HomeCar CultureFires, floods again wreak havoc in the collector car community

Fires, floods again wreak havoc in the collector car community


Editor’s note: As each year draws to a close, the Journal polls its editors and correspondents to determine what we consider to be the top-10 stories from the collector car world during the past 12 months. Check out the other top stories here.

In early November came the news that the Woolsey Fire near Malibu, one of three blazes that were ravaging California with unimaginable losses of life and property, had destroyed yet another unique piece of automotive history, one of the most significant and imaginative of post-war custom cars.

Called the Norman Timbs Special, the swooping mid-engined roadster completed in 1948 was lost along with a collection of about 30 collector cars owned by well-known shop owner and classic car enthusiast Gary Cerveny when the blaze roared through his property and turned his sparkling assemblage of classic automobiles into a pile of burnt rubble.

The Norman Timbs Special was fully restored as a show car | Amelia Island Concours photo

Cerveny had resurrected the Timbs roadster after buying it in junkyard condition in 2002, and eight years later debuted the striking aluminum streamliner at the Amelia Island Concours d’Elegance in Florida.  Now, there was nothing remaining after the intense wildfire swept through.

The loss of Cerveny’s collection and the Timbs Special represented just a small portion of the thousands of collector cars lost during 2018 to the wildfires of California and the hurricanes and flooding that hammered Florida, Georgia and the Carolinas.

While the loss of thousands of collector cars might seem trivial compared with the monumental level of death and devastation caused by yet another year of widespread disasters, the destruction of treasured vehicles adds to the sadness of owners already grieving for the losses of their homes and communities.

Submerged cars during the Carolina flooding | Better Business Bureau

The storms that took place in the Southeast represented the third consecutive year of above-average hurricane activity and damage. They inundated 10s of thousands of vehicles, many of them cherished classics that were thrashed by the storms, crushed by collapsing structures or ruined from being submerged.

In Panama City, a streaming video showed the destruction of a commercial garage filled with classic cars, the entire side of the building torn open as Hurricane Michael made landfall as a Category 4 storm. Inside the wrecked structure could be seen what appears to be a 1950s Ford 100 pickup truck, along with a silver Austin Healey 3000 sports car, a classic Mini, a Porsche 911 and what could be a valuable Ford GT Heritage Edition just visible above the debris.

Along with the details of the hurricanes and flooding in the Southeast came the warning to consumers about unscrupulous people who clean up flood-damaged vehicles, including classics, and try to pass them off as normal used cars to unsuspecting buyers. Many are on the open market around the country, their electronic, mechanical and structural components ready to fall apart. Buyer beware!

Classic cars destroyed in the California wildfires | Skynews photo

While the hurricane damage was terrible, the destruction done by the wildfires was absolute, leaving almost nothing but ash and twisted metal in their wake.  The entire town of Paradise, California, was essentially razed, and many other neighborhoods lost street after street of homes, businesses and other structures.

The fires also arrived so swiftly, driven by high winds, that many people had no warning of their approach and had to flee for their lives, leaving everything behind to burn.  At least 85 people were killed in the Camp Fire, the most deadly and destructive wildfire in California history.

Among those things left behind by fleeing people were classic vehicles parked in garages and driveways.  The fires consumed an unknown number of vehicles, which have yet to be completely tallied; we’ve all seen the pictures of the areas devastated by the fires and the hulks of cars, trucks and SUVs completely consumed by the blazes.

Of the classic cars that are caught in the intense heat, there is generally nothing left to salvage.

Firefighters push a Shelby GT350 away from a burning home | AP photo/Ringo H.W. Chiu

Although, there were a few bright spots that came out of the misery.  Such as the 1966 Ford Mustang Shelby GT350 that was rescued by firefighters battling the Woolsey Fire.  A widely circulated photo shows the firefighters pushing the car away from a burning home and out of harm’s way.

And there was the odd instance of a 1915 Ford Model T parked on a trailer in Paradise when the Camp Fire roared through. When the smoke cleared, it was found to have somehow survived the scorching blaze virtually undamaged amid the devastated homes and woodland all around it.

Another collector car disaster on a smaller scale happened early this month when Country Classic Cars in Staunton, Illinois, was hit by a tornado that destroyed buildings and wrecked classic cars parked inside.  The worst part was that the owners had just completed rebuilding the business after it was destroyed by a fire last year. The owners vowed to be back in business again in no time.

As the new year begins, classic car owners need to be prepared for the worst – fires, floods, hurricanes, tornados, earthquakes, you name it – that can hit without warning.  Have an action plan ready for saving your treasured vehicles.  And if you’re in the market for a used or classic vehicle, watch out for the signs of flood damage.

Bob Golfen
Bob Golfen
Bob Golfen is a longtime automotive writer and editor, focusing on new vehicles, collector cars, car culture and the automotive lifestyle. He is the former automotive writer and editor for The Arizona Republic and, the website for the SPEED motorsports channel. He has written free-lance articles for a number of publications, including Autoweek, The New York Times and Barrett-Jackson auction catalogs. A collector car enthusiast with a wide range of knowledge about the old cars that we all love and desire, Bob enjoys tinkering with archaic machinery. His current obsession is a 1962 Porsche 356 Super coupe.


  1. Let me ask this….. When someone has a classic car collection worth millions, can he/she not get 30 or 40 “volunteers” to drive them to safety if let’s say he paid each of them $5000 to do so ? So, he pays out $200,000 to get them out of there in advance. But before he does it, notifies his insurance company of what he just is about to do.
    If the structure that housed those items is destroyed, the insurance company should pay him the “tiny” amount that the $200k represents. If the structure is spared and the movement of the vehicles was as it turned out, unnessessary, this Millionaire still has his collection without any damage other than 100 more miles on the odometer and peace of mind for his $200,000.
    Instead he lost the cars, the insurance lost millions and he lost his deductible which I bet is more than $200 grand.

    • My sentiments exactly "Bruvis" I would love to be able to afford one classic let alone 30 or 40!

      Some people just have more money than common sense!!!! I would have driven one to safety for just the sake of being able to drive a classic.

    • Paid "volunteers" you say? now does he the owner of the cars need to file 1040’s forms for the paid volunteers. Also, the volunteers drive the cars To were in a fire as california to be a safety zone.. Is now the "safehaven" to were there driven insured? And now they are liable under the homeowners policy? Also in conclussion, are the volunteers also insured while there trying to save the vehicles? Sounds like a lawyers "dream" situation to me. Insurance was designed to basically cover your minimum losses, not to retire on the losses. Thanks

      • Maybe they were insured for more then they were worth. With the market softened some vehicles are insured for more then they will sell for.

  2. Excellent article. Yes, it has been a very sad and destructive year for the antique car world. Sometimes, as we have seen with the California fires, there just is no time to prepare for anything of this magnitude. We in the antique car world, as well as ordinary people all feel so sad for the people who have gone through these events. As a professional antique vehicle appraiser, I know that there are quite a few people who are in the hobby as well as one’s who are just getting into it or are thinking about getting into the old car scene that have no real clue about what to look for to distinguish if a vehicle has had water damage. This would be a real good upcoming article to focus on, except for the one’s who are selling these flooded vehicles. The more information out there in "our world" makes buyers aware and helps to stop the crooks who prey on the uninformed. Just saying.


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