A Petrolhead Strikes Gold

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A few of the fine cars – of their day – discovered in a French barn

The auction of a ‘barn’ find in France of rare and unique early automobiles fills every petrol head’s noddle with joy. I know the feeling well.

I was travelling the dust bowl of Arizona one time of many, on my way to Sedona, a town of cacti gardens and streets called, Gunsmoke, and Snake Avenue. The road to that red earth town with its adobe houses was a driver’s delight, a dead-straight road from the freeway, only coyotes and tumbleweed for company, foot down till over the ton, across the vast desert, radiator aimed at the pencil thin line of mountains in the far hazy horizon.

A few miles down the road I spotted a crush of Model T Fords packed like bicycles under a ramshackle shed with a corrugated iron roof.

An amazing hoard of veteran and fifties cars

Ever the nosy traveller,  a quick U-turn to park at the ranch gate, and a squint through a cobwebbed window revealed a group of V16 engines lying on the shed floor, each worth many thousands of dollars. I was invited in by the old timers with a, ‘We don’t get many strangers around these here parts,” and after a few words of greetings and handshakes with the eighty year-old be-whiskered owner, was allowed to look around his collection.

Everything had a surface patina of mild rust. The air is so dry in Arizona, (no mosquitoes!) cars never rust. Rubber dries and splits, wood twists and snaps, but metal stays metal.

I wandered among some of the great names of American automobilia: Pontiac, Lincoln, Oldsmobile, Studebaker. The value of the hood ornaments alone would keep a poor man fed for a year.

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Underneath those books sits a Ferrari California SWB, the other is a Frau-Maserati

Cars of yesteryear ready for restoration.

The cars ranged from 1930 to the sixties. I took some photographs, promised to drop back again on my way home with a bottle of whisky as thanks, and strolled back to my SUV.

As I reached the gate one of the old guys, all of them aged mechanics after years of panhandling for gold, took me aside and said in a conspiratorial manner, “Jake’s got five hundred more some ways up the creek.” He winked and walked back to the huge Duisenberg radiator he was repairing. I looked at him in disbelief. Five hundred? No. He’s joshing with me. But the hint was too much to ignore.

After taking a few wrong turns on unsigned side roads, I walk across the rise and lo and behold, there they were, over five hundred cars from all eras, mostly American manufacturers,  a few European, all baking in the 90 degree heat, none for sale.

Would he consider selling me one, at least to preserve a bit of automotive history? “Naw. Jake collected them with his gold savin’s an’ he ain’t minded to sell ’em.”

The reason for this story is to prove rare cars and collections lie all over the planet waiting.

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A Bugatti Type 57

A barn find the owner is happy to sell

There is a barn find a year, usually a single car, perhaps half-a-dozen, but this one in France last December was a doozy!

The remarkable treasure trove of rare automobiles was discovered on a provincial farm in the West of France, cars collected and then stored beginning over forty years ago.

The Baillon collection (exact location a secret) consisted of approximately 200 rare cars that the French owner amassed between 1953 and 1966, with the oldest car in the collection dating back to 1912, a Renault four-cylinder. The most modern car in the collection as it stands today is a Ferrari Mondial, which may have been a daily driver.

Cars as a hedge against the economy

The collection’s owner reportedly moved on to larger vehicles, such as trains, but setbacks in business forced him to sell about a hundred cars at one point. A bankruptcy in 1978 saw the collection reduced by another 100 cars, leaving the 60 intact cars.

Several children had been bequeathed the estate. In an effort to discover the value of the cars, they called Artcurial, best known as France’s leading auctioneer of art and antiques.

The collection

The collection reads like a list of the greatest names in 20th century automotive history, the aristocracy of engineers: Bugatti, Hispano-Suiza, Talbot-Lago, Panhard-Levassor, Maserati, Ferrari, Delahaye, Delage. Along with the famous manufacturers, many of the bodies were built by the most celebrated coachbuilders of the period, such as Million & Guiet, Frua, Chapron and Saoutchik. No less than three Saoutchik-bodied Talbot Lago T26s were found among the sheds, including a very rare Grand Sport Aérodynamique and a Talbot Lago T26 Cabriolet once owned by King Farouk.

Like find Tutankhamen’s tomb

The cars are expected to fetch many millions at a French auction. They were originally fabricated for the wealthy, and it is still the wealthy who can afford to buy them and restore them to former glory. No change there, then. Most have their engines still in place, pushing the value sky-high.

The find has been likened to discovering the tomb of Tutankhamen, but unlike the artefacts found in his tomb, cars are not art.

There is art in their making, but only a petrolhead would choose one over a Monet, a Picasso, or a Goya. Nevertheless, it is another indication that we live in two worlds, the mass of us spectators to the grossly rich.

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An Argyll Flying Fifteen

Old cars as a hobby

I keep my eye open when journeying around Scotland for one of our rare cars made here. Even a rusty chassis has tremendous value … an Argyll will do nicely.

Post Script                                                                                                                                            

The Ferrari sold for over $16 million. Only 37 were ever built. The one sold had been owned by actor Alain Delon. The entire group of cars amassed a total of over £28 million.

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17 Responses to A Petrolhead Strikes Gold

  1. midgehunter says:

    Wow, an article which prickles every pore of my skin. If you’ve never had anything to do with these “Oldtimers” then you’ll never understand cars and the thrill that goes with driving them.

    Looks like I need a nice long holiday in Arizona. 😉

    I’m a member of the Frankfurt Automobil Club in Germany and we’ve got, apart from modern and old racing cars, loads of old bangers which stil get brought out in the summer for events and tours.

    The FAC is Germanys oldest automobile club (1899) and two of the nine founding members were Robert Bosch before he became really famous and Adam Opel who started the Opel car company. Another member was Prince Heinrich, the son of Kaiser Wilhelm (Kaiser Bill!)

    One of our early events was the organisation for the “Gordon Bennet Cup” which was run in 1904.
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gordon_Bennett_Cup_%28auto_racing%29
    The Kaiser was also there to give us a helping hand!

    In two weeks time we’ll be having our club monthly meeting at the “Central Garage” in Bad Homburg where there is an ongoing Aston Martin oldtimer exhibition.
    http://www.central-garage.de/Akt_Ausstellung_64.html

    • Grouse Beater says:

      Welcome, Midgehunter. Good post. And thank you for all the information. Once I lay my hands on the DVD of Arizona cars I’ll post a few photographs. My love of veteran cars is betrayed in my avatar.

  2. garyjc says:

    Memories. I remember as a teenage loon in Banff in the 70’s, fleein’ about on dodgy old motorbikes discovering along with a few of my like minded biker pals an old guy up towards Foggie (Aberchirder) who had a big old shed jam packed with classic old bikes which had us youngsters salivating. Square Four, Black Shadow, JPS Norton,Triton, BSA Gold Star and Rocket 3, Frannie Barnett, Matchless, etc – probably all told about 20 or so – sell, no way; use, never, just sitting there gathering dust. God what a shame – I wonder whatever happened to them and oh that I could have one or two of them now. Fully understand the passion and good luck (and deep pockets) in finding an Argyll

  3. jimnarlene says:

    Duisenberg, is where the word “doozy” comes from. It was on the ” top marques ” series, on the history channel, I think.

  4. Grouse Beater says:

    True. 🙂

  5. daviddynamo says:

    A nice article, Grouse Beater,and your mention of the Argyll car reminded me of something which began to bug me during the Indy referendum. We used to have a lot of heavy and light engineering works in Scotland, with presumably a large number of innovative engineers employed in them, working on what were state-of-the-art technologies.

    My home town, Paisley, had Arrol-Johnston cars based in it at the start of the 20th century. We had the personnel, the factories, the finance, but now our industrial base has been greatly reduced. But ‘too wee, too poor, too stupid’? Never!

    For the last 100 years, our population has been more or less 5 million. Not large, but comparable with many nations. Nations such as Finland, with world-class Nokia phones; Denmark, with world-class Carlsberg beer; (slight joke, but they do export worldwide), and Sweden.

    Sweden now has 9.7 million people, in 1900 it only had 5.1 million, and in 1940 it had 6.3 million. Not a big size, similar to Scotland, and enough to support Scania cars & trucks, and SAAB car and planes, including military jets. Like Scotland they are some distance from the centre of Europe (France, Germany) but they can still export, be competitive, and thrive.

    High tech, cutting edge, and with a population of under 10 million. If Sweden can do it, then goddammit so could Scotland. When one considers this, one inevitably concludes that Scotland has been actively held back by successive Westminster governments for decades, held back and undermined by policies that favour other areas in the UK, and by ill-thought-out plans to support ‘casino banking’.

    How much more could we have done, how much better off could we have become, without the dead hand of Westminster dragging us down.

    At lot of the hidden history of the UK was brought to light during the indyref, and for good or bad, peoples’ attitudes to the UK and to the establishment have been changed. We are living in a different country now, and have to decide what our own future will be.

  6. Grouse Beater says:

    A post appreciated, David. I know, kept second-class, and some might say second-rate. Scotland, the nation that didn’t want to be a nation state. Anyhow, I like the reference to the Arrol-Johnston.

  7. Wee Jonny says:

    Another great story GB. I love the thought of driving a really old American classic on a road like that one heading to Sedona. One day.

    • Grouse Beater says:

      You’ll get there. A Sixties Mustang Fastback will do just fine! 🙂

      • Wee Jonny says:

        Mmmm, lovely thought. Trouble is I’m an Alfa fan and have been for over 20 years so maybe a really old Alfa on the road to Sedona as I’d feel like id be cheating in anything else😎

  8. Grouse Beater says:

    The annual Monterey Italian week is made for Alfa lovers like you. And what a terrific car journey to reach it.

  9. Wee Jonny says:

    Now that would be terrific.😎

  10. Bugger (the Panda) says:

    Years ago a friend found out that his father, with whom he was estranged, owned a Bentley of the type Steed drove in the Avengers.

    It had been race at le Mans and better than that there were two crated unused engines for it.

    Apparently, the engines were only used once although I imagine they would have stripped down and rebuilt.

    I have no idea of the value of this and nor did my mate.

    • Grouse Beater says:

      I have no idea of the value of this and nor did my mate.
      Mega bucks. It wasn’t a blower Bentley, unlike Bond’s in the novels and seen once in Dr No, but it was a good ‘un. Easily over £150,000, maybe more if actually the one in the Avenger’s series.

  11. donald says:

    Its funny, I should have the petrol head disease but somehow its never really bitten me.

    Steam engines, woodworking machinery/tools, powered model aircraft, definitely. The only time I came close to a fatal attraction was an Austin Healey 3000 in Texas of all places . It looked tiny next to all the big pick up trucks and yank tanks but I wanted it so badly . It was not for sale at any price. Maybe it was for the best. I owned an MG midget for a little while but somehow I never really bonded with it. The Healey, I just knew that if I had it I could never part with it.

    But the thrill of the open road and discovery I know very well . Motor bikes were all I could afford in my early traveling years but I loved them all, nursed them with care, So that’s fairly petrolheady.

    I don’t care for car as status symbol and my business vehicle is an incredibly boring (my wife hates it ) Toyota Hiace. Utterly reliable diesel beater. If there is a white van mans white van, it’s the Hiace. They really are very well engineered.

    My only tinkering project is a Lister CS diesel that i need to get rigged up as a back up gen set.
    My wife is still trying to persuade me to trade in the Hiace but until I have finished building the house I really need it.

    There is quite a vintage car clan around here. In fact, where we live is a popular round robin for classic car enthusiasts. Maybe one day I will go mad and get that Healey. So many other projects at the moment.

    Love the essay though. Brings a smile to my face instead of getting upset about injustice.

    I hope when Scotland gets its full independence back that it can become an engineering power house again. So many frontiers to explore if we can get the inbred elites off our backs.

    • Grouse Beater says:

      I found a good tartan red V8 MGB GT for my cousin, Howard, in Bongaree, and shipped it to him. I believe he’s enjoying it now.

      PS: It would be wonderful if Scotland could reinstate some of its lost heavy-metal industry, and one day produce its own cars for international sale. We have the skills. We train and then export some of the best automotive engineers and designers.

      • donald says:

        I know it . Funny how engineering seems to be hard wired in to Scottish DNA .
        I have to be tinkering with or making something. I do all my own car maintenance mainly because I know the job will be done right and it saves money to buy useful stuff.
        You can get a mint restored Healey here for around 60thou but its a lot of dosh .
        Im trying to persuade my wife to get a mini cooper diesel (you know it makes sense darling) I dont have enough room left in the garage to buy a resto job .
        I did score my machinery ahead of the curve , its worth a lot more now . But I did not buy it as an investment as such . I just knew good kit when I saw it and it was fixable with a bit of sweat . That’s the thrill for me.
        Still hit the road now and then to find treasure . I used to be on the hunt for marine chronometers before they became fashionable . Now Im trying to score marine portholes for the house and lumber . I hate to see old gear rotting when it could be working again.

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