1 August 2013

The One That Got Away

Every one of us has fallen for a car that we wanted almost as much as life itself. And as often as not, we couldn’t raise the money, it was sold before we could pull the trigger or something else stood in the way. For all of us, “the one that got away” is a universal theme, and there’s usually a pretty good story to go with it.

When Bad News Is Good News

When life-long British car enthusiast Will Orville answered an ad for a Jaguar C-Type in the Washington Post way back in 1968, he had no idea it would change his life forever. Recently married, still in the Navy and making about $2,500 a year, he wasn’t really in a position to buy another car, but a modestly priced C-Type was too attractive to ignore. When he and wife Martha arrived at a farm near Herndon, Virginia, says Orville, “The car turned out to be a Lola Mk I.” Orville knew little about the British sports racer, but he figured for $600 he could have a really cool sports car that he could fit with a full windshield and use to commute from Maryland to Washington. Martha made it clear that they couldn’t possibly afford the Lola, and if they could, it would be downright crazy to drive in Washington rush hour traffic in a tiny and flimsy sports racer.

Within two years, Will was able to show Martha that another Lola Mk I had sold for $6,000. A few more years and it had again increased by a factor of 10. Martha never made that mistake again and the Orvilles have since had hundreds of sports cars — sometimes selling daily drivers or using home equity to buy them. And in virtually every case, Orville has sold the car for a substantial profit. He’s even managed to trade his way up to a significant collection. He also knows that if Martha hadn't said "no" 45 years ago, he never would have earned her trust to buy some of the deals that have come his way.

Muscle Car Miscue

In 1994, the restorer working on his ’62 Chevrolet Bel Air bubble top 409 asked Mike Guarise if he was interested in a “project Camaro.” Guarise took a quick look and decided that since it was “just a Camaro and needed a complete restoration,” he’d pass, to avoid having two cars under restoration at once. A few months later, he caught wind of a Nickey Camaro that had been sold out of his area and made a play for it. Much to his chagrin, it was the same car he’d seen at the restoration shop. Had he only asked more questions or looked at the other side he would have seen the original Nickey badge. By the time Guarise called, it had been sold for double the original price. A few years later, the restored car was offered through Hemmings Motor News, by which time the price had soared. Mike tried to put a deal together, but it fell through. His fourth shot at the car came at a Mecum auction in the Chicago area. Mike recalls that “the car was stunning and definitely the star of the show. I set my maximum bid price, went beyond that several times but ended up being the underbidder. To add insult to injury, I quickly discovered that the new owner was my good friend Colin Comer, a well-known collector car dealer.”

After he had “licked his wounds,” he called Comer and opened a dialogue. The car was already consigned to Barrett-Jackson in Scottsdale. Guarise followed the auction closely, and as he recalls, “I was elated when the car did not reach Colin's reserve and hoped there would be no post-auction deals. Fortunately, the car returned to the Midwest, I got together with Colin, we struck a deal sitting in my garage and the car was finally mine.” And it only took the determined collector six years.

The Conservative Approach

When life-long collector Roger Morrison was married in the mid-1960s, he was driving “a 1963 Studebaker Avanti Dad bought new when I was in college.” Seeking more power, he sold the Avanti and bought a 1967 427/390 Corvette coupe, which he kept for a few years and then sold. In 1975, though, Morrison decided to try and buy back the Goodwood Green big-block. But then he got to thinking: “If I’m going to pay $4,000 to $5,000 for that old car, I’ll get something really cool.” Looking through a newsletter from Ferrari dealer Kirk White, Morrison remembered: “He had a Ferrari 250 GT SWB for $8,000 and several 250 GTOs for $9,000 to $11,000.”

But that’s when reason entered the equation. Morrison figured, “It’s hot in Kansas and I’m not a great mechanic,” so in October 1975, he opted for a one- owner, 10-month-old DeTomaso Pantera for $9,000. Ironically, Morrison considered his move ultra conservative. “It was a defensive move, because I could get it serviced in Salina (Kansas) and it had air conditioning.” These days, had he bought the GTO, Morrison wonders at what point he would have sold it. He questions whether it would have been at $100,000 or at $1 million. He can’t imagine he would have held it until it reached the dizzying heights of today’s market. Looking back, though, when it came to his decision not to buy a GTO, he thinks of it as having gone “to the edge of the 10-foot diving board only to crawl back down the ladder.”

Dad's Lasting Lesson

As an Indiana University undergrad, Rick Lambert pedaled past a garage in Bloomington, Indiana, one day in 1947. He stopped dead as he recognized the tail of a Duesenberg Model J Murphy convertible coupe poking out of a service bay. The Duesenberg was owned by a California artist who had let his upper classman son drive it east for college. The young man had abandoned the car, owing a $500 repair bill, and returned to California. The garage owner held a mechanic’s lien and young Rick tried everything he knew to raise the $500. When he fell far short, a plea to his father elicited the reply: “If I had the money, I wouldn’t give it to you to buy that car.” Then one day the Duesenberg was gone, sold for the outstanding bill. For years, Rick Lambert tracked that Duesenberg as the price steadily rose, and he gave up when it topped $50,000. As Rick’s son, Mark, commented, “The closest he ever came to a Duesenberg was the Floyd Clymer Model J manual he’d bought in 1951.”

Rick Lambert pined for that Duesenberg, and his stories of “the one that got away” made a real impact on Mark, who today runs a Nashville, Tennessee, restoration shop specializing in collector vehicles. The lesson was that if you really want a car, you need to find a way to make it happen. But like all sons, just hearing it from Dad wasn’t good enough. In the 1970s, Mark, who was driving a Healey 3000 at the time, found a terrific Austin-Healey 100M. “I knew it was special,” he says. The owner wanted $2,000, “which was about $1,000 more than a beat-up Healey 3000. I kept arguing and was up to $1,500 when he finally sold it to someone else.” After that disappointment, it took Mark 15 years to find a Healey 100 BN2. “It was very nice but without engine or hood, for about $2,500, and I jumped on it. A few months later a guy told me about a nearby machine shop with a 100/4 engine and transmission.” Surprisingly, says Mark, "They were from my car and included the hood." Despite his dickering, he had to pay the $3,500 that the prior owner had stiffed the shop “for a really lousy rebuild.”

In the end, Lambert paid $6,000 for a restoration project, when $2,000 would have secured a great car some years earlier. Now he’s learned his lesson: “When you really know it’s right, just pay the price.”

Sometimes the price is more cash, or trading a car you wanted to keep, while sometimes the price you don’t pay ends up costing you more in the end. It’s a great feeling to have the car you wanted and to have no regrets, but the upside to car regrets is that they make great stories. And we all have sad or exciting tales of the adventures we’ve had in pursuit of the cars we thought we’d never be able to live without. In the end, we all survived fine, though our garages and our hearts were a little emptier than we would have liked.

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