This is the third of four installments in the story of the first modern classic car auction.
One sunny Sunday morning, Kirk F. White and his family emerged from St. Martin’s church into a scene of blooming dogwoods at the church’s pastoral campus in Radnor, a Philadelphia suburb.
“While the rest of the congregation admired the lush blooming church landscape, my mind was driving tent stakes into the macadam of the parking lot, picturing how many oily old cars we could squeeze on to the grounds, and where to put the bleachers,” White recalls in his memoir.
The September 1970 issue of White’s newsletter announced “the largest and finest classic car auction ever to be held…” would take place the following spring and would be “run in a thoroughly professional manner… the finest field of cars ever gathered for auction… anxious to establish this annual event as the best of its kind in America.”
And in addition to classic cars, the auction would include what White terms “Automobiliana,” which we now know as automobilia.
Within two months, White had received more than 600 responses from people interested in the sale, including 187 who said they had had cars they wanted to consign to the auction.
To make the event manageable, and to put together “the finest field” rather than a parade of “mow around derelicts from people’s yards,” White, “Tiny” Gould and Omar Landis decided to limit the event to 100 cars.
In April, they published their catalog, showcasing more than 60 cars already consigned, with blank pages for others, and with several pages of consignment-agreement forms for those who might see the catalog and want to add their classic car to those crossing the auction block.
The catalog had an 8 x 10-inch format and was printed in black and white. Among the vehicles showcased were a 1902 Oldsmobile Curved Dash Runabout, a 1910 Hispano Suiza that had been built for Queen Isabel of Spain, a 1911 Marion Bobcat, the 1914 Mercer Type 35 T-head Raceabout that had been featured in Ralph Stein’s book The Great Cars, a 1925 Franklin Boat-tailed Sport Runabout, and a 1925 Bugatti 3-door Boat-Tail Tourer.
Also, a 1937 Bugatti Type 57 Ventoux Coupe, one of three 1930 Ruxton front-wheel-drive roadsters, a 1931 Duesenberg LeBaron barrel-side phaeton, a 1931 Cadillac V16 roadster, a 1932 Rolls Royce Phantom II Henley Roadster bodied by Brewster, a 1932 Alfa Romeo 1750 cc supercharged roadster, Al Capone’s 1941 Cadillac limo, the 1948 Delahaye 135M “Cover Girl” by Figoni and Falashi, one of three 1953 Cunningham C3 Vignale convertibles, a 1958 BMW 507 and 12 Ferraris, including a 1953 Pinin Farina Europa cabriolet, a 1964 330 P competition roadster, a 1965 275 LM, a 375 Mille Miglia, a 212 Barchetta and White’s own Penske-White 512M racer.
“The consignments continued to roll in and the cars were pretty darn good,” White said.
And then, five days before the auction on the church grounds, what White called “unholy hell” struck the event when somebody broke into the building where the cars were being kept and spewed gallons of paint “all over the place.”
“Miraculously (and thanks to Mike Tilison and his Molin Body Shop) we were able to get every bit of the damage handled, save one small bit on one fender where we had to announce the slight damage from the auction block,” White said.
Tomorrow: It’s auction day, but ‘Who is Barbara Walters?’