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A generation hands over the keys to its vintage autos

This small black race car of four score years is not, truth be told, particularly fast. Compared with modern sports cars -- exotically engineered speed cyborgs, half-alloy, half-electronics -- the 1927 Bugatti Type 35B I’m riding in is a laughably simple machine.

It’s all bare-riveted aluminum and steel, wood, wire, leather couplings -- as if its makers were working with an abbreviated table of elements. Once the dominant grand prix car in the world, the Type 35B today would have trouble keeping up with a late-model minivan.

And then David Gooding, chief executive of auction house Gooding & Co. , sees a clear stretch of road and nails the throttle. The skinny rear tires bark, the car jerks us back in our tiny seat (which we are sharing, by the way) and the aroma of hot oil and gasoline rises from the supercharged engine -- BBRRRAAAPPP! BAP-BAP-BAP!! -- as we reach speeds nearing 50 mph.

He cranks on the huge wooden wheel to bend the car into a corner, and when he does, the unmistakable gestalt of a race car comes through: the raw eagerness and agility, the sense of direct connection to the road, the danger, the fun.

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“Feels fast, doesn’t it?” Gooding shouts over the wind.

The car is part of the collection of Dr. Peter and Susan Williamson. He was a distinguished neurologist at Dartmouth College -- and was one of the nation’s leading Bugatti experts and connoisseurs. Before he died of cancer in June at age 71, he made arrangements with Gooding to auction off the majority of his collection during the annual automotive festival that occurs around Sunday’s Pebble Beach Concours d’Elegance vintage car show.

On a weekend when dozens of extraordinary cars will change hands for tens of millions of dollars at five major auctions, the Williamson auction is the marquee event.

“This is the best private Bugatti collection in the world,” said vintage car expert Ken Gross. “There hasn’t been a sale like this since [the 1960s]. People will come far for this.”

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The Williamson consignment of 12 cars -- including two rare Atalantes, three full-on race cars and several luxury sedans -- is expected to go for more than $15 million. Part of the proceeds will benefit Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center. Unfortunately for the collecting world, Williamson’s prized possession, a 57SC Atlantic, arguably the most valuable car in the world, is not part of the auction. The family hasn’t decided what to do with the car, but it’s expected to be sold privately; estimates go as high as $50 million.

In another respect, though, the Williamson sale represents an increasingly common occurrence, as a generation of car collectors -- many would argue the greatest generation -- pass from the scene. As they do, cars that haven’t been on the open market for decades surface.

RM Auctions is selling another Bugatti -- a highly desirable Type 57C Atalante once belonging to Macy’s heir John W. Straus -- that spent 45 years slumbering in a New York garage before being dusted off and sold in 2007.

Another outstanding car up for auction -- an unrestored Talbot-Lago T150 CSS -- belonged to Lindsay Locke of Fallbrook, Calif., who bought the car in the 1960s and kept it in his garage, preserved in dust. Locke died in 2001. Bonhams & Butterfields auction house estimates the car could sell for more than $4.5 million.

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“The kids or heirs of collectors are going into their husbands’, fathers’ and grandfathers’ garages, seeing what’s there and saying, ‘What are we going to do with this stuff?’ ” said collecting expert Tom Cotter. “For one thing, the kids can’t drive them.”

These cars are often too slow to manage modern highway speeds. Also, the antique technology requires highly specialized knowledge to maintain and repair. Williamson relied on his mechanic, noted Bugatti restorer Scott Sargent, to keep his cars in running order.

“People really don’t do the math on keeping the cars,” Gooding said. “To store them properly, to maintain them, to service them, to keep the staff. . . . The figures are astounding.”

There is another incentive to sell: Values in the vintage car market are exploding. In May, at an auction in Italy, RM Auctions sold a 1961 Ferrari 250 GT SWB California Spider for a record $10,894,900 -- many times what such a car would have been worth a few years ago. Gooding estimates a quarter of his clients who have inherited classic cars sell them at auction to defray inheritance taxes.

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At a time when the U.S. mortgage loan crisis has sent shock waves around the globe, inflation is rising, the American economy is near recession and the bloom is off the automobile generally, it might be surprising that the vintage car market is so strong.

Experts cite several reasons. First is the rising hyper-wealth in emerging economies such as Russia and India. Second, the softness of the U.S. dollar compared with the euro makes cars for sale in the U.S. look relatively cheap. Third, wealthy clients may be looking to diversify their holdings to include rare automobiles as a hedge against currency fluctuations. Another factor is that, in the world of high-price luxury goods, it’s actually quite difficult to buy something unique, something that every other millionaire or billionaire can’t have.

“The people who are coming to Pebble Beach this weekend are just not feeling the economic downturn,” Gross said. “They’ve got plenty of money.”

With these checkbooks out, bidding on cars that haven’t been available in a generation, the expectation is that the weekend will set a Pebble Beach auction record.

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“I’d be surprised if it didn’t,” Gooding of Gooding & Co. said. The auction house set a record last year with a sale worth $61 million.

But cars are not stocks and bonds, and investors are not necessarily learned connoisseurs. Collectors like Williamson, publishing magnate Robert Petersen, or Otis Chandler, former publisher of the Los Angeles Times, were all experts in the machinery they owned.

“The Doc [Williamson] never cared about resale value,” said Sargent, who was also the physician’s close friend. “He bought the cars to drive them, and he did, all the time.”

Williamson was an expert on his Bugattis, knowing their idiosyncrasies -- of which there are many -- down to the last bolt and screw.

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“Doc hoped the cars would be used,” Sargent said. “Not just tucked away in some museum or collection.”

“I think about it all the time,” Sargent added. “Wow, we’ve reached some kind of a threshold. Where are the great collectors of the next generation?”

--

dan.neil@latimes.com

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