. It's cheaper."

Then Leno gets serious about his addiction to cars, tries to understand it and stumbles to explain it. And he remembers Edward G. Robinson.

The late actor was a dedicated art collector with a gallery built onto his home. There, alone, Robinson would pour a glass of wine and just stare at one fine painting.

"When I read about that, I remember asking myself: 'How long can you look at a painting?' " Leno says. "But now I can be alone among my cars, look at a piece of one, examine the shape of another, and suddenly 30 or 45 minutes have gone by.

"And that put it all in perspective for me, because when something is engineered right and built right, it looks right.

"Some people might argue what I'm about to say, but when dealing with today's electronics, there's no art there, no beauty in a chip or its design. But when you look at a Bugatti, its shape, even its motor, there's a certain style to it, and that is an important part of its function."

Looking for That Jewel on Wheels

Car collectors hear several muses.

Some are in it for the investment and often the huge moneys to be made--haunting estates, browsing newly independent nations, always hoping that this will be the day to pry an unknown jewel from some forgotten crown. Such as the '30s Mercedes Autobahn Coupe with 14,000 original miles that has been sitting in a garage in Barcelona, Spain, for at least 20 years, probably longer.

"I've seen it several times and actually sat in it," says Don Williams, director of the Blackhawk Collection, also in Danville and a museum adjunct that exists only to feed the big business of buying and selling classic automobiles. "The people who show you the car don't own it. Nobody seems to know who does own it. But it doesn't really matter, because I don't think there's any car that won't go on sale sometime."

Williams fully understands the dynamics of collecting. Why people spend millions for one car, why they pour more into acquisition and restoration than any car will likely be worth, and why William Lyon, whose telling collection includes three of the world's rarest Duesenbergs, would sell his blue-chip Bugatti Royale. Then risk the collector's curse: seller's remorse.

"Sometimes they [collectors] have had the car so long they forget how much they love it," Williams explains. "Until it is sold, and by then it is too late. There have been a number of times when I've had to buy back a car for a client. In fact, a lot of my business is based on people who want their cars back."

Beyond the moneymakers, locally and nationally, there are the connoisseur collectors. Lyon for one, Ralph Lauren for another. Also cell phone billionaire John McCaw of Seattle, a regular customer of Symbolic Motor Car Co. of La Jolla who in the last two years has spent a reported $80 million on vintage race cars, principally Ferraris.

Now there's the new and precise focus of connoisseur collector Otis Chandler, retired publisher of the Los Angeles Times and founder of the Vintage Museum of Transportation in Oxnard. Despite the lofty, public nuance of its title, the facility is open just one day each month and primarily to automotive groups.

Through the years, this private collection-cum-conservatory has veered and shifted, grown and shrunk--from vintage autos and sports cars, American and European, to American muscle cars, including a perfect bloodline of specialist Corvettes. It recently settled into an exclusive, potentially priceless inventory of 125 motorcycles, a few muscle cars, several sports cars and three dozen classics. All are rare, memorable, custom cars.

"The classic cars are only American, entirely from the '30s and '40s and all custom," Chandler says. That means Packards, Cadillacs and Duesenbergs with bodies by Hibberd & Darrin, Dietrich, Bohman & Schwartz, Le Baron and Murphy. "I don't have anything they made more than 10 of, and mostly three or five.

"I like to think the motorcycles form one of the nicest and rarest collections in the world. Like the first Indian, the first year of the Harley Twin in 1911, the first bike with an electric starter, the first year of this, the first year of that."

Caretakers of Industrial History

So many collectors simply buy what they like, what their families drove or what they have long coveted. They see themselves as caretakers of industrial history. They are buyers, not sellers. They, like Leno, like Chandler, fell in lust with cars in their youth, rebuilt them to understand the mechanicals and now must drive their old cars and take them places. To show others, of course, but to impress the less-knowing with the natural grace and epochal designs of motorcars from days when there were no assembly lines, no plastic parts.

"Too many cars are never raced, never rallied and never shown," says Brentwood businessman Peter Mullin, collector of French cars he keeps mostly at home and considers the apex of design and performance in their time. "Sure, these cars are jewels of the world, pieces of art. But automobiles are meant to be driven, and it is criminal not to take them out and let them enjoy their original purpose."

So Mullin has driven his Type 57SC Bugatti, a 1937 Talbot-Lago Le Mans car and a V-12 Delahaye in Italy's Mille Miglia road race. Also a Hispano-Suiza K6 and a Talbot-Lago Record in the famed Monte Carlo Rally.

Ginni and Newt Withers of Fountain Valley are more than a 28-year amalgam of two souls in marriage. They are also bonded to old cars. Mr. Withers, owner of a Goodyear tire dealership, won the 1994 trans-American Great Race for vintage cars in a 1912 Oldsmobile Autocrat Roadster. Mrs. Withers won a trophy for the oldest vehicle to finish the 1985 event at the heavy, hand-cramping, ever-vibrating wheel of a 1906 Mitchell.

"Nowadays, you get in a car, roll up the windows, push a button, put it in gear and there is no art to driving," Ginni says. But in their 1907 Around-the-World Thomas Flyer--which in 1908 actually won the race from New York to Paris--one listens to the open exhaust and that old motor "because they are talking to you and will tell you what they are doing, and if you listen to what they are saying, you really don't have to use a clutch to shift gears.

"Motoring used to be a Sunday afternoon adventure. Driving the old cars continues that adventure, and so we must remain keepers of these older vehicles and make sure they don't get lost in the Ferrari-Corvette rush."

Bruce Meyer is former owner of Geary's of Beverly Hills and current custodian of a 30-car personal assortment that follows no particular pattern. His 1955 D-Type racing Jaguar is in the collection, he says, because it has been "a favorite of mine since Dinky Toys." He owns a '44 Ford for no better reason than "that was the car I lusted for in high school."

"So the only theme in my collection is me. Not hot rods. Not race cars. Not muscle cars. They are simply cars that mean a lot to me personally. Money is no incentive for me to collect. The only investment here is in life, and, by driving these cars, giving back to history."

And after Meyer has bought a car and restored it, his absolute satisfaction is to reunite the old classic with the builder, owner or racing driver who knew the vehicle when it was new.

KNBC-TV Channel 4 news anchor Paul Moyer ranks himself as a mini-collector, based on his ownership of cars ranging from a 1951 Ford painted by Earl Scheib to a 1967 Ferrari GTB, with a 1965 Shelby Mustang and a 1967 Corvette Sting Ray among a few others in between.

"Researching the history of the cars, locating the paperwork--sure, the chase is a big part of the satisfaction of collecting. But then it's a matter of getting it all together," he says.

Plus, again, that essential of driving the old masterpieces: "Today, all cars look alike with their bulbous rear ends and the size of sport-utility vehicles that I can't see around. But these old cars are so different.

"To look at, they are elegant and wonderful in their simplicity. Then you fire them up. They are noisy and fast but so different, so much fun."

Collectors Come in All Stripes

Car collectors cut across all financial, professional and social denominators. For every billionaire represented at a Sotheby's sale, there are a dozen blue-collar curators shopping local newspapers and the classifieds. Car collections come in all sizes and stripes. Such as a Beverly Hills lot, since dismantled, that centered entirely on the Rolls-Royce sedans of royalty. Or a Fontana collection of 70 Hudsons.

"We're one-fourth museum, one-fourth junkyard, 25% restoration shop and 25% parts," says Hudson fanatic Bill Albright of his Vintage Coach Museum.

Racing enthusiast Dick Marconi of Tustin has converted his collection of 65 sports and racing cars, including more than a dozen Ferraris, into a museum. There's a parts store in North Hollywood that's home to eight Nash Metropolitans, and a winery in Escondido where the best vintages are a collection of classic convertibles.

And although motives and directions may vary, the sentiments of car collectors remain constant. They are in awe of early technologies that still allow 60-year-old cars to be driven at 100 mph. The hand-craftsmanship with woods and leathers that went into vintage vehicles, the preservationists say, is no less than fine art and more inspiring than most sculptures. Because these automotive sculptures were created to move between cities, to race, to distinguish their owners, to forge ambitions and set eras.

Leave a collector alone with his or her cars, allow past energies to surface, and reveries will form.

"I tingle inside," says Robert Gottlieb, an attorney and expert witness to the horseless-carriage crowd. He is owner of Thomas Edison's 1912 Electric Town Car and kept an early-1900s Waltham Orient in the reception room of his Beverly Hills law office for 25 years.

Gottlieb is among those who guard their collections, primarily against theft or damage. Collectors have emotional attachments to their cars, which are considered members of the family, he explains. Sometimes more so.

So when the gardener or pool man calls, Gottleib locks his garage "not because they might be dishonest, but because they might say something to someone who is dishonest."

Otis Chandler says that when he is alone with his cars, "they just seem to jump out at you and say, 'Aren't you lucky, you get to enjoy me for a while.' They have a soul, a personality of their own, and you get to drive them. That's not like fine art and owning a little 8-by-10 Picasso. That doesn't work for me."

Comes now the addiction of Kathy Aaronson of Los Angeles, a marketing training executive and writer of motivational books. She has kept every daily driver she has ever owned because "there isn't a single car I don't absolutely adore--out of my mind adore--and in that twisted mind I see myself saving them from charity drives that are crushing these cars."

Among her two dozen-plus cars are four Cadillac Sevilles, a 1939Chevy pickup with a vegetable rack, a 1964 Nash Metropolitan hideous in purple and pearl-lime green, a Cadillac limousine with a gymnasium in the back because it once was owned by a boxer, and a '57 Chevrolet retrofitted with a 357 Corvette engine at the suggestion of a conversion article in Motor Trend magazine. She calls this mechanical family her Obsolete Fleet.

"My car collection is a collection of personal folly," Aaronson confesses. "Like the '57 Chevy I will have until the day I die."

Literally. And probably then some.

Seems that in the activist '60s when some students were inhaling, Aaronson was also in Little Rock, Ark., and politically protesting the relocation of an all-black cemetery to make way for a new highway.

When the highway's leading proponent died, Aaronson's Army won by default.

In thanks, cemetery supporters gave her a plot, and Aaronson's finale was set.

"I intend to be buried in my '57 Chevy," she says.

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More Classics

A collector's starter kit: 10 cars to invest in today. W6

A guide to Southern California's very public collectors. W7.

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Times automotive writer Paul Dean can be reached at paul.dean@latimes.com.

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