Collecting concept cars requires a fortitude all its own, but the rewards are rich – and not always financial
Concept cars represent the most rarefied air in car collecting. Designed as turntable eye candy under the direction of people like GM’s Harley Earl, Chrysler’s Virgil Exner and Italy’s Nuccio Bertone, these creations helped establish the design vocabulary of the years to come — wraparound windshields, tailfins, sweepspears and bat wings.
But as collectible automobiles, concept cars are largely orphans, often without documentation and, more important, without parts. Their rarity and the degree of difficulty in terms of finding, obtaining, operating and restoring them have meant that very few collectors have ventured near one.
But there are a few who have gone where others fear to tread. Meet Joe Bortz, Gordon Apker and Gary Kaberle.
Bortz is the king of the concepts. He has owned more than 25 American dream cars, including the ’53 Buick Wildcat I, ’54 Pontiac Bonneville Special, ’55 Chrysler Ghia Falcon, ’55 Chevrolet Biscayne, ’57 Chrysler Ghia Diablo, ’64 Pontiac Banshee and most recently the GM ’55 LaSalle II Roadster and Coupe.
The Chicago-area former pharmaceutical company owner and restaurateur didn’t necessarily set out to collect concept cars, but after stumbling across the ’54 Pontiac Bonneville Special and then the 1960 Pontiac X-400, the die was cast.
In the case of Bortz’s ’54 Bonneville Special, the car had been on display for 25 years in the Detroit Historical Museum. When a new curator took the car off the floor, the owner who loaned the car to the museum was so incensed he decided to sell it. “Everyone thought the car would never be for sale,” Bortz says. “Well, he told a friend who told another friend and word eventually passed to me. So I bought the car.”
It is completely original, other than the rebuilding of the carburetors, which had to be painted to match the originals. “Half the air in the tires is from 1954,” Bortz says.
“I’d like to be able to tell you that I am some type of genius, that I found the cars and had a plan already laid out before my eyes,” Bortz says. “What happened was that I found pieces of history and I didn’t want them to be lost.”
Bortz, who has won visionary awards from both Pebble Beach and GM, credits research, visibility, persistence and patience as key attributes for collecting concept cars. He likens the process to archeologists exploring Egyptian tombs. “Let’s say you run across a vase and it’s in pieces and you don’t know what to do with it,” Bortz says. “So you put it in a bag and put it on the shelf and let it sit for a few years. Then someone comes along with a sketch for the vase and you see what you have to do to put it together.”
That’s pretty much what happened with his two LaSalles. After picking up the pieces of the GM LaSalle Roadster in 1988 from the Warhoops salvage yard in Sterling Heights, Michigan, Bortz says, “We were on our hands and knees scraping through the soil when we found the glove box door.”
On that same trip, Bortz acquired the hulk of the Chevy Biscayne, LaSalle Sedan and a 1956 Cadillac Town Car. He trucked them to his garage near Chicago and they sat for years before he knew what to do with them.
One of Bortz’s strategies was to stay visible and on good terms with key people inside the auto companies, such as Dave Holls at GM. “The way I became so popular at GM was that I was saving their history at my expense,” Bortz says. “The Biscayne, for example, didn’t have a chassis, but one day I got a call from Larry Fallon at GM saying they found photographs of the chassis.”
Likewise, Bortz got a call sometime later from Fallon with news of a recently discovered microfiche file of the LaSalle dashboard, which provided perfect reference photos for the fabricators.
Bortz completed the restoration last year and showed it at the Concours d’Elegance of America at Meadow Brook Hall in July 2010. He is currently working on the LaSalle Roadster and Sedan.
Bortz also collects custom cars and motorcycles in addition to concept cars. He likes to boil down the appeal of collecting — whether it’s bottle caps, beer cans, barbed wire or concept cars — to five simple words: “I have it, you don’t.”
Gordon Apker of Seattle is the former owner of the Olds F-88 concept car that stunned the world at Barrett-Jackson in 2005, selling for a then-unheard-of $3.4 million. Apker did not do the original restoration, but was faced with repairing the car after it was damaged in transit. Through a network of contacts, Apker was able to obtain some priceless drawings of the F-88 as well as many other materials, including a set of brass hubcaps that substantially increased the value of the car, despite a somewhat controversial history. The car now resides at the Gateway Auto Museum in Gateway, Colorado, as part of the collection of John Hendricks, founder of the Discovery Channel.
Apker also bought and restored the Ghia bodied Chrysler D’Elegance, which turned out to be a much simpler project. “The previous owner had butchered it up with a Chrysler 440 V-8 and a console,” Apker says, “but fortunately, he kept all the original parts.
“Chrysler took a different approach to their concept cars,” Apker adds. “They either gave them away or turned them over to a dealer to sell.”
For those pondering a purchase, Apker offers a reminder: “Buy them because you enjoy them and want to look at them, not because you want to drive them. These cars are largely styling exercises, not great road cars.”
Dr. Gary Kaberle of Traverse City, Michigan, known affectionately as “BATMAN” in Alfa circles, actually came across the famed Alfa Romeo BAT 9 in a used car lot in Greenville, Michigan. “It was 1963 and I was 17 and selling popcorn to make money. Somehow I scraped up the cash to buy the car, which had 12,000 miles on it.”
Because the BAT 9 was based on the Alfa 1900 chassis, basic parts were at least accessible. “Everything was original,” Kaberle says. “I did little cosmetic things like dye the carpet and polish the leather, but nothing was in bad shape and I never had much trouble getting it running.
“Driving it was like driving a sculpture. I attracted so much attention that each gas stop was a half hour. It made me feel special as a kid. I loved it.”
Owning a concept car like BAT 9 opened up a whole new world for Kaberle. Over time, he became well known within Alfa circles and made frequent trips to Italy. He held onto the BAT 9 until 1989, when he had to sell the car to finance his wife’s cancer surgery. The car is currently in the Blackhawk Museum in California.
For Kaberle, the rich connections he established in owning the BAT 9 led him to commission his own BAT car. The BAT 11 was shown at the Geneva Auto Show in 2008 to rave reviews. While the original BAT 11 was a mock-up, Kaberle hopes to build a limited number of production cars, perhaps with a hybrid powertrain, and use part of the proceeds to finance breast cancer research.
For Kaberle, as well as Bortz and Apker, owning a concept car was a life-changer. If you enjoy the limelight you can certainly bask in it, and a dream car in your collection is almost a sure invitation to a concours d’elegance. Says Bortz: “When you achieve the recognition of your peers at places like Pebble Beach or Meadow Brook, you experience moments you live for all your life.”
To see this article in its original format, view the pdf version of the Fall 2011 issue of Hagerty magazine