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The Curator of Cars : For Multimillionaire Ken Behring, Football is Football but Autos are Autos

September 18, 1988|PAUL DEAN | Times Staff Writer

As it is custom with Monets and Sisleys, Behring is negotiating to take 50 of his best cars on a tour of Japan and Europe. In return, he hopes that some of their Old Masters--in particular one of the world's most expensive cars, a $10-million Bugatti Royale from the vaunted Schlumpf Collection in Mulhouse, France--may be sent to the Behring Museum on long-term loan.

Gift to UC Berkeley

To complete the gallery parallel, Behring has guaranteed permanence for his collection by forming the cars, the museum building, an automotive reference library and adjoining study center into the Behring Educational Institute--and made it his donation to nearby UC Berkeley.

He learned a lesson, he said, from watching the disposition of two of the nation's most impressive automotive collections--the 1,800-car Harrah's Automobile Museum in Reno, Nev., and the 71-vehicle Briggs Cunningham Museum in Costa Mesa.

"After Bill Harrah died (in 1978), his corporation for profit was sold and the first thing they (new owners) did was dispose of the collection at auction," he said. "The same thing happened when (81-year-old) Briggs Cunningham decided to close his museum (in 1987). Those collections were sold, the cars scattered and the public can't enjoy them any more.

"But that doesn't happen in Europe. It doesn't happen with the Schlumpf because the French government is involved. So I started checking with some universities, tried UC and found that they never dispose of anything."

There's a certain irony in Behring's massive gift to higher eduction. For he only completed one semester at the University of Wisconsin.

Then he ducked out. For there were Hudsons to sell and a work ethic to satisfy, a drive that since the age of 8 had covered "a paper route to mowing lawns to caddying to working in a cheese factory."

At 17, Behring was selling automobiles until he could afford to buy a used-car business. At 24, he opened a Lincoln-Mercury dealership. At 29, he sold the agency to buy land in Florida.

There, Behring caught the crest of the postwar retirement surge and helped accommodate it by raising 10 golf club communities--including Tamarac, now a city of 70,000 persons.

A modular home factory. The Miami International Merchandise Mart. The Summit Bank Group in Ft. Lauderdale. Behring developments all. He doesn't talk numbers, has not made the Forbes 500 list, but some say he is worth $600 million and in 1985 had a personal income of $30 million. After taxes.

Behring moved to Northern California 11 years ago. He built Blackhawk in Contra Costa County, 30 miles east of San Francisco. It's a country-club community with a five-figure population living in mostly seven-figure homes.

And the capstone, its London Bridge, its Queen Mary, is the Behring Museum of automobiles.

"When I decided to start collecting, I was looking for something I could pass on . . . something that would in time become national treasures," he said. "Like art."

A Sea of Autos

Tie off, shirt open, Behring has his feet propped on a coffee table in his museum office. A long window overlooks the sea of Simonize and chrome that is one floor and 100 cars on display.

"But I don't really know anything about art. The only things I know about are football and cars."

The Blackhawk Rams? That name had a definite panache. But Behring never considered buying an NFL franchise and moving it here.

Automobiles, however, were horsepower of a different color and "something to look at and admire, something to touch and feel . . . and although I'm not too mechanical, and I hate to polish them, I look upon cars more as things of beauty."

One other aspect was abundantly clear to Behring. Twenty-five years ago, a Bugatti Royale was worth $50,000. Today, the same cars start at $10 million. By this time next century, reasoned Behring, a $100 million collection of classic cars should be enough to retire the national debt.

First Came a Cord

Behring's first bite was on a 1937 Cord convertible. He bought it at a Phoenix auction. He also hired away Don Williams, an auction executive and one of the nation's leading classic car authorities. Together, they window-shopped the world and no deal was left unturned.

Behring accepted classic cars as down payments on homes in his developments. He agreed to loans of certain valued cars that had no place to be shown. And once, he bought a 179-car collection just to get six--including a Mercedes roadster supposedly owned by Joseph Stalin and a Rolls-Royce Phantom IV Sedanca de Ville most certainly owned by the Aga Khan.

Phrasing the collection was easy. Harrah's had been a complete chronology of automotive development. Cunningham's concentration was on industry pacesetters. Another major California museum, the collection of cosmetic millionaire Jack Nethercutt at Sylmar, is dedicated solely to aesthetics.

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