Honest John: John Delamater

Joe Vaughn

To call an old Ferrari or a classic Duesenberg a "no-stories car" is to confer on it the astute collector's highest compliment. Unless, that is, you're John Delamater, the legendary salesman described by one of his colleagues as "an absolute magician."

During the past sixty years, working out of a three-bedroom apartment in Carmel, Indiana, Delamater has personally sold or brokered the sale of everything from a Bugatti Type 57 to a BMW 507, a Cunningham C-3 to a Birdcage Maserati, not to mention hundreds of jaw-dropping Ferraris. And you know what? Every one of his cars came with a story.

Here's Delamater on how he ended up with his first Ferrari: "I'd bought a Kurtis - a correct two-man sports car, deep maroon with a tan interior - from an older fellow who owned a trucking company here in town. He'd done a lot of tasteful things to the car - leather seats, just like in the Indianapolis cars; leather roll pad; a headrest on the roll bar; Stewart Warner instruments in a black Lucite dash. I bought it on a whim. This would have been back in 1959.

"But when I was driving through Louisville, I saw a Facel Vega at the Hudson franchise. That Hudson dealer was fascinated with the Kurtis, so I traded him for the Facel Vega and $300. The Facel Vega had been a show car owned by Max Hoffman, the importer. It had a hot Chrysler Hemi in it, and it was a fine car, except that the power steering kept acting up.

"So I ended up trading it for a Ferrari 250 Mille Miglia, and I mean a real one, owned by a young boy down in Beckley, West Virginia - a most unlikely place to find a 250 Mille Miglia. He'd gotten it from Rich Lyeth out of Detroit, whose people had designed a limited-slip rear differential and sold the patent to General Motors. It was a 3.0-liter with a Vignale body and three four-barrels. It was probably the fastest car I ever owned. I sure wish I owned it today."

Now eighty-four and semiretired, Delamater has trimmed his fleet to a late-model Cadillac DeVille and two 1970 Caddy land yachts. He still sells a car now and then - a fiberglass 308, a one-off Dino with a four-valve head from a Lancia Stratos, a lovely Porsche 356 Speedster. In the living room of his apartment in suburban Indianapolis, he keeps an issue of Sports Car Market, the bible of the collector-car industry, and a Kelley Blue Book (plus a Mitch Miller sing-along LP). But he doesn't have much use for the way the business is conducted these days, with its price guides and self-appointed experts and ubiquitous auctions. Delamater preferred the personal touch, and in his heyday, nobody did it better than honest John.

"He knew everybody, and he knew where the cars were," says John Clinard, who's bought seven cars from Delamater, including a one-of-a-kind Pininfarina-bodied Ferrari 250 cabriolet. "Back in the days before there was a large body of knowledge about Ferraris, John was a consummate authority, because he'd had a lot of personal, behind-the-wheel experience with those cars, and when he said something, you could count on it. Norman Silver [the late Ferrari collector] told me, `He's the best man in the business, the only person I'll buy a car from over the phone.' "

Kirk F. White, who bought his first Ferrari from Delamater and went on to become one of the premier collector-car dealers in the country, is another member of the Delamater fan club. "He's the most remarkable salesman I've ever come across," says White. "He came up with the most amazing automobiles, and he had a tremendous ability to paint a verbal picture of them. About halfway through his spiels, I always wanted him to stop so I could say, `OK.' I can't think of a single car of his that I ever said no to, and I never lost a penny on anything I bought from or with him."

Like any great salesman, Delamater prefers to talk about his products rather than himself, so it's difficult to know what sparked his interest in classic cars. But one of his first acts after returning to Indiana after a stint in the Navy during World War II was to buy a 1941 Chevrolet Master Deluxe two-door sedan. During the next five years, he went through no fewer than twenty-three cars, among them a V-16-powered Cadillac he picked up for $650. Mind you, he was still working a day job as an industrial salesman. He didn't start selling cars full time until 1969.

Delamater was inducted into the Ferrari brotherhood in 1956, when he stumbled across an untitled, ex-Masten Gregory 4.1-liter racing car that had been wrecked by a joy-riding mechanic and rebodied in flimsy 18-gauge (.040-inch) aluminum. In short order, he saw it, drove it, and brokered it to a trust-fund Floridian. Aside from the occasional classic or Cobra or Shelby Mustang, he never again dealt seriously in American iron.

By 1961, Delamater owned a trio of Ferraris - a 166 Mille Miglia Vignale coupe, a 166 Touring coupe, and the aforementioned 250 Mille Miglia spyder. So it was only natural that he should be one of the founders of the Ferrari Club of America, and in an era before published registries and detailed chassis histories, he emerged as one of the arbiters of what Ferraris ought to be. "What a walking book of knowledge he is," says Ed Dalton, owner of Classic Car Carrier, which transports collector cars to shows all over the country. "It's amazing to watch him walk up to a car and stare at it for a bit and then say, `This is not quite right.' "

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