Market and auctions

An old hen makes good broth. Gooding, Bonhams and the Pre-Wars

Cliff Goodall’s view

Photo credit: Bonhams, Gooding

Would you take a trip on a steam train? A real journey, not just to entertain your children or grandchildren. Then let’s take a look at the sales of two important pre-war car collections, one from Gooding and the other from Bonhams, and see how old cars, just like romantic trains, are still very much alive.

Just like being behind the wheel: everything you need to know to fully understand the situation

The first thing to note is the numbers, which are very similar. Although the quantity of cars offered was very different (82 from Gooding, 35 from Bonhams) because they were from two very different collections, both were offered almost entirely without reserve – 100% from Gooding and 91.43% from Bonhams. Therefore, a 100% success rate should not come as a surprise.

Just like being behind the wheel: everything you need to know to fully understand the situation

On the contrary, the sales prices were surprising: probably strategically estimated, in both cases, they hit the jackpot: Gooding ended the day with takings of $8,839,120 (€8,033,255) against a pre-sale estimate of $6,535,000 (€5,939,205) a 135% increase, while Bonhams managed an impressive $3,758,000 (€3,415,385) against a pre-sale estimate of $2,474,000 (€2,248,445) a 151.9% increase. The curious thing, however, is the average price: despite the different collections, the “final number” was incredibly similar, with a difference of less than 0.4% (yes, you read that correctly!): $107,794 (€97,965) for the Californians, $107,371 (€97,580) for the British.

Just like being behind the wheel: everything you need to know to fully understand the situation

These two sales tell a story of the past, that of great pre-war car collections. Various Duesenbergs, Packards, Pierce-Arrows, Auburns, Cadillacs (to mention the American marques) and Bugattis, Mercedes-Benzes, Alfa Romeos, Rolls Royces were once the pride of the world’s top collectors. However, the market now demands Ferraris, Porsches, Lamborghinis, and McLarens. These two sales, however, were like steam trains: we all know they were important at the time, but no one would want to use them now. Or would they? In any case, this is why almost everything was sold without reserve.

Just like being behind the wheel: everything you need to know to fully understand the situation

Why don’t we take a closer look?

Let’s start with the top lots of each individual sale. For Gooding, it was a 1932 Chrysler CG Imperial Custom Roadster with coachwork by LeBaron: not only was the design spectacular, with its long hood and low, sloping windshield screaming “Speed!”, like all the cars in the collection, it was completely preserved, certainly a rarity today. The estimate of $800,000-$1,200,000 (remember, without reserve) was obliterated when the hammer fell at $1,600,000 (€1,454,125), double the original estimate.

1932 Chrysler CG Imperial Custom Roadster sold for $1,600,000 (€1,454,125)

A similar fate awaited the 1906 Thomas-Flyer 50 horsepower Seven Passenger Touring at Bonhams. Here, the design was palpably more dated, but in its day, it was one of the most representative supercars of its time: we could define it as the Porsche Carrera GT of a century ago. In the hands of the same owner since 1986, estimated at $400,000-$500,000 (with reserve), it was quickly forgotten and eventually the new owner took it home for $841,000 (€764,325).

1906 Thomas Flyer 50HP Seven Passenger Touring sold for $841,000 (€764,325)

It is worth noting that the other two “reserve” lots at Bonhams achieved prices far surpassing their highest estimates. The 1911 Palmer-Singer Model 4-50 Seven Passenger Touring exceeded its estimate of $400,000-$500,000 and sold for $555,000 (€504,400).

1911 Palmer-Singer Model 4-50 Seven Passenger Touring sold for $555,000 (€504,400)

The 1906 Pope-Toledo Model XII 35/40HP Roi Des Belges achieved $346,000 (€314,455), over $20,000 more than its maximum estimate of $275,000-$325,000.

XII 35/40HP Roi Des Belges sold for $346,000 (€314,455)

Given that these cars, as they say, “don’t make the market” even though they are often awarded at Concours d’Elegance, I would like to focus on two very interesting cars from Bonhams at reasonable prices.

The first was a 1901 Locomobile, specifically a Style 2 5.5HP Dos-a-dos Steam Runabout. It doesn’t matter so much that it belonged to the Indianapolis Museum of Speed, but the year of production: built in 1901, it was perfect for the London-to-Brighton. Estimated at $25,000-$35,000, it sold for $29,120 (€26,465), but if it had been offered on the other side of the Atlantic, I am convinced that this figure would have been twice as high.

1901 Locomobile Style 2 5.5HP Dos-a-dos Steam Runabout sold for $29,120 (€26,465)

The other car was from 1905, so the London-Brighton was completely out of the question (although in recent years the number of events for the ultra-centenarian car niche has been expanding). However, the Maxwell Model H 16hp Touring had another characteristic that made it highly desirable: it had never been “violated” by a restoration. Imagine going to any gathering/competition/event and bringing a car that has been completely preserved for almost 12 decades… Here too, the estimate was limited to $30,000-$40,000, and the final sale price was the same as the Locomobile: $29,120 (€26,465).

1905 Maxwell Model H 16HP Touring sold for $29,120 (€26,465)

Focusing on originality, Gooding brought two cars that I would have liked to have in my garage: the first was a 1934 Mercedes-Benz 500K Offener Tourenwagen. It didn’t need to be one of the 5 in this configuration, it didn’t need to have been exhibited at Pebble Beach and Amelia Island, nor did it need to have belonged to the same family for half a century. All of that was just a corollary: the truth is that it was perfectly preserved. The estimate was $1.25m-$1.75m without reserve, and the final sale price was $857,500 (€779,320). Was it worth it? No, it was worth twice as much.

1934 Mercedes-Benz 500 K Offener Tourenwagen sold for $857,500 (€779,320)

The other car that made me sigh was a 1929 Stutz Series M Cabriolet. Again very well preserved, it was a car that deserves to be to be left as it is, with tons of patina. The engine was not the original one, but a much more powerful DOHC DV-32 Cylinder Head, which was replaced in 1953, and a little bit of sprint in these cars never hurt. The estimate was $40,000-$60,000, and it sold right in the middle of that range, at $56,000 (€50,895).

The moral of the story? These cars are like steam trains: nobody wants to use them anymore, but they remain ingrained in our historical memory. And that’s more than enough for collectors.

1929 Stutz Series M Cabriolet sold for $56,000 (€50,895)