Ranging from small, local events to such extravaganzas as Arizona Auction Week and the mid-summer carfest on California’s Monterey Peninsula, classic car auctions have become a billion-dollar industry annually in the United States. Which got us to wondering: When and where did this industry get its start? So we checked the archives, and asked some old timers, and here’s what we discovered:
Kirk F. White was in New York City on business in March 1970 when he noticed a small advertisement in The New York Times announcing that Sotheby’s, the prestigious fine art auction house, was selling several Rolls-Royce and Bentley motorcars along with several other pre-war classics.
White, whose car dealerships in Philadelphia specialized in Ferraris, was curious enough that he decided to drive by the Sotheby’s showroom to see the classics. What he didn’t realize until he arrived was that the sale was taking place on that same, very blustery day.
As White approached the gallery on 72nd Street between Central Park and the East River, he found the scene to be not appealing but appalling.
Oh, there was a Rolls-Royce sitting there, all right. However, “The car (it turned out to be a Hooper-bodied Rolls-Royce Silver Wraith) had two wheels on the sidewalk and two in the gutter,” White remembers.
The scene, he recalls, looked as though “some drunk had driven into their building and they were auctioning off the car,” police-auction style, right on the spot.
Nonetheless, there was an auctioneer and a few people were bidding and, White thought, “It has to work if it were done right.”
Right was what White set out to do. Old-timers will tell you that he did, and that what he did became the prototype for the classic car auctions that have become such a significant part of the car-collecting hobby.
Today, such events attract not only hundreds of bidders but thousands of spectators and are held in downtown convention centers, at state and county fair and exhibition grounds, in the ballrooms of multi-star spa hotels, or in building-sized tents erected in conjunction with prestigious concours d’elegance car shows.
On May 1, 1971, M.H. Gould and Kirk F. White presented “The First Annual Kirk F. White Motorcars Auction,” which also was held in a tent, though it was pitched on the grounds not of one of Philadelphia’s famed landmarks but at St. Martin’s Episcopal Church, where White was a parishioner.
That inaugural Kirk F. White Motorcars Auction wasn’t the first such sale of classic automobiles, but it established a format for such auctions by offering cars from a variety of consignors, cars promoted in impressive catalogs that themselves become collector’s items, and by being not a one-off sale but intended from the beginning as an annual event.
Previously, classic car auctions tended to be estate sales, often brokered by a family’s attorney, not an auctioneer, or were auctions of vehicles from a single collection that had outgrown its stable. For example, in 1952, D. Cameron Peck, former president of the Antique Automobile Club of America, sold some of the more than 1,000 cars he had accumulated.
In 1963, Henry Austin Clark sold the cars that had been in his museum on Long Island. A year later, Jim Leake lost access to the buildings in Oklahoma where he housed much of his expansive car collection, so he staged an auction to find new homes for many of them. Eight years later, he held another auction, and that sale launched the Leake Auction Co., which continues in operation under the direction of Leake’s daughter and son-in-law.
Because of his love of cars, Kirk F. White had left a successful career in insurance to become the manager of the Ferrari and Maserati dealership in Philadelphia. Soon, he was buying and selling Ferraris that had racing history, and also launched a newsletter documenting the history of those cars and others, among them Porsches and Shelbys. In 1969, he launched Kirk F. White Motorcars. A year later, he supplied the Ferrari 512M that Roger Penske prepped for Mark Donohue and David Hobbs to race at Daytona, Sebring and Le Mans.
Another of White’s Ferraris also established some history when Dan Gurney and Brock Yates drove it to win the inaugural Cannonball Baker Sea to Shining Sea Memorial Trophy Dash, an outlaw, fast-as-you-can (without spending too much time in jail) race from Manhattan (as in New York City) to Redondo Beach (as in adjacent to Manhattan Beach and just west of Los Angeles).
But White’s most significant contribution to American car culture and the classic car community was to establish the prototype for the classic car auction.