2 June 2006

The Racer, The Seller, The Restorer

Three tales from the Monterey Historics and Pebble Beach weekend.

Joe Freeman came for the fun of challenging himself behind the wheel of his gorgeous blue 1938 Sparks-Thorne Indy car at the Monterey Historics Races. Bruce and Juana Wagner said a tearful goodbye at the RM Auction to a treasured family member, a Mosport Green 1966 Corvette convertible they had owned for 16 years. Restorer Mark Lizewskie unveiled his heart and thousands of hours of sweat equity at the Pebble Beach Concours d’Elegance in the form of a newly restored garnet red 1948 Delahaye 135M owned by Pennsylvania coal and gas industrialist John W. Rich Sr.

The annual Monterey Historics/Pebble Beach Concours d’Elegance weekend in August is full of stories like these – people buying, selling, racing and restoring. Each episode provides its own emotional theater, yet collectively they give us insight into the pulse of the hobby and valuable lessons for those who wish to participate.

If there is a prevailing theme to intelligent decision-making in this arena, it’s do your homework. Understanding the true value of what you seek or own is a crucial component of intelligent decision-making. Obtain multiple sources of original information.

Virtually every story at Monterey is about the love of automobiles and the desire to have fun driving them. That certainly reflects the motivation of Boston’s Joe Freeman. His Sparks-Thorne Indy car set the lap record at Indy and took second place in 1939.

Freeman has 23 years of experience in vintage cars. His best advice is to “know your limits” as well as the capabilities of your car. “I took the car to Lime Rock last year, and the Sparks is a big, fast car that thrives on left-hand bends like Indianapolis. I was very glad to get out of there without a bent car and without a stupid mistake.”

How does one get a start in vintage racing? Freeman suggests going to a driver’s school and joining a vintage racing organization. If your goal is to demonstrate your speed and talent as a driver, try your luck in the Sports Car Club of America club ranks.

“Vintage racing is not really racing,” says Freeman. “The cars are the stars, not the people. Monterey Historics organizer Steve Earle always looks around the room when he gives the drivers’ meeting before this event and says ‘no one wants to look at you any more, you’re not important; the car is, and just remember that’.”

Freeman finished 7th in Group 1A for Pre- 1940 Sports, Touring & Racing cars.

Goodbye old friend

While the RM Auction staging area behind the Portola Plaza Hotel in Monterey is a fantasyland of dazzling automobiles, the 1966 small-block convertible Corvette of approximately 360 hp owned by Bruce and Juana Wagner appeared almost understated amid the Duesenbergs, Packards and Ferraris. Yet upon closer inspection, their Mosport Green Sting Ray was positively striking. Wagner commissioned two well-respected individuals in the Corvette world to complete a two-year, full body-off restoration. The car then won almost every award possible on the West Coast but had never been shown at major national Corvette venues such as Bloomington Gold or Carlisle.

Wagner had done his homework. He was aware of the national award-winning potential of the car, and even though it had a small block, he knew it could bring in six figures.

Bruce and Juana own other classic cars, including a 1966 Austin-Healey and a 1961 Olds. The Healey, which had been crashed in a Mexican rally back in 1989, would be his next project – if he could sell the Corvette.

“It’s time,” he says. “It was a difficult decision for us. I couldn’t help tearing up at the thought. I’ll always remember this car like a really nice old friend.”

Inside the auction, the bidding took off with the price quickly jumping to $50,000. Minutes later, it was at $90,000. When it was finally over, the winning bid hit $110,000 – an RM record for a small-block second-generation Corvette.

“I’m happy it went as well as it did,” says Bruce. “But I’m sad too. For some people, letting an automobile go is no big thing, but they don’t understand. It becomes a personal extension. You put so much into it – just as you would in a home, garden, or hopefully, a marriage.

A doozy of a Delahaye

At dawn on Sunday morning amid the morning mist at Pebble Beach, Mark Lizewskie pulled the cover off a stunning garnet red 1948 Delahaye 135M with bodywork by master Parisian coach builders Figoni & Falaschi.

“This is a very special car for us because it’s really the first Pebble Beach car that we’ve restored in-house for the collection,” says Lizewskie. The Delahaye was in drivable condition when Rich acquired it in June 2000. “We drove it around for a year just to enjoy it,” says Lizewskie.

“Pretty much everything had to be rebuilt on this car. The steel had to be taken off, wood had to be remade for the body frame, the bumpers were rotted out – we had to make new ones. When we stripped the front fenders, we found an inch of bondo, and then we found holes where the missing trim had been.”

Lizewskie offers the following advice for the newcomer: “Before you jump into something and just start tearing it apart, step back from the car, enjoy it, learn what’s wrong with it. If you’re out for a concours-style restoration, talk to a lot of experts in the field. You’ll definitely want to join a club of the marque and go from there. For most people, you need to set a budget. Keep a diary and a logbook. Photograph everything from three different angles before you even touch the car.”

Lizewskie and Rich’s diligence paid off. They were delighted to finish a fine 2nd in the E2 Post War Delahaye class behind a gorgeous blue 1949 Type 175 with Saoutchik body.
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To see this article in its original format, view the pdf version of the Summer 2006 issue of Hagerty magazine.

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