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Paul Dean

The Car From 'Casablanca' Can Be Yours

July 11, 1987|PAUL DEAN

Of all the cars, in all the movies, in all the theaters of the world . . . there's one automobile just a whisper more romantic than Norma Desmond's Hispano-Suiza.

It's the Casablanca car, shhweetheart , that four-door convertible in the foggy final reel where trench-coated Bogart (Rick) nobly persuades tearful Bergman (Ilsa Lund) that she should stay with resistance hero Henreid (Victor Laszlo) and leave Casablanca.

Because: "It doesn't take much to see that the problems of three little people don't amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world. . . . "

Trivia time: What was the logo on the nose of that last plane to Lisbon? Air France. What was Rick's surname? Blaine.

And the car? A Buick Limited, stripped by Warner Bros. of all insignia (with removal of the distinctive wheelcovers on its twin fender-mounted spares) because the studio suspected that a 1940 Buick convertible sedan might look a little incongruous being driven through 1941 Casablanca by a crooked gendarme.

The movie won an Oscar. The car won a return trip to Warner's transportation department. It sat decaying from disuse for 30 years. In 1970 it had been relegated to WB/325, a generic car of the '40s, just one obscure prop among 150 studio cars sold into the slavery of daily use and private ownership.

But today, the Casablanca Buick (its identity and those wheelcovers fully restored) makes its comeback--as star of the 20th Newport Beach Collector Car Auction.

"I've had it for 17 years, driven it for 17 years and loved it for 17 years," said Lyle Ritz, 57, a studio musician (bass and ukulele) from Simi Valley. "But I'm kinda burned out. I'm losing the enthusiasm and ambition needed to maintain a car like this and to continue its improvement."

In truth, Ritz bought the car blind. He'd simply heard that Warner Bros. had a 1940 Buick with only 4,000 miles on it.

To a man who had owned a 1936 Cadillac limousine, a 1957 Ford Thunderbird, a 1954 Mercedes 190SL, a 1959 Austin Healey and a 1956 Bentley, here was a fresh lust. Ritz bought the Buick for $3,457. That included tax, license and burns from Bogart's cigarettes ("well, we say Humphrey did that") in its Bedford cord.

"It was woebegone," he remembered. "Five different types of tires, hoses and belts cracked, fuel pump shot and the top stained from dripping sap. I asked one of the studio hands if he'd seen any sidemounts for the car. He said: 'Forget it. They were taken off in 1942 for "Casablanca" and haven't been seen since.' "

Such are the fortunes of treasure hunting by dumb luck--for at today's auction, the reserve price on the Casablanca Buick is $35,000.

For that, the new owner gets a car closer to the original than videotapes of the movie. The top is new. So is the paint and wide-whitewall tires. The engine is a straight eight (Buick Dynaflash With Oil Cushioned Valve-in-Head) and the gearshift three-on-the-tree. The Sonomatic radio sounds like a juke box.

"It's the same engine, same clutch and transmission," he said. "Never has a bolt been turned in anger and there's still only 40,000 miles on the car."

Yet the true richness of this vehicle is its mystique.

Alongside the Aztec brown, two-ton car, Bogart spoke lines that have been quoted, plagiarized, paraphrased and parodied by two generations and Woody Allen.

"If that plane leaves the ground and you're not with him, you'll regret it. Maybe not today, maybe not tomorrow, but soon and for the rest of your life. . . .

"We'll always have Paris. . . .

"Here's looking at you, kid."

Ritz wants his car to fall into understanding hands. Not a fastidious restorer who could paint it yellow and add red leather. Not a promoter who would lend this treasure to studios for lesser movies or, horrors, a television sitcom.

He is looking, he says, for a buyer who will see the car as the start of their beautiful friendship.

Newport Beach Collector Car Auction, 10 a.m.-8 p.m. today and Sunday at the Newporter Resort Hotel. Admission $7 for adults, $2 for seniors and children.

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