Honest John: John Delamater

Joe Vaughn

Delamater has always been an enthusiast first and foremost, and even today his passion for cars imbues him with energy that's remarkable for a man his age. Yes, he's frail, and his memory isn't as sharp as it used to be, but he seems to grow younger as he leafs through the scrapbooks in his living room, and each car elicits a seemingly endless supply of anecdotes, mechanical details, and purchase and sale prices.

Here's a photo of a 250 Coupe Speciale built for a Belgian princess ("I drove it up here from New Orleans"). Next comes Superfast I, the 1956 Paris auto-show car ("Everything about that car was scaled up, even the size of the prancing horse"). He waxes poetic about a 330 LM Berlinetta ("It was the same as a GTO with the exception of the cab, which was off a Lusso. I think they made four of them"). He reprises some 250 Monza lore ("It had three four-barrels; velocity stacks, of course; a transaxle-type rear end; and instead of two distributors, it had two magnetos. I got it out in Long Island for $2800. It sold at one of the Monterey auctions a few years ago for a million seven-hundred-five thousand").

He lingers over a basket-case Alfa Romeo 6C 1500, a rust bucket that he recognized as a diamond in the rough. "It was completely correct," he recalls. "It had never been painted. The dark red leather was original. The Pirelli tires were so petrified that I couldn't stick my knife into them. I got it from a doctor who'd been in Tunisia with the Army. He'd bought it from a Britisher who couldn't take the car home with him. So the doctor brought it back to southern Indiana in a crate, and it sat in his garage. I paid him $4200 or something like that. I shipped it to Kirk White, and he traded it to Luigi Chinetti. And you know what Luigi shipped him back? A brand-new Daytona!" That Daytona, coincidentally, was driven to victory in the first Cannonball race by Dan Gurney and Brock Yates.

It's hard to imagine now, when collector cars are treated like prized pieces of fine art, but there used to be a time when most collectors couldn't have cared less about Ferraris, and millions of Americans lived their entire lives without ever once seeing one on TV, much less in person. Ferraris were impractical and uncomfortable and relatively expensive, and the only people willing to put up with them were hard-core types who bought them as drivers, not as investments to be coddled in climate-controlled garages while values appreciated.

Since demand was scarce, the prices of used Ferraris were - by modern standards - ridiculously low. This was a double-edged sword for Delamater. Today, there's no way a middle-class working man could cruise around, as Delamater has, in Ferraris and Maseratis and Lamborghinis and Bizzarrinis and Intermeccanicas and Iso Grifos and Siatas and De Tomasos and Lancias and Alfas and Fiats, to name just the Italian marques he's bought and sold. But he had to hustle to earn enough money to support his wife, Mary, and send two kids to college.

"I based my sale price on what I paid for it, and I never sold a car for more than I would have paid to buy it back," he says. "If I purchased it for, say, $3500, and I could get $4200 or $4600 out of it, I thought that was good. Naturally, I had to sell a hell of a lot of cars. How long could you live on a $600 or $800 profit? But I was satisfied because I loved cars and I could make a little bit of money off of them."

Delamater was winding down his career just as Ferrari prices started skyrocketing. He made some big scores near the end, most notably with a 250 Tour de France and the Princess Liliana de Rethy coupe, but he missed out on the real bonanza. "If I'd been smart and kept some cars," he says, "I could have several million dollars today, which I don't, and I can't blame anybody but myself. But there's no use sitting around thinking of what might have been. I've got a little money saved up, and anyway, I liked the business better back then."

After this brief flurry of self-reflection, Delamater turns the page of his scrapbook and pauses over the photo of a prewar gem. "That's a little '34 Le Mans Aston Martin. Boy, that was a nice car - one-and-a-half liters with two little SU carburetors. I sold it to an attorney in Battle Creek, Michigan." Which reminds him of a Jaguar XK120 that competed in the Monte Carlo Rally, which leads to a Jaguar C-type that raced at Le Mans, which segues into a D-Jag that he could have bought, except he thought that the $6000 asking price was too high.

Delamater chuckles at the follies of youth and turns another page.

Gone But Not Forgotten

One of the secrets of Delamater's success was that he never allowed himself to get too emotionally attached to any of his cars. But here are ten sales he wishes he could unwind:

1. 1931 Cadillac V-16 Fleetwood All-weather Phaeton
2. 1952 Siata 200CS Roadster
3. 1953 Ferrari 250 Mille Miglia Vignale Spyder
4. 1953 Cunningham C-3 Coupe
5. 1954 Ferrari 250 Monza
6. 1956 Porsche 356 Speedster
7. 1956 Ferrari Superfast I
8. 1958 Ferrari 250 Pininfarina Cabriolet
9. 1965 Shelby Cobra 427 S/C
10. 1972 Ferrari Dino 246 Le Mans Racer

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