2012 Bonhams Auction: Preserving the Automobile

I can’t put my finger on exactly when I started to notice the change. As far as I could remember, the old car hobby had always treasured restored cars, the more beautifully restored, the better. Trophies were awarded for the cars which had the most perfectly polished paint, the most mirror-like metal, the most crease-free upholstery. I’d see cars with paint that far exceeded any factory spray job. Formerly polished parts now wore triple-plated chrome. Cars entered into judged shows lost points for a scuff on a sidewall or a foot mark on a floor mat. It took many years of hobby participation to come to grips with the reality that for some owners, their immaculately restored cars would never be driven on the road, as that would cause (horrors!) fuel stains on the carbs, heat stains on the exhaust, grass stains on the tires, and points deducted on the judging sheet.

Some of the images of these cars are embedded in my brain. There was the line of two-seat T-Birds, each with identical yellow ink stamps in the exact same locations in their engine compartments. There was the E-Type roadster, top up, whose owner told me that the top has never been down, and never will be, as that might crease the plastic rear window. Then there was the owner of the perfect Mach I Mustang who told me the totality of the car’s mileage since restoration has been “driven onto the trailer, and driven off the trailer”. It got to the point where AACA issued a statement that over restored cars would be no more likely to win trophies than cars restored “just” to factory standards.

But the hobby started to change, and it was subtle at first. Some non-restored original cars were winning prizes formerly reserved for the over restored beauties. Values of well-kept originals began to rise and keep pace with fresh restorations. Some pundits came up with a few key phrases like, “a car is original only once”, and “anyone with a checkbook can restore a car, but it takes perseverance to keep a car original”. The word “patina” entered the hobby’s lexicon, and the condition itself was embraced, indeed, celebrated. An all-original car with dull paint, tattered carpets, and a greasy engine compartment could seriously compete with a restored version of the same make and model, and depending on judging criteria, might beat it. This was, as I called it at the time, the hobby taking a hard right turn in valuing originality over restoration.

It was 10 years ago, in October 2012, that Bonhams, the esteemed auction house, teamed up with the Simeone Museum in Philadelphia PA, to present the first of what they billed as “Preserving the Automobile … the first-ever auction to promote the concept of preservation of collector cars.” Bonhams was attaching itself to a theme that Dr. Fred Simeone himself had practiced with his own collection and would eventually author a book about, which is the notion of preserving vehicles in much the same way that one preserves fine art and historic furniture. All the cars on auction on that 8th day of October were unrestored. To be fair, not all of them were what one would call “preserved”; in fact, a few of them needed a good deal of restoration or might even be of value only as parts cars. But Bonhams and the Simeone Foundation together where out to make a point: there was value to be recognized in offering lots without the shiny bits, in the hopes that others would agree with the efforts to keep the cars as original as possible.

I attended the auction that day and clearly recall thinking that there were some bargains to be had, presuming that the sold cars ran and drove (unlike most other auctions, lots were not driven across the block during the bidding process). Some of these values look even more remarkable with 10 years’ hindsight. Since this inaugural auction in 2012, Bonhams has returned to the Simeone location in most succeeding years with the same theme. In this sometimes over-hyped hobby, it is refreshing to see the efforts made by these two organizations to support and encourage preservation as an important component of it.

 

Sold lots are listed in ascending price order.

 

Lot 415, 1946 Lincoln Model 66H Sedan, sold for $2,530 with buyer’s premium. One of the least expensive lots at this auction, and understandably so. Bonhams made no claim that this V-12 Lincoln 4-door started or ran, instead falling back on typical auction hyperbole like “strikingly original”, “dirty but complete” and “a lovely project for the winter months”. These late ‘40s Lincolns were not as attractive as the cars that preceded them or came after them. Still, if your starting budget was $2,500 and you wanted a project, here you go!

 

Lot 451, 1927 Buick Master Six Opera Coupe, sold for $5,520 with buyer’s premium. The description states that this is a running, driving example which is all original except for its upholstery. In 2012, interest in pre-war cars had been on a long and steady decline but has since picked up. I called this a fair deal in 2012 and it looks even better 10 years later.

 

Lot 461, Chrysler Town and Country convertible, sold for $9,200 with buyer’s premium. Calling this car “rough” is an understatement. It may have been drivable, but the woodwork alone would soak up most of the next owner’s budget like a brush dipped in shellac. On the positive side, this was the final Woodie American convertible built, with 2022 values hovering close to six figures.

Lot 445, 1970 Jaguar E-Type 2-door coupe (NOT a 2+2), sold for $15,000 with buyer’s premium. The website notes that the car had been off the road since 1990, and had been repainted once in its factory color. The paint does not show well. The description further states that the engine spins freely and “it is anticipated that the car could be made to run”. Even with those caveats, this is a deal for a Series II E-Type, which today carries a value as per my CPI guide between $40-80,000.

 

Lot 418, 1965 Mercedes-Benz 230SL Roadster with Hard Top, sold for $17,250 with buyer’s premium. One repaint in a shade of red a little off from the factory red. Runs, but has been sitting. This was another deal in 2012 dollars that looks especially attractive today. Although I didn’t photograph it, one front fender had a dent as if an object had fallen onto it, so there was the potential for some body work in its future. Today’s values for the 230 SL are between $75k and $130k according to CPI.

 

Lot 443, 1957 Lincoln Continental Mark II with factory A/C, sold for $33,350 with buyer’s premium. These cars are rare and in my opinion, not as collectible as other ‘50s icons in part because not everyone knows about them and in part because some people know too much about them, to wit, parts are unavailable and they are notoriously expensive to restore. If this one was all there, and that appeared to be the case, this was a decent deal on a Mark II.

All photographs copyright © 2022 Richard A. Reina. Photos may not be copied or reproduced without express written permission.

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