A personal highlight of the annual October sojourn to Hershey is the RM Sotheby’s auction, held just a few miles away from the showfield at the Hershey Lodge. I’ve reported extensively about previous RM Hershey auctions on this blog, and even though my 2021 visit was a one day in-and-out, I still found time to scoot over to The Lodge to take in the cars and some of the auction action.
RM Sotheby’s, at least at this location, prides itself on mainly featuring American iron, much of it pre-war (that would be World War II, which serves as a handy demarcation line, since no vehicles were produced in this country from 1942 to 1945). There continues to be much discussion about the relative value of these older pieces of machinery. For the most part, those who drove them when new have departed; and those who bought them as old used cars right after the war are also quickly vacating the premises.
The standard argument goes: “If those who had them in their younger years are no longer here, then their value has plummeted”. The reality is a bit more nuanced than that. Car collectors, at least many that I know (and I put myself in this category) have an appreciation for ALL vehicles. One respected observer of this scene whose acquaintance I’ve made told me that the cars of the nineteen teens, twenties, and thirties are gaining a new audience as collectors have learned to appreciate their styling, engineering, and standing in automotive history. As my pictures below will show, some of these cars have an undeniable stately presence that would be an appropriate fit in any collection, no matter how narrow or diverse. Values for pre-war cars may be off their highs of the early aughts, but they’re not selling for twenty cents on the dollar either. As further evidence, nine of the top ten sales at this auction were pre-war, with prices ranging between $170,000 and $1.5 million.
According to RM’s website, the two-day auction achieved a phenomenal 98% sell-through rate. Granted, many of them were no reserve, but many had reserves (for the cars I’ve reported on, the reserve status is stated). The tremendous sell-through can be chalked up to a combination of quality wares, reasonable reserves, and a continued hot collector car market.
A big part of the fun is sitting outside the entrance / exit door and watching these cars run under their own power. The crew handling that job was working non-stop to get some of these old jalopies started and keep them running (and hope that the brakes worked). By the time darkness fell, I was on my way, but it was a glorious way to end my 2021 Hershey visit.
The cars below are listed in ascending sale price order; sale prices were taken from the RM Sotheby’s website, and the 10% buyer’s premium was backed out, so the “sold” price shown is the hammer price.
Lot #285, 1973 Volvo 1800ES, 4-speed manual. Pre-sale estimate $25-30,000. No reserve. Sold for $30,000.
This was the final year for the 1800, and only the ES (station wagon) model was offered. Sold right at the high end of the estimate. CPI values a #2 car at $44,000, which this wasn’t, but 1800s continue to be popular at the moment. Fair price.
Lot #152, 1948 Alvis drophead coupe, 4-cylinder, 4-speed manual. Pre-sale estimate $45-70,000. No reserve. Sold for $34,000.
Alvis was never a big seller on this side of the pond, but I’ve seen a greater number of them come up for sale recently. The two-tone brown and tan wasn’t the most attractive, and the RHD is either a fun factor or a pain. Sold well below estimate. I hope it runs well, because I know nothing about parts availability.
Lot #305, 1958 Edsel Pacer convertible. First model year of Ford’s Fifties flop. Attractive two-tone white and red. Pre-sale estimate $40-50,000. No reserve. Sold for $34,000.
The risk of no reserve is just that, there is NO reserve. This car missed its low pre-sale estimate by eight grand. CPI values these between $44,000 and $84,000, which sounds generous. Still, this is a unique and historic fifties car that should be easily serviced and maintained. It could be a challenge to find another decent ‘50s American convertible at this price. I hope the new owner drives it.
Lot #291, 1957 Chevrolet Corvette, fuel-injected 250-horse 283, 4-speed manual. Pre-sale estimate $70-90,000. With reserve. Sold for $65,000.
Apparently there were two different f.i. horsepower engines, and this was the lower of the two. This sounded too cheap to me, but CPI shows a value range between $53,000 and $100,000. I still think it was well-bought.
Lot #184, 1963 Jaguar E-Type FHC (fixed-head coupe). Red over black, looked great from afar, but a closer inspection revealed rough areas. Pre-sale estimate $90-110,000. With reserve. Sold for $65,000.
This is an early Series 1 car, with the 3.8 six-cylinder, 4-speed with non-synchro first, and low-back bucket seats. Many refinements were added to the ’65 and newer Series 1 cars with the 4.2 engine. See the photo of the rear window: the glass seal was completely hardened, there was paint overspray on it, and the window trim was missing. CPI has these at $88,000 for a #4 (fair) car; $130,000 for #3 (good), and $195,000 for #2 (excellent). Even with the defects, this was a bargain for a Series 1 XKE.
Lot #193, 1956 Jaguar XK140 roadster. 3.4 six, 4-speed. Pre-sale estimate $100-120,000. With reserve. Sold for $77,500.
Another possible Jaguar bargain which sold well below estimate, as CPI has a #3 car at $112,000. This car may have been a little better than that. Try it before you buy it though: the one time I sat in one required lower body contortions to get in and out.
Lot #150, 1939 Alvis pillarless two-door saloon. A unique and never-seen-before body style (and the 2nd Alvis at this auction). Pre-sale estimate $90-130,000. No reserve. Sold for $102,500.
This was one of the more striking pre-war designs at this auction, and certainly rare in the States. The bidders recognized this, and knowing it was a no-reserve sale, they stepped up to a final sale price which was mid-estimate. Guaranteed to be the star at the next all-British car show.
Lot #272, 1934 Packard Eight Coupe. Elegant two-tone light and dark brown. Pre-sale estimate $90-120,000. With reserve. Sold for $105,000.
I’ve been infatuated with almost all Packards I see these last few years, and this one stopped me dead in my tracks. It was stunning, and in close to perfect condition. While it sold mid-estimate, a higher number would have still been reasonable. That’s a lot of Packard for just over six figures.
Lot #274, 1933 Packard Eight Roadster. Dark red, tan convertible top. Looks like the sister car to Lot #272. Pre-sale estimate $120-140,000. No reserve. Sold for $105,000.
I have no explanation for this result. This car, a convertible, sold for the exact same price as the Packard coupe which was just one year newer. Honestly, I did not look at these two cars that closely to discern any condition differences. Maybe the same person bought both cars and now has twin Packards in the collection.
FUN TIMES WATCHING THE CARS DRIVE IN AND OUT OF THE HERSHEY LODGE
“On Friday, October 10, stock markets crashed across Europe and Asia. London, Paris and Frankfurt dropped 10% within an hour of trading and again when Wall Street opened for trading. Global markets … experienced their worst weeks since 1987 and some indices, S&P 500, since the Wall Street Crash of 1929.
On October 10, within the first five minutes of the trading session on Wall Street, the Dow Jones Industrial Average plunged 697 points, falling below 7900 to its lowest level since March 17, 2003…. Trading on New York Stock Exchange closed for the week with the Dow at 8,451, down 1,874 points, or 18% for the week, and after 8 days of losses, 40% down from its record high October 9, 2007…. The bonds of the bankrupt Lehman Brothers were auctioned on Friday, October 10. They sold for a little over 8 cents on the dollar.”
If you’re reading this and asking yourself, “when did this become RichardsFinancialBlog?”, no need to worry, as the story has a car connection. On the same day that Lehman Brothers’ bonds were auctioned, I was watching some high-dollar automotive machinery go up for auction at the annual RM classic car auction in Hershey PA. I paid a whopping $60 (!) for entry to the auction within the Hershey Lodge, and that included my own copy of the catalog (but not a bidder’s pass). This was my initial foray into the world of so-called catalog auctions, undertaken so that I could decide if this would be a reasonable avenue for selling my Isetta.
Prior to this, auctions I had attended were what I call the ‘carnival’ style: a vehicle rolls up onto the block, an auctioneer starts to chant so loudly and so quickly that he can barely be understood, and 45 to 90 seconds later, a gavel falls and the next car in the parade arrives. This is what you see on TV at the typical Barrett-Jackson or Mecum auction. They are boisterous, ear-splitting, lightning-paced, and ultimately mind-numbing experiences. I understood from reading auction reports that the catalog auctions were more, shall we say, mild-mannered and discreet, and I wanted to witness this first-hand.
On that Friday inside the Hershey Lodge, I immediately noticed the differences, starting with the voice and tone of the auctioneer. I could actually understand him; if anything, the New Yorker in me wanted him to speak more quickly! He was in no rush to get to the next car, meaning, he was putting 100% of his attention on the car in front of him. He would make little quips to the bidders, such as “sir, but what else are you going to do with your money?”, and “would the gentleman in the back like to bid again?” There was none, I repeat, none of the hyperbole one hears at other venues, such as “look at that fabulous paint job”; “restored using only the finest high-quality parts”; and “guaranteed to only go up in value”. B-J this was not.
Each car spent from 3 to 5 minutes on the block. When the reserve was met, the auctioneer, using the same level tone, would state “we are selling this car today”. (At Carlisle Auctions, the auctioneer SCREAMS “THE RESERVE IS OFF!!!” while a neon sign over his head blares the same message.)
Another difference: the bidders. Everyone sat calmly in their seats, with the very occasional bidder wandering up to the block for a close-up inspection. There was no yelling, jumping, fist-pumping, or showing off for the cameras (of which there were none anyway). The men bidding (and they were all male) would catch the eye of the auctioneer or one of the assistants (“callers”) and with the subtlest of head nods, place their bets.
Midway through the afternoon, a 1913 Locomobile reached the block. Resplendent in white with black top and interior and lots of brass, it was so long that it looked like it would miss fitting in my garage by about 10 feet. The bidding opened at $50,000, and moving in $25,000 increments, quickly reached $300,000. In the row in front of me sat a white-haired elderly man, perhaps 80 or 85. When the auctioneer asked for $325,000, the old gent raised his bidder’s pass like he was ordering a cheeseburger at Wendy’s, the gavel fell, and the brass beauty was his. It was at this moment that I had the epiphany: the Lehman Brothers collapse meant nothing to those who had discretionary funds to spare, and a catalog-type auction would be a classy place to sell my car.
The catalog cover car, and star of the show, was a 1933 Duesenberg phaeton. It sold for $1,535,000, again proving that those who have it can spend it. (The next day, while waiting to cross Hersheypark Drive to enter the AACA show, this same Duesenberg sailed past at about 60 mph. It sounded like a locomotive, and you could hear it from a quarter mile away.)
For the sale of my own car, I was in no great rush, and I had weighed the pro’s and con’s of such a move for much of the first decade of the 21st century. A few half-hearted attempts were made by placing some ads, most of which generated no response. A few years after attending this RM auction, I ran an ad in the national AACA magazine, and a man from Philadelphia showed up at my house, went for a ride with me, and told me he would buy the car (my ask was $30k, and I believe he said he was ok with the price). But the next day he called and said he changed his mind. That’s how it goes when trying to sell cars.
In the meantime, I also checked out the Bonhams auction, which had become an annual mainstay as part of the Greenwich Concours event in early June. The auction style was similar, however, the setup was in a tent, on grass, and Bonhams jammed as many cars into that tent as possible, with the remainder scattered outside along its perimeter. The ambiance was not as pleasing as RM which had the advantage of a large hotel conference room, with better sound and lighting. But still, both were within consideration, as both were within a day’s drive on the East Coast. Friends who suggested that I truck my car out to Barrett-Jackson in AZ were not calculating the overhead (fuel, food, hotels, time) that such a trip would entail.
In 2013, after much back-and-forth in my own mind about continuing to try to sell the car on my own (more control over asking price vs dealing with stubborn buyers) compared to an auction consignment (devoted in-person audience vs less control over bidding price), I decided to move ahead with RM. A few years back, I had reached out to RM and had communicated with Ian Kelleher. Since I had his email address, I picked up where I had left off with him. (It’s surprising to me to see that my first email of the year to him was sent on June 26, less than four months before the auction.)
Ian replied, and I was taken aback when he told me that while there was plenty of time to get my car on the docket for Hershey, it would need to be a no-reserve entry. He said that they would be willing to publish a pre-sale estimate of $30,000-40,000, but any cars valued below $50,000 are strictly sold as no-reserve. My heart sank. What if bidding only reached $20,000? I wasn’t willing to give it away. There were numerous email exchanges between Ian and me, during which I successfully negotiated for the following:
Vehicle listed as No Reserve, with auction estimate of $30,000-40,000;
Minimum of one full page in the auction catalog, desirably two pages;
Professional photography taken by RM for catalog photos;
Input and review by me of catalog write-up;
Vehicle will cross block on Friday (the 2nd day of a two-day auction)
RM will allow me to display various items alongside car during auction preview including photographs, posters, magazines, literature, scale models, and tablet.
As a balm for the no-reserve listing, and as a courtesy to me as a first-time consigner, Ian agreed to reduce my consignment fee from $1,000 to $500, and my seller’s commission from 10% to 7%. This made me feel a whole lot better about the no-reserve deal. RM sent me a consignment form, which included the requirement that I sign and send them the title to my car. Now it was getting serious!
You will note above that I told Ian that I wanted “input and review by me of catalog write-up”. Previous catalog write-ups I had read included flowery vehicle descriptions with 80% general history of the marque, and 20% specific detail of the actual lot. I wanted to reverse those percentages for my car, and be sure that the catalog text spoke to my car’s specifics. Still, I was sent a first draft and needed to make the following corrections:
Rear springs were described as semi-elliptic, when they are quarter-elliptic;
“Four-wheel drum brakes” was corrected to “front and rear drum brakes”;
“… ideal for the streets of postwar Germany” was changed to “… Europe”.
My suggestions were accepted without further discussion; RM was continuing to please me with their treatment of me as a consigner.
Quite a few acquaintances were taken aback with the fees, even at reduced rates. They would ask with incredulity: “what exactly are you getting for all that money you’re paying?” My first-hand experience allows me to report that my fees helped to cover:
The dispatching of a professional photographer to my home, where he spent about three hours taking photos of my car.
Display of those photos on the RM website, in the published catalog, and in several email blasts sent by RM.
A full maintenance crew on hand at the Hershey Lodge to assist with needs such as adding fuel, charging batteries, and maintaining cleanliness of the cars.
As an owner, I felt that the website, email, and catalog exposure was fairly extensive, and reached a level of marketing that I could not match. That still didn’t stop me from creating my own marketing efforts. Since test drives would not be possible on-site, I opted for the 2nd best thing and made two videos which would show prospective bidders that this car was no trailer queen, and did get occasional exercise:
Some final tidying up of the vehicle was done, especially in the interior. I resprayed the fiberboard interior panels, and added the underseat panel which had been missing all these years. Some minor adjustments were made to the horn and to the parking brake, and of course the car was detailed.
Hershey week arrived. The actual auction was scheduled for Thursday October 10 and Friday October 11, 2013. On the Tuesday morning of that week, I left my house, Isetta in tow, bittersweet at the thought that I would be returning at the end of the week with an empty trailer. Upon arrival, I got my car situated under the big tent in the Hershey Lodge parking lot. The Hershey area had significant downpours for much of the week (what we’re used to in that part of the world in October), but things stayed calm and relatively dry in the tent. Each and every weekday, I never left the car’s side, as I wanted to answer any questions from anyone who might be bidding. My heart sank again when I found a 2nd Isetta at the same auction, red like mine, but in a condition that was one or two steps below mine. Crossing the block on Thursday at no reserve, it hammered sold at $25,000. I felt that number established a value floor and made me more optimistic about my own car.
Finally, it was Friday, auction day for my rolling egg. When RM had told me that my consignment included two free entrance tickets to the auction, I had the nerve to request several more. Again, RM exceeded my expectations by granting that request without delay. Several friends from Volvo Corporate attended the big moment with me, and provided lots of emotional support (thanks Andy and Larry!).
The head of the RM maintenance crew had gotten to know me. RM’s procedure is to queue up the cars outside the entrance ramp so that the cars can be driven as close as possible to the block, at which point they’re pushed, to minimize exhaust fumes in the conference room. The crew chief pulled me aside, and likely knowing what he was about to offer wasn’t ‘by the book’, said to me “why don’t you drive your car up to the ramp? It’ll be the last time you’ll get to drive it”. I gladly took him up on that. I climbed in, started it, and as soon as I reached the entrance, shut it down. The crew on hand stopped it from rolling back; they would push it from here. I went in and sat with my wife and my buddies.
Max Girardo, the charming, eloquent and multi-linguistic auctioneer, was at the podium. As Andy pointed out to me later, Max spent more time extolling the virtues of my car than he did with any of the cars preceding or following my car. The bidding opened at $10,000, quickly climbed to $25,000, and then slowed somewhat, although it did reach $30,000. Max held on for me as long as he could, with the bid intervals dropping from $5,000 to $2,500. At a final bid of $32,500, the gavel fell. The car was officially sold. Although RM told me that I would receive payment in 6 weeks, they completed an electronic transfer of funds to me in 3 weeks, yet again exceeding my expectations.
The auction sale date was 10 days shy of 35 years from October 21, 1978, when Don Krech and I made the first of three 16-hour round-trip journeys from central NJ to Moscow VT for these funny-looking little bubble cars that Wesley Turner had for sale for $650. In October of 1978, I had never heard of AACA, or Hershey, or Carlisle, or car auctions. The rigmarole of transporting the cars back from VT, storing them offsite at cost, and figuring out how to perform a restoration on them had me almost walk away from the entire mess more than once. It’s very likely that I kept the cars all that time simply because they were so small and easy to stash somewhere (had I made my investment in a ’59 Caddy it would be a different story).
This is the final chapter of the Isetta Saga. Getting all this out on my blog was a process in itself. Chapter 1 of the saga was published on January 7, 2018, just shy of three years ago. Thirty-five chapters spread out over 34 months is an almost-perfect one chapter per month! Wish I could say that I planned it that way, but that would be a lie….
To those who have stuck it out and have read along as each chapter was published, a big thank you. To those who occasionally dipped their toes into the ups and downs of this Isetta’s story, you still deserve my thanks. I can only hope that my perseverance with this project (some would say insanity) may possibly provide some motivation should you be considering a similar journey. For me, it was great fun to relive it all!
Friday was Day Two of the RM Sotheby’s Auction at the Hershey Lodge (located of course in downtown Chocolate World). In contrast with Thursday’s auction, the cars were a mix of pre- and post-war (still dominated by the former), and some of the lots had reserves this time around. The performance of the pre-war iron was again impressive, with the cars selling for decent money, proving that there is still a market for ’20s and ’30s era vehicles. Friday also had a smattering of imports scattered amongst the American marques.
As we’ve seen at every auction lately, Friday’s offerings included an estate sale, with a large poster proclaiming “The Complete Collection of Jack Dunning, Offered Entirely Without Reserve”. Presumably, Jack has either passed on and his heirs don’t care, or, he needed to liquidate and he didn’t care. I didn’t stick around long enough to witness any of Jack’s wares sell, but if you’re interested, RM has the results posted here.
I did watch the first dozen and a half or so cars go in, up, off, and back. The fine ground crew decided to start and drive most of these cars, so that treat was enjoyed after missing out on it the previous night. Of the vehicles I watched, only one failed to sell: a ’55 Chrysler C-300 (first year of the legendary 300s), which was bid up to $50,000 against a $70,000 estimate. Me thinks the right number is right in between.
Overall, I do believe that RM Sotheby’s puts on an excellent auction. They work hard at it, and frankly, it shows. I’ve been fortunate to be a first-hand spectator at auctions by Bonhams, Barrett-Jackson, Carlisle, and Mecum, all of which are fine auction companies in their own right. But I’ve seen their hits and misses. RM seems to be the most consistent of the bunch.
Below is a selection of Friday’s sales, arranged in ascending hammer price order. The prices shown are exclusive of 10% buyer’s premium.
Anyone who thinks that the collector car hobby is on the decline, or who at least proposes that the pre-war segment in particular is as dead as these vehicles’ original owners, was not in attendance as I was at the October 2019 two-day auction held by RM Sotheby’s in Hershey PA. As they have for probably the last 10 years, RM contracted with the Hershey Lodge to host the event, and it was scheduled to coincide with the AACA Hershey Fall Meet.
The auction results I observed made it crystal clear that the hobby is as strong as ever; and anyone suggesting that “no one is in the market for anything built before ______” (insert the post-war model year of your choice) is not cognizant of the facts.
The facts are these: the Thursday portion of the auction was the liquidation of the Merritt Auto Museum of Nebraska. No explanation was given for its closing, but the 107 vehicles on offer were all pre-war, and all were offered at no reserve. The catalog provided the auction house’s pre-sale estimates, and much of the pre-auction excitement boiled down to this: would the supposed indifference to such aged lots result in low-dollar sales? Or would the no-reserve format drive the bidding to numbers close to or above the estimates?
I stuck around long enough to personally observe 33 lots cross the block. Of those 33, 21 sold within or above their estimates; 13 lots sold below (and of those 13, two were “replicas”, and one was a sedan rebodied as a phaeton). It was an impressive performance, and with possibly very few exceptions, no one “stole” any automobiles. This chart shows those 33 vehicles (buckboards were clearly the hot attraction of the night):
Note that the indicated “hammer” price is exclusive of 10% buyer’s premium.
Thursday’s show also differed from other RM at Hershey auctions because every lot was pushed into and out of the building. In previous years, one of the thrills for me (and a reassurance to the bidding audience) was the visual acknowledgement that the cars started and ran. Whether the pushing was done for expediency or to spare our lungs was not stated; and while all the vehicles looked cosmetically fresh (I’d rate every vehicle a 3+ or 2- in condition), I did overhear the handlers state “watch out, that one has no brakes” several times.
Below are selected photos from Thursday’s auction. The vehicles below are arranged in order of HAMMER PRICE, from lowest to highest. Due to the size of this report, I will break out Friday’s auction results as a separate blog post.
Lot 163, 1902 Olds Curved Dash Replica, sold for $3,500, 42% below its pre-sale low estimate of $6,000
Lot 186, 1914 Buick Roadster, sold for $13,000, 35% below its pre-sale low estimate of $20,000
Lot 181, 1923 Willys-Knight Roadster, sold for $13,000, 48% below its pre-sale low estimate of $25,000
Lot 179, 1930 Marquette Phaeton (rebodied sedan), sold for $14,500, 3% below pre-sale low estimate of $15,000
Lot 168, 1933 Essex Terraplane, sold for $17,000, within its pre-sale estimate of $15-25,000
Lot 184, 1913 Maxwell Roadster, sold for $18,500, within its pre-sale estimate of $15-25,000
Lot 180, 1933 Essex Terraplane, sold for $20,000, within its pre-sale estimate of $20-30,000
Lot 178, 1929 Ford Model A Phaeton, sold for $22,000, within its pre-sale estimate of $20-25,000
Lot 201, 1928 Franklin Depot Hack, sold for $22,500, 25% below its pre-sale low estimate of $30,000
Lot 185, 1912 Detroiter Speedster, sold for $25,500, within its pre-sale estimate of $25-35,000
Lot 206, 1932 Pontiac Coupe, sold for $26,000, within its pre-sale estimate of $25-35,000
Lot 195, 1932 LaSalle sedan, sold for $30,000, 14% below its pre-sale low estimate of $35,000
Lot 187, 1923 Packard Runabout, sold for $34,000, within its pre-sale estimate of $30-40,000
Lot 202, 1936 Cord 810 Westchester sedan, sold for $37,500, 25% above its pre-sale high estimate of $30,000 (it was announced on the block that engine had a cracked cylinder head)