Honest John: John Delamater

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.’ “

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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