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Boy's Dream Becomes $26-Million Collection

October 05, 1986|DOUG BROWN | Times Staff Writer

When developer William Lyon was growing up in West Los Angeles in the 1930s, he was spellbound every time he saw a movie star drive by in a custom-made Duesenberg, Packard or Cadillac.

"Those cars were so special because they were just so different from the everyday cars you'd see, like a '35 Chevrolet," Lyon recalled. "As a 10-year-old kid I made up my mind that I'd own one of those cars someday."

Today, Lyon, the 63-year-old chairman of the board and chief executive officer of both William Lyon Co. and AirCal, owns actress Dolores del Rio's 1930 Duesenberg SJ Murphy Town Car.

He also owns another 34 classic cars. Lyon's collection, valued at roughly $26 million, is one of the top 20 private collections in the country, according to noted classic auto expert John Burgess, retired director of the renowned Briggs Cunningham Automotive Museum in Costa Mesa.

Last June at an auto auction in Reno, Lyon bid $6.475 million for a 1931 Bugatti Royale Berline de Voyage limousine. However, he was outbid by $25,000 by Houston shopping center magnate Jerry J. Moore who purchased the automobile for $6.5 million--the largest price ever paid for an automobile.

The high-stakes bidding cast the limelight on Lyon--a very private man who has been reticent about revealing the scope of his collection.

"Most people don't know what he has," said Randy Ema, owner of an Anaheim classic car restoration firm. "Other collectors have parties to show off their cars. He doesn't."

The public will get a rare glimpse of one of Lyon's prized possessions at today's Newport Beach Concours d'Elegance, a benefit car show for the nonprofit Assessment and Treatment Services Center (ASTC) of Santa Ana. Lyon's 1929 Le Baron Dual Cowl Phaeton J Series Duesenberg, valued at more than $1 million, will be on display.

The fifth annual event, one of the dozen top shows in the nation, raises money for ASTC's counseling programs for troubled youths and juvenile offenders.

The exhibition of 100 classic and antique automobiles will be held from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. in Aldrich Park at UC Irvine. Tickets can be purchased at the gate for $10 for adults and $6 for children.

Lyon has a hectic schedule running Newport Beach-based William Lyon Co., which is one of the nation's largest residential development firms. At the same time he wears the hat of chairman and chief executive officer of Newport Beach-based AirCal.

Yet, Lyon finds time to slip away from his Newport Beach office about twice a week to putter around his collection housed in two adjoining warehouses in Costa Mesa and talk with its curator, Greg Bagano, about developments with cars under restoration.

Likes 'Car People'

"There's nothing deep about my motivation for coming here. I just like being around classic cars, working on them and going to car shows. I really like car people; I feel I'm in my element."

When Lyon began his collection 25 years ago, he specialized in limited edition cars he'd seen and admired growing up.

"Take this '29 Buick (Sports Roadster) with the rumble seat; I got it because my dad had a car similar to it."

His first years of collecting were largely spent acquiring Packards and Lincolns. However, in the past three years, he's taken a fancy to Duesenbergs. This has set the classic car collecting world abuzz because in the last three years he's achieved a nearly unheard-of feat: garnering five of the world's finest Duesenbergs, which classic car expert Burgess said are each worth at least $1 million.

"There were only 481 of the (Duesenberg) J series manufactured in Indiana from 1929 to 1939," Burgess said in noting these prized vehicles sold new for between $13,000 and $25,000 during the depths of the Great Depression. "In the '30s they were the car of glamorous people like playboys and movie stars."

During the tour of his collection, Lyon stopped briefly at each of his 35 cars and discussed their unusual features.

While inspecting Henry Ford II's 1947 Lincoln Continental convertible coupe, Lyon glanced at the odometer. "It only has 20,000 miles on it. Whoever bought it from Henry Ford recognized it as a special car and kept it stored for years without using it for personal driving."

Lyon's wife, Willa Dean, influences his selection of cars. "I got that 1923 Austin from (Harrah's Automobile Collection) two years ago because my wife liked it," he said. A 1934 Packard Coupe Roadster, which comes with a special compartment for golf clubs and a rumble seat, was given by Lyon to his wife 15 years ago.

Uniqueness Cited

Many of Lyon's cars are almost literally "one of a kind." He notes that his 1962 Mercedes-Benz is one of only two four-door convertibles made that year. "And Mercedes hasn't made any four-door convertibles since then," Lyon added.

He owns the only 1939 Packard Derham convertible still in existence. It took him four years to restore this seven-passenger car because Lyon said it was difficult finding original parts, or fabricating them when it was discovered they no longer existed.

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