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GM puts show cars on the block

With the very survival of the nation’s largest carmaker in question, General Motors Corp. is selling pieces of its history.

This week, GM will auction about 100 of its prized antique and show cars to raise cash and trim warehousing costs. The company seeks to cut its specialty fleet by nearly half. It once numbered 1,000.

Admittedly, what GM has raised so far this year -- more than $9 million -- is a drop in the bucket compared with the $13.4 billion in emergency loans that the U.S. Treasury gave GM in December.

“Every little bit counts. It costs a lot to house that many vehicles,” said Greg Wallace, manager of the General Motors Heritage Center in Sterling Heights, Mich., that is dedicated to preserving the company’s century-old history.

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“Is it a good thing that we’re doing this? Absolutely,” Wallace said.

The vehicles will be sold in Palm Beach, Fla., starting Thursday. The listings include a 1920 Chevrolet Model T truck; a 1999 Camaro Z/28 used in the movie “Runaway Bride”; and a 1978 Corvette Indy 500 pace car, one of only four made -- and one of two that GM owns. (It’s keeping the first one that rolled off the production line.)

The news that GM was willing to sell pieces of its past sent groans through the world of car enthusiasts. It has also sent serious collectors scrambling for their checkbooks.

“The buzz is huge over this, especially given what’s happening with General Motors these days,” said Steve Davis, president of the collector car auction company Barrett-Jackson, which is handling the sales. “Even in this economy, people are looking for a tangible asset that doesn’t shrink every time someone sneezes on Wall Street. Owning a piece of American history transcends owning a stock certificate or a lump of gold.”

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It will be the second time this year that GM has cleaned out a bit of its archives: In January, Barrett-Jackson sold more than 230 of the troubled automaker’s vehicles.

Some, such as the millionth Saturn to roll off the production line, seemed yawn-worthy.

But others had bidders in a frenzy, including Indy pace cars and a “Popemobile” convertible built for John Paul II (complete with throne-like seat; Barrett-Jackson’s website describes it as a 1998 Cadillac Brougham that sold for $57,200). A 1996 Buick Blackhawk Custom, a convertible whose design the company ultimately nixed, sold for $522,500.

Few of these collectible cars can be driven legally on public roads: Most of GM’s offerings will be sold with a scrapped title (meaning the car is not road-worthy) or as a bill of sale (meaning it essentially is a work of art and is not to be driven on the road -- ever).

Figuring out which cars to sell has been hard, Wallace said.

Before the mid-1990s, each division of General Motors was responsible for housing its own history, including design schematics, automotive memorabilia and, in some cases, hundreds of different vehicles.

When the company opened the Heritage Center in 2004, the collections were combined. Staff found hidden treasures crated -- and sometimes forgotten -- in warehouses across the country.

“It was like an archaeological dig,” Wallace said. They even found medical equipment, including a GM-developed heart-lung machine built in the 1950s.

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The center now manages the Heritage Collection, an elite group of 350 vehicles that are “critical to telling the story of GM and are too valuable to sell,” Wallace said.

Yet there were still hundreds of others -- vehicles built for trade shows, for example, or used by movie crews -- that rounded out a corporate specialty fleet.

In recent years, that fleet has hovered around 1,000 cars and trucks. Some vehicles -- prototypes never meant for the road -- were destroyed. A few were sold by Barrett-Jackson, with the proceeds often going to charity.

But as the economy spiraled downward last year, GM officials realized that instead of sending the vehicles to the scrap yard, they could make money auctioning them off. They identified about 450 vehicles that weren’t rare enough or historically relevant enough to keep.

Most of the cars were culled from the company’s broader fleet. But a few dozen came from the center, which has one of the richest collections of historic automobiles in the country. America’s first concept vehicle, a 1938 Buick Y-Job, is there. So is a convertible with a V-16 engine that Cadillac built as the nation plunged into the Great Depression.

Although the facility is closed to the public, its staff routinely works with GM designers looking for inspiration, academic researchers hunting for data on alternative fuels, and other museums seeking to enhance their exhibits. General Motors hosts meetings and news conferences there.

“We realized that we had a lot of duplicates and cars that we could do without,” Wallace said. He pointed to the 1967 Pontiac GTO featured in the movie “XXX.” It sold in January for $53,900, according to the Barrett-Jackson auction site.

“We had three GTOs,” Wallace said. “We figured, ‘Do we really need three?’ We decided to keep the best one.”

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p.j.huffstutter@latimes.com


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