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Drive Classic Cars Across The Auction Block

Jessica WalkerphotographerRusty BlackwellwriterRonald AhrenswriterEvan Kleinphotographer

Editor's Note: This is the fourth of eight automotive fantasies from our November 2013 print issue. We'll be publishing the fantasies over the next few weeks on automobilemag.com. Look for the issue on newsstands now or download our iPad issue to read them all.

Buyer 9071 had just nabbed the 1930 Lincoln sport phaeton for $52,000 when I took it off the auction block. Stepping first on the starter button and on then the gas pedal, I gunned the 385-cubic-inch V-8 vigorously to life. A steward's golf cart led me through the Marriott's sun-spangled parking lot. Gaining speed on a straight section, I stroked the lever forward out of first gear, to the right through neutral, and ahead into -- Graunch! Clatter-clatter! -- unsynchronized oblivion. Maybe I shouldn't have used Mr. 9071's collectible to practice the black art of double-clutching.

I was one of fifteen drivers working Auctions America's first sale in Burbank, California, an attempt to establish the subsidiary of RM Auctions in the Los Angeles market and, in the words of the company's Ian Kelleher, "create a destination for seasoned and new collectors." (RM purchased the Auburn, Indiana, auction park from the remains of Kruse in 2010.) Many of the lots being offered came from the Petersen Automotive Museum's controversial sell-off of about a quarter of its collection, which had caused the Los Angeles Times to cry foul. The California attorney general didn't see it that way, and the other fourteen volunteer drivers, who were members of the local Road Kings car club, failed to mention where the goods had come from. My own motive for joining was also simple: to have a great time driving a random assortment of desirable cars. What a heyday! What an education! Until now, I had never piloted any car older than a 1940.

I spent much time idling in line outside the sales room, my '51 Australian Ford ute, '56 Austin-Healey 100-4 BN2, '69 Mercury Cougar convertible, and '74 Alfa Romeo 2000 GTV being pawed and prodded, opened wide and slammed shut, by bidders and blowhards. "Does it start?" Yep. "How are the brakes?" Fine. "Does it run?" It's running now. Their incursions began to feel personal. The '53 Chevy Bel Air convertible whose passenger door didn't properly latch attracted DIYers intent on slamming it a couple of times. I peevishly began to snap at anyone who even reached: "It doesn't close!"

Another part of the experience was figuring out -- sometimes with the seller's help and always with plenty of input from the peanut gallery -- how to start the engine, how to adapt to Chrysler's Fluid Drive semiautomatic transmission, and where to find the handbrake. Better get everything right: NBC Sports was doing live segments. I wouldn't want to vault the entrance ramp and sail into the chairs reserved for Jay's Garage.

My first car of the sale was a '62 Corvair coupe. I gripped its thin steering wheel and wagged the four-on-the-floor shifter from side-to-side. The engine throbbed with the same vitality as an episode of The Dick Van Dyke Show. One guy, phone to ear, leaned in the other window, saying, "It's a California car, no rust." The pen holder affixed to the dashboard yielded a ballpoint emblazoned with "Fred C. Emerson, W. 2nd St., Claremont, California." Finally, it was time to arrive onstage. As I shut off the engine and coasted to the podium, auctioneer Mike Shackelton was already blazing away at $2000, and the bidding progressed nicely. "What's he want to do? Thirty-five. Got it! Now thirty-seven!" After nearly three minutes of Shackelton's robust chant, the car went once, twice, and sold for $5200 (plus, like all others here, the extra ten percent commission), quite an achievement for anything this brown that isn't a handmade saddle or a fox stole. I exited with a sense of accomplishment.

Another high point came when I was faced with the choice between a '60 Fiat 1100 wagon or a '68 Excalibur phaeton. I'll take a nice, honest car every time. No one fondled or fancied the Fiat until William Mamone leaned in and remembered his boyhood in Verona, Italy. A neighbor had one like this. "He would fill the back with produce each morning," Mamone said. While the wagon was still redolent of Veronese rosemary and arugula, bidder 1644 bought it for an impressive $10,000.

The pace picked up on the second of my two driving days. Dean Eldridge, of Lake Stevens, Washington, discovered the previously mentioned '51 Ford ute as "kind of a rusty piece of junk" outside Adelaide, Australia. Over two and a half years he surfaced all the metal, painted the body Corvette black rose metallic, and dropped in a Chevy V-8. This was one of three lots he'd entered because of downsizing in advance of moving to Montana. "It hurts to let them go," Eldridge said. Especially when all his hard work brought just $23,000.

My new personal best for oldest-driven car was soon exceeded by a well-restored '28 Ford Model A that was as friendly as a beagle and had upholstery of about the same texture. I couldn't help thinking of Henry Ford's obstinacy in sticking with the Model T until '27, giving Chevrolet an opening in the market. This Model A ran with a sweet obliviousness, though. After the bidding concluded acceptably at $16,750, I enjoyed a bouncy ride out to the parking lot in my most historically significant car of the auction.

I could rhapsodize about the '53 Buick Super Estate Wagon and the '47 Chrysler Town & Country convertible that I climbed into later. Each was exquisite in its own way, but neither had anything to do with the massive adrenaline release that made it impossible to fall asleep at bedtime. This was owing to the 1930s Ford-derived, single-seat dirt car that Jerry Quam had brought from Santa Barbara. Quam figured it hadn't run in two decades until he got his hands on it last year, tuning and adjusting until the six-cylinder engine was well fed by the twin Stromberg 97s. Now he was selling because he said he really didn't have anything he could do with the car, which wasn't properly fitted for vintage racing.

I slid onto the seat, straddled the driveshaft, and slipped the three-speed transmission into neutral. With electric start, the engine came to life like a dragon. The high-lift cam made the six keen with urgency, and the car lunged at its star turn. The exuberance was manifest in its aversion to idling, so I tickled the weasel-trap accelerator pedal on the way in. Quam had asked me to rev up big time when I reached the stage. Maybe I should have revved higher: the hammer fell at just $18,500. But I went home feeling impossibly rich.

The Other Half

Or, I was a driver at RM's Monterey sale and lived to tell the tale.

Do you want the Dino?"

"Heck, yeah!"

I march toward a beautiful, Ferrari-built 1974 Dino 246GTS and lean down to talk to the guy in the driver's seat.

"I'm taking this one. Is the parking brake on?"

"Uh-huh," he says, motioning to the big lever between the seats. He climbs out as if he's the world's most laid-back carjacking victim.

But I am just the next person in line to drive a car across the block at RM Auctions' Monterey sale on the Friday before the Pebble Beach Concours d'Elegance. Minutes earlier, I'd steered a 1960 Porsche 356B Super roadster across the stage (a no-sale at $145,000) -- but not before I had frantically tried to locate the car's parking brake, an awkward twist handle hidden under the dashboard.

This time I'm prepared. Not only do I know how to release the parking brake, I know the tricky route onto the stage and back outside. The Dino's organic driving position is spectacular, and I don't feel confined like I did in the top-up, steering-wheel-in-my-lap Porsche. When Bob Wright -- who directs the stage traffic at roughly twenty of RM's big-time car auctions each year -- gives the go-ahead, I promptly steer the revvy little Italian through a loading door at the Portola Hotel & Spa, cruise slowly down part of a makeshift hallway, and arc the Dino toward the stage.

"Pull forward some more," Wright calls into the Dino the moment that I switch off the ignition and the car stops on the plastic-covered carpet of the Serra Grand Ballroom. An orange 2009 Spyker C8 -- being pushed back outside by four strong, young men wearing white gloves -- silently rushes down the hallway toward the Dino's left-rear corner. Wright and another guy quickly push the Dino out of the way, and they're not happy about it.

I quietly wait for the bidding to end on a 1961 Ferrari 400 Superamerica coupe. "Sold . . .  for two-point-five million dollars," auctioneer Max Girardo bellows as he strikes his gavel. Cue the curtains to open, a group of gloved pushers to scamper onto the stage, and the next car to proceed. The Dino fires immediately -- a big relief -- and is easy to drive up the small ramp to the stage while the pushers roll the Superamerica through another set of curtains at stage left. The darkness of the holding area gives way to the blinding light of the stage. I stop the car in front of a big RM Auctions logo on the wall, kill the engine, and put the gated shifter in neutral.

It is torture to play statue in this great car when I yearn to wind out all five gears. My head feels heavier as the bidding climbs, but I've got to face straight ahead.

Girardo finally hammers the Dino sold at $430,000, and the rotation cycles again. The pushers roll the Dino from the stage onto a large turntable in another dark backstage corner. We catch a breath as the turntable completes the car's 180-degree turn. The pushers jog while moving the Dino off of the turntable, down a ramp, and through the hallway behind the stage's backdrop. I restart the little car as it emerges into the California evening and drive it another fifty feet, where I reluctantly hand it off to a Rotarian who steers it across the street to a parking structure.

My final "drive" of the day, in a charming 1938 Ford woody wagon (sold for $70,000), is also fun yet includes several panicky moments. Crap, I can't start it because the key sticks and only locks out this weird ignition switch. Crap, is this bus squared up to climb the ramp? Crap, I stopped too far past center stage. Crap, these pushers are about to shove this thing right off the turntable.

Even when fantasies realized aren't as sweet as our dreams, they can still be plenty enjoyable.