2 March 2008

Classic Cussler

The noted adventure author crafts today's best sellers but loves the classics.

Clive Cussler lives for the hunt. He loves chasing down shipwrecks, lost aircraft, gold mines, historical myths and anomalies, great story lines and, oh yes, magnificent old cars.

Prolific? You be the judge. He has written 26 books, founded the National Underwater and Marine Agency (NUMA) – a nonprofit, volunteer foundation dedicated to preserving our maritime heritage through the discovery, archaeological survey and conservation of shipwreck artifacts – and even picked up an honorary doctorate from The State University of New York Maritime College along the way.

The fruits of his labors are as numerous as the marques in his garage, which include Bentley, Bugatti, Talbot Lago, Isotta Fraschini, Duesenberg, Cadillac, Hispano Suiza, Rolls-Royce, Packard, Voisin, Stutz, Cord, Pierce-Arrow, Allard, Marmon, Studebaker and Buick, among others. More than 70 of his collector vehicles are housed at the Cussler Museum in Arvada, Colorado, which we had the opportunity to visit in November – even receiving a personal tour from the man himself.

Cussler, who looks the part of an author with his shock of white hair, ocean blue eyes and deep character lines, is not only one of the more prolific adventure writers on the scene today, but is a man who has elevated his cars to supporting roles in many of his books to date.

He is best known for his Dirk Pitt adventures, such as Deep Six, Black Wind, Sahara and Raise the Titanic. (The latter two were made into feature films.) He wrote Black Wind and Treasure of Khan with his son, Dirk, while co-writing other fiction and nonfiction works with several other authors.

For many of his works, the formula involves a “what if ” alternate take on history or myth, with often-dire consequences. For Cussler, it adds up to multiple best sellers and the chance to realize his automotive fantasies.

Blown away by town cars

His vehicle collection is managed by his daughter Teri and housed in an industrial park just west of Denver. After introducing us to Teri, Dirk and his other daughter, Dayna, Cussler proceeds to walk us through an impressive array of classic town cars, boat-tailed speedsters, European grand touring machines and finned ’50s convertibles.

Town cars, however, are nearest to Cussler’s heart. “Just about everybody has an instance in their life where they are touched by a car,” he says, “Like the guy in high school who dreams about owning a ’57 Chevy Bel Air convertible and then at 45 or 50, rushes out and pays $80,000 for one. When I was about 5 years old I was sitting on the curb in Alhambra, California, and this car went by and I was just agog because everybody had a Chevy or a Ford – but here was a town car with the chauffeur sitting out front in uniform. I was blown away by that.”

The impact of that moment can be seen today, as you stroll down the aisles of his collection. It is an exercise in sensory overload. One room holds a 1929 Duesenberg Model J-140, a 1932 Stutz town car, a 1929 Packard runabout 640, a 1933 Lincoln KB12, a 1929 Isotta Fraschini, a 1948 Talbot Lago coupe, a 1938 Bugatti Type 57, a 1936 Pierce Arrow V-12 Berline with matching trailer and a 1906 Stanley Steamer.

Cussler pauses in front of a gorgeous ’48 Packard Custom Convertible he acquired from a Denver man whose dad bought it new – or almost. It seems the man’s father wanted a black Custom Convertible and couldn’t find one at a particular dealership.

“As he’s walking out the door,” says Cussler, “the dealership people tell him that they do have one. So they take him down in the basement and here’s this Packard all covered up. The salesman says, ‘The car has been used, it’s three months old and it belonged to a notorious hooker who was murdered in the car.’ The man says, ‘I don’t give a damn, I want a black Packard,’ and he drove out of there with it.”

Although the first car that really captured Cussler’s imagination was that town car, his first car was a hot rod he bought while still in high school. He followed that with an old Auburn limousine. While Cussler cycled through a number of cars during these years, he wasn’t in a position to maintain a collection – although he still sought interesting cars.

After serving in the Air Force during the Korean War in a non-flying capacity, Cussler co-owned a gas station in Southern California and bought a new Jaguar XK-120. He drag-raced it and used it to impress the girls, only to later trade it for a Nash Rambler station wagon, which allowed him to pay off some bills.

The collecting bug didn’t bite Cussler until several years later when he worked in advertising, initially as a copywriter and then working his way up to creative director on several national accounts. He started writing novels in 1965, using his spare time on evenings and weekends. His first Dirk Pitt novel was published in 1973.

Feeding the fire

He bought the first car of his current collection in the 1970s after he published several books. “My wife and I were driving through the countryside and she says, ‘There’s a ’46 Ford club coupe just like the one you had in high school.’ I turned around and sure enough, it was for sale. I gave the guy $600, and my son and I stored it out on the street.”

But it wasn’t until 1977, after he hit it big with Raise the Titanic, that he truly arrived as a collector.

“I was driving in Buena Park, California, and I saw all these old cars and it was an auction – and I had never been to an auction before. I didn’t sign up or anything, and this Hispano Suiza came up. I walked by and the bidding was up to $35,000. I didn’t know anything about it, but I thought that was cheap for that car since it was so beautifully restored. So I stood there and it went up to $40,000 and eventually $50,000. When the auctioneer said ‘Sold,’ I stood there and thought, ‘My God, what have I done?’ I’ve never written a check for more than $500 in my entire life. And then it hit me – I can afford it.”

Cussler never dreamt he would be so successful as a novelist. “Back when I started writing, my wife told me, ‘Don’t get your hopes up; nothing will ever come of it.’” But success allowed Cussler to keep adding to his collection and, in turn, work his cars into cameo roles in his novels.

But because Dirk Pitt is really just an alter ego (the real Dirk, Cussler’s son, was only 3 years old when the character was invented), the cars Pitt drives in the novels are the same cars that Cussler has acquired as a collector.

But how does he decide which car to put in which novel? “Just whimsy,” Cussler says. “My son, who is taking over most of the writing, has put my Rolls-Royce Silver Ghost in one and is putting the ’31 Auburn Speedster into the new one he is working on.”

Cussler also enjoys working himself into cameos in his novels. “It first happened in Dragon when Pitt drove the Stutz. He was at a concours and he walked over to the guy who had this car next to him and says, ‘Hello, my name is Dirk Pitt.’ And I’m typing away and the next thing I know the other guy says, ‘Hello, I’m Clive Cussler.’ And I thought, ‘Why did I do that? Oh well, I’ll leave it in for laughs.’ I got  600 letters about it because authors never put themselves into their stories. So, of course, I had to keep doing it. And now readers pick up each book and wonder where I’ll show up.”

Loving those big chrome barges

Walking into his room of long, low and wide ’50s American cars, Cussler explains why he collects them in addition to his classics. “I always loved the big ’50s, the big engines, the big chrome barges and all that. It’s strange, I would sit in an auction and I’d maybe buy a classic and then I’d buy a Chrysler 300 or something. I wish I could explain the way I operate, but I can’t.”

His ’50s collection runs the gamut from a gargantuan ’58 Buick Limited convertible with continental kit to a gorgeous ’51 Hudson convertible, a ’57 Chrysler 300C hardtop, a ’58 300D convertible, a ’58 Cadillac Eldorado convertible, a ’53 Packard Caribbean and even a rare Mercury Monterey Woody wagon. Many other marques are represented, however, including Imperial, Studebaker, Pontiac and Oldsmobile.

Like many serious collectors, Cussler is often  obsessed with the ones that got away. “I’d love to have a Tucker,” he says. “And I can remember years ago at the Kruse auction in Scottsdale, Arizona, when a Tucker came across. It was up to $35,000 and then my partner, Bob, said, ‘Why didn’t you buy that?’ And I said, ‘That’s too much to pay for a Tucker.’ And then I see one just went for $700,000. I screwed up.”

Cussler makes it clear that he doesn’t buy cars for investment purposes and rarely sells any cars. The exception was a recent sale to RM Auctions of a Renault formerly owned by F. Scott Fitzgerald, as well as a 4.5-liter Bentley and a ’53 Buick Skylark. As for his shopping list, he’s now looking for a Packard Darrin and a Stutz Super Bearcat.

Cussler isn’t visible in the collector car community, although he occasionally drives his cars on semiannual visits to Colorado. (His primary home is in Scottsdale.) And he rarely shows his cars in major events, although he has brought cars to Pebble Beach and one of his Isottas won Best of Show at Amelia Island in 2006. “I won’t do a 100-point car,” he says. “I used to always get into arguments with my friend Otis Chandler. He always told me I painted my cars in too wild of colors. I told him I don’t care.

“I’ve never been big on rallies, either. I don’t know why. I’m lazy, I guess. Another thing is that I look for shipwrecks, so when I’m not writing, that takes a lot of time,” he adds.

Cussler may have more opportunities to enjoy his cars in the future, as he plans to scale back his writing. “After 40 years, I’m burned out,” he says. “I’ve worked with my son and the other guys and I’ll edit and rewrite but I’m just not into it anymore.”

Underwater treasures

Cussler maintains his interest in shipwrecks, forged back when he was in the service over in the Pacific in the early 1950s.

His most significant find might have been the Civil War submarine the Hunley, but he’s also proud of discovering the Carpathia, the ship that picked up the Titanic survivors only to be torpedoed by a German submarine in July 1918.

His underwater holy grail is the John Paul Jones Revolutionary War ship the Bonhomme Richard. “I’ve always said that if it’s lost, I’ll look for it,” Cussler says. “It’s a great sense of achievement, even though when you find it that’s it and you move on to the next one. But I’ll always be a little footnote in history.”

What’s next for Cussler? Life goes on. His passion for cars hasn’t diminished, he’s still looking for shipwrecks, he’s got a children’s book in the works.

As for Dirk Pitt, he’s now in his 40s, but far from retirement. “That’s always been the laugh,” Cussler says. “When Pitt and I started out together, we were both 36. Now he’s 44 or 45 and I’m 76. It ain’t fair.”


Cars have played a supporting role in many of the Dirk Pitt adventures. Here’s a look at some of his most memorable costars:

Atlantis Found – 1936 Ford hot rod

Black Wind – 1958 Chrysler 300D Convertible

Cyclops – 1951 Daimler DE 31

Deep Six – 1948 Talbot Lago Grand Sport Coupe

Dragon – 1932 Stutz DV32 Town Car

Flood Tide – 1929 Duesenberg Model J-140

Inca Gold – 1936 Pierce Arrow V12 Berline and 1937 Pierce Arrow Travelodge Trailer

Sahara – 1936 Avions Voisin

Shockwave – 1952 Allard J2X Roadster

Treasure – 1930 Cord L-29

Treasure of Khan – 1921 Rolls-Royce Silver Ghost

Trojan Odyssey – 1931 Marmon V16 Town Car

Valhalla Rising – 1938 Packard V12 Town Car
To see this article in its original format, view the pdf version of the Spring 2008 issue of Hagerty magazine.

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