Back in the early 1980s, when I was a sportswriter for a Midwestern daily newspaper and was covering a lot of auto racing, a newcomer to Indy car racing was brought into the press box at Michigan International Speedway for an interview session. I remember a couple of us whispering that we’d be much more interested in chatting with the young racer’s father.
The driver was Michael Chandler, one of the children of Otis Chandler, whom you may recognize for his car collection but whom we recognized as the publisher of the Los Angeles Times, one of the nation’s best newspapers.
My first question to the senior Chandler likely would have regarded any job openings in his sports department.
Fast forward to this past summer and I’m wandering through the fabulous John King Used Book Store near downtown Detroit. King has something like a million books for sale, and they aren’t simply scattered here and there in his multi-story warehouse-style building, they are sorted by subject and by alphabet. It’s like a huge old library, except everything is for sale, not merely eligible for a two-week loan.
I try to browse through the store whenever I’m back in Michigan, and browsing always turned into buying. One of the books I bought this summer was Dennis McDougal’s biography, Privileged Son: Otis Chandler and the Rise and Fall of the L.A. Times Dynasty.
I wasn’t covering classic cars back in the 1980s, nor even in 2006 when Otis Chandler’s car collection was sold at auction. But since then I’ve learned that the sale, conducted by Gooding & Company, was a $36 million event, at the time the largest single-collection auction since the massive Harrah’s sale in the late 1980s.
“This is one of those great moments” for car collecting enthusiasts, Larry Crane, at the time the editor of Auto Aficionado magazine, told a Los Angeles Times reporter as the Chandler auction ended.
“Otis didn’t collect just great cars; he collected the great cars,” Crane continued.
“It’s not a big collection,” Crane added, “but it may be the most important collection for sale in a long time, and perhaps for a long time to come.”
He was right. It wasn’t until 2015 that another auction — of the Milhous Brothers collection — exceeded that $36 million figure.
The Chandler collection sold at auction comprised primarily pre-war vehicles, including a dozen Packards, and nearly four dozen motorcycles, most of them from the early days of motorized two-wheelers. There also was lots of automotive art.
“At the time of his death, Otis had assembled one of the finest collections of antique and custom-bodied classics, rare antique motorcycles and carefully chosen examples of more modern classics,” David Gooding noted in the auction catalog.
Gooding pointed out that this was just the most recent of Chandler’s collections: “he built up several collections, enjoying the cars to the fullest extend and then selling them on so that others may enjoy the pieces of history that he considered himself a caretaker of for just a while.”
Crane was right about something else as well. Chandler collected some of the finest examples of automotive makes and models, and more than a decade later, the values of those vehicles remain enhanced by his provenance.
Looking through the auction catalog, I was struck by its commentary that, “Otis bucked popular trends, favoring opportunities to acquire automobiles and motorcycles that excited him. He had a unique sense of aesthetics and a genuine fascination with the history of his vehicles. His cars and bikes were always immaculately presented and carefully preserved.”
I recently talked with Larry Crane about his comments to the LA Times and he added that at one time, Chandler’s collection focused on racing cars and muscle cars and motorcycles, but at some point his wife, Bettina, asked why he didn’t have cars to show at Pebble Beach, a car show she said she’d actually enjoy attending.
“He began selling off his muscle cars and built a great collection of classics,” Crane said.
In 1973, Chandler’s 1939 Mercedes-Benz 540K won best of show at Pebble Beach. Twenty-seven years later, in 2000, his cars won an unprecedented best of class in three different classes at the world’s most important concours.
What, I wondered, might the 526-page book have to say about Chandler and his cars.
Fortunately, the book has a very thorough index. Not that I’m not interested in reading the entire book; Chandler’s life is the stuff of movies — offspring of wealthy families involved in newspaper and department store empires, daredevil as a youth and as an adult — with several brushes with death — track star at Stanford, nationally ranked weightlifter, married his college sweetheart on the 7th hole of the Pebble Beach golf course, started in the Times’ pressroom, learning the newspaper business from the ground up, and as publisher made the paper one of the best in the world.
But I also learned that to help meet newlywed living expenses after joining the Air Force, Chandler bought cars from those getting ready to deploy overseas and then sold them at a profit.
While at Stanford, he’d seen Gary Cooper’s 1931 Duesenberg in a used-car lot. Chandler couldn’t afford the $500 asking price at the time, but later he paid $35,000 for the car, McDougal reports.
Before their divorce, Chandler reported told his wife, “Honey, I can always get another wife, but I can’t get another Duesenberg.”
Chandler also bought a Porsche 917K, one of the world’s fastest racing cars, and even gathered his family around it for their 1977 Christmas card photo.
“Much of Otis’s personal fortune was wrapped up in cars,’ McDougal writes, noting that Chandler sold off many of his cars as part of a divorce settlement in 1981. But after remarrying, Chandler rebuilt his collection, much of which he housed in his Vintage Museum of Transportation and Wildlife in Oxnard, California (the building currently houses the Mullin Automotive Museum).
Like so many car collectors, Chandler liked the chase. As McDougal writes: “Otis liked to brag that, although other people played the stock market, he preferred the one-of-a-kind automobile market, buying and selling like a Kentucky thoroughbred dealer.”