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$3 million or best offer

YOU hear a lot of loose poetry about the art of the automobile during Pebble Beach weekend, the series of classic-car events on Monterey Peninsula leading up to this month’s Pebble Beach Concours d’Elegance. For much less than the cost of an overpriced drink, you can get people to tell you their automotive love stories -- how they drove this Bugatti or that Rolls-Royce across Europe, how they came to be obsessed with that Duesenberg or this steam-powered Doble, or why their racing Ferrari is the best ever.

And all of it -- all the adoring rhetoric, all the talk of sheet metal as sculpture -- comes to a brake-squealing stop at the threshold of the Portola Plaza Hotel. This is the venue for the annual RM Sports & Classic Car Auction, and for a few hours spread over Friday and Saturday night, rare classic cars come down from their pedestals and roll across the auctioneers’ stand, suffer the assay of the market, have their values fixed in the crude avoirdupois of money, and change hands like the chattel they ultimately are.

For some owners, it’s a little hard to bear.

“I sold five cars last night,” says baseball hall-of-famer Reggie Jackson, who at the moment is watching his silver Gullwing Mercedes-Benz come under the gavel. “I was emotionally attached to every one of them.”

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RM -- a 26-year-old company based in Blenheim, Ontario -- is not the only auction house in town this weekend. Christie’s, Gooding & Company and Bonhams & Butterfields will each hold sales, auctioning off scores of cars worth tens of millions of dollars. But RM’s is the biggest (nearly 300 cars) and includes what is arguably the weekend’s most important car (and it’s a real mouthful): a 1938 Talbot-Lago T150-C Lago Speciale Teardrop Coupe with coachwork by the Parisian artisans Figoni et Falaschi. A big, audacious sports car, the Talbot-Lago has the coachbuilder’s definitive pontoon fenders edged in chrome waves. The black paint is old and imperfect, and yet the car still looks like a glossy droplet of India ink, trembling in a slipstream.

The Talbot-Lago is one of only 16 built with the coveted Figoni et Falaschi bodies, characterized by exuberant streamlining and violin-like scrollwork. These cars are often referred to as “goutte d’eau” or “teardrop” designs. Fourteen still exist.

The Talbot-Lago, however, is typical of classic European cars of the time, in that its chassis -- the engine, transmission and frame -- were built by one firm and the body fashioned by another, to the client’s tastes.

Figoni-bodied Talbot-Lagos are considered some of the most beautiful cars ever. “Most people don’t understand what it is,” says Mark Hyman, a classic car restorer. “Forget that it’s a car. This is less an expression of engineering than art.”

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In fact, says RM partner Mike Fairbairn, the cars’ bold Art Deco styling was probably inspired by the work of poster artist Geo Hamm. It’s perhaps a commentary on the state of aristocratic distraction in Europe between the world wars that, while Germany re-armed and much of the continent languished economically, the wealthy commissioned such extravagant cars. “It’s true,” says Hyman. “But the best cars built were built when they really shouldn’t have been.”

Because these cars are so rare and desirable, and so often held in family collections, they almost never come up for public auction. However, this weekend, two are available: the black T150-C -- a long-wheelbase car -- and a rival, a beautiful red 1937 Talbot-Lago T150-SS -- a short wheelbase, “super sport” model -- that Christie’s is selling. Both are valued at more than $3 million.

GENERALLY, says Fairbairn, collector cars are good investments. The market has seen an annual 11% to 13% appreciation in the last 20 years, with some notable fluctuations, such as the speculation-driven collapse of the Ferrari market in the late 1980s when, he says, “consortiums of dentists” were buying the cars.

But those interested in the Talbot-Lago want something else: to win the “Best of Show” award at Pebble Beach. “It’s just thrilling,” says Joseph Cassini III, a Superior Court judge in New Jersey, who won last year’s award with a mind-blowing 1938 Horch 853A Erdmann & Rossi Sport Cabriolet. “In car-collecting circles, there’s always that dream of winning, to have a special car and a little bit of luck.”

Is the black Talbot-Lago, the one RM is auctioning, that special car? Expert opinions differ.

“This is the ticket for winning Pebble Beach,” says Marc Caveng, the dashing Swiss collector who is selling the car. “I’ve seen quite a number of the cars that have won Pebble Beach and they are like trucks! This is just a light, beautiful thing, like a dream.”

Others aren’t so sure. Ken Gross, a respected automotive journalist who has been a judge at Pebble Beach for 16 years, agrees the car has much of what it takes to win. It’s a rare two-seat, custom-coachwork car, with a famous former owner (the banker and gentlemen racer Antoine Schumann) and well-documented history, what’s called provenance.

“It also helps to be French,” says Gross, with names like Bugatti, Delage, Delahaye and Talbot-Lago.

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And yet, he’s not quite convinced. “As teardrop Talbots go, I like the short-chassis cars better,” like the one under Christie’s tent. “They have a more attractive front visage, in my opinion.”

Winning Pebble Beach increases the car’s value, while losing tends to set an upper limit. “Unlike many concours where celebrities and VIPs judge the cars,” says Gross, “Pebble Beach leaves the real judging to the experts. As a result, a Pebble Beach win underscores the fact that a car is accurately restored and thus may increase its perceived value. While that’s not the point of the concours, it’s often a result.”

And so as the auction wears on and the Talbot-Lago -- mirror-black under an evening sky, the color of steeping tea -- waits its turn in the porte-cochere outside the hotel, the bidders gather, in the audience and near their phones.

Rob Myers, the “RM” in the auction house name, says the car has attracted interest from around the world. Never mind Monterey, says Myers. “You could sell this car in the middle of the Australian desert and people would find out about it.”

IT’S past 10 o’clock when auction assistants roll lot number No. 251 backstage behind the curtain. The ballroom is packed and the bidders well lubricated with drinks from the bar.

The owner of the Talbot-Lago, Caveng, has put on a suit and tie. “I want to enjoy the last five minutes of owning this car,” he says cheerfully. One side of the car’s louvered bonnet is raised, exposing the four-liter straight-six engine, the block painted black with the word “Talbot” in red behind three polished Stromberg carburetors.

Around the car, Myers and Caveng are locked in conversation with John M. O’Quinn, a trial lawyer from Houston, and O’Quinn’s car advisor, Benny Kheir.

O’Quinn has set the car-collecting world on its ear. In less than three years, with very little background in the hobby, he has, with Kheir’s help, spent more than $100 million on over 600 cars. O’Quinn hopes to amass -- and that seems the right word -- the largest personal car collection in the world. He is the hobby’s 800-pound gorilla.

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Caveng explains that the car is one of a kind, the only long-wheelbase Talbot-Lago with the French coachwork. The words “Pebble Beach” aren’t spoken but they hardly need to be. Time is short. The curtain draws back. The auction announcer, Ed Lucas, says, “And now, the star of the show ....” Applause, loud and heartfelt, drowns him out as the car motors up the ramp and into the lights.

It’s one of those moments when inanimate objects seem to have a life of their own, and a biography. It began life as the extravagant, overpowered plaything of a wealthy banker, a super-car of its day, bought for a kingly 165,000 French francs.

After the first owner, the French banker Schumann, was killed in World War II, it surfaced in Belgium and was purchased in 1948 by Freddy Damman, who raced the big car at the 24 Hours of Spa and won its class. He kept the car for decades, until it was purchased in 1979 by film producer Michel Seydoux.

Then into the hands of another European gentleman who is described as “an adventurer of no fixed address” -- a description any man might envy -- then the connoisseur Caveng. Who is next?

O’Quinn starts the bidding. “Two million dollars!” he yells from the front row, a trifle boorishly. He sits with his fiancee, Darla Lexington, and his counselor Kheir. The bids start coming in -- $2.5 million, $2.75 million, $2.8 million. Agents taking offers over the phone flash their paddles as they receive bids. Myers, with his reading glasses at the tip of his nose, is whispering to bidders with the intensity of a grief counselor.

The room seems to get a lot hotter. At around $3 million, other bidders begin falling out. Soon it’s just O’Quinn against -- hello -- Cassini, the reigning Pebble Beach champion.

Seated several rows apart and not acknowledging each other, they nudge each other up $50,000 at a time. Myers shuttles back and forth between them. There’s millions of dollars on the hood and the air is tense. Time staggers by. The crowd hoots and cajoles.

Finally, O’Quinn tells Myers: “Look, 3.35 and we’re done.” O’Quinn and his fiancee hold hands, close their eyes and put their heads together to pray, waiting for Cassini’s counter-bid to come, but it never does.

“For the last time ...” says auctioneer Peter Bainbridge. “Sold!” For $3.35 million. A standing ovation as the car is wheeled off. O’Quinn and Lexington embrace, ecstatic. “I’m so happy,” she says. “I really wanted this car.” O’Quinn is pretty pleased too. “I bought it because it is the most beautiful car I’ve ever seen and because Rob Myers said if I bought it he’d restore it to win Pebble Beach.”

Cassini leaves the auction before I can reach him. Later, on the phone, he says he wasn’t about to get into a bidding war with O’Quinn. “I knew who was bidding and I knew he could have gone $5 million to $6 million,” Cassini says. “Rob told me he wasn’t going home without that car.”

So now the car has a price, and a value, of a sort, like any other ordinary possession, like a set of golf clubs. And yet the poetry lingers.

Caveng, who with a fresh million or so in his pocket should be the happiest guy in the room, is a little wistful. “You’re never happy when you sell a car like that,” he says, “Because you know you’ll never own it again.”

Automotive critic Dan Neil

can be contacted at dan.neil@latimes.com.

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

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1938 Talbot-Lago T150-C Lago Speciale Teardrop Coupe, classic #90034

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Base price: 165,000 French francs (estimated current U.S. dollar value, $87,364)

Current value: $3.685 million (including 10% auction commission)

Powertrain: 3,996-cc six-cylinder straight-six engine with pushrod-actuated valves and hemispherical combustion heads, triple Stromberg carburetors; four-speed Wilson pre-select gearbox; solid-axle rear-wheel drive.

Horsepower: 170 horsepower at 6,000 rpm (est.)

Curb weight: 3,000 pounds (est.)

0-60 mph: 10 seconds (est.)

Wheelbase: 116.14 inches

Final thoughts: Heart-shaped box


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