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DRIVING AMBITION : Maharajah, Ex-King Owned Autos in Developer's Classic Car Collection

September 30, 1988|PATRICK MOTT | Patrick Mott is a regular contributor to Orange County Life

It sounds a little crazy at first, but you really have to feel a bit sorry for John Sobers. Here is a guy who has a 1941 Packard 120 coupe, a 1948 Packard woody sedan, a 1962 Thunderbird sports roadster and three other gorgeous cars sitting at home, just begging for him to tinker with them, shine them up, tool around town in them. Cars most mortals would drool over. Cars some people would sell their kids for. The kinds of cars that the devil uses to cut deals for souls.

And if that weren't enough, John has a job that allows him to work with cars in one of the most immaculate garages this side of an operating theater.

But here is the problem: That garage is attached to a room that contains a collection of automobiles so breathtaking that it makes John's pale in comparison. And John has to live with them and work on them nearly every day.

There they sit, spotless, gleaming, regal--row after row of Deusenbergs and Packards and Rolls-Royces, vintage Lincolns and Cadillacs and Mercedes Benzes and Bugattis, along with an adjacent garage packed with modern sports cars so fast that they ought to be fitted with altimeters.

In all, 55 of the most magnificent cars ever bolted together. And all the pink slips bear the same name: William Lyon.

Lyon, a retired Air Force general and the chairman of the real estate development company that carries his name, amassed the collection over 27 years, beginning with a single 1935 Packard V-12 convertible and building up from there with a combination of an eye for automotive beauty, ready money and a few bits of significant horse trading, including one deal in which he bought 82 cars from the famed Harrah's collection in 1986.

There are other car collectors in Orange County, and some of them own several beautiful and rare automobiles that they keep lovingly at home in multicar garages. But none of them have collections vast enough to warrant storing them behind black velvet ropes in a 15,000-square-foot white brick, American Colonial-style museum with a pillared portico, red brick floors, a parts storage room, a spotless maintenance garage and a display turntable.

To say that Lyon appears never to do anything in a small way seems to be stating the obvious even before you lay eyes on his car collection. To get to the museum, it is necessary first to gain entrance to Lyon's immense Coto de Caza estate through a huge, electronically operated guard gate and then to drive up to his home through the sprawling, park-like grounds, past the stables, riding ring and lake, up the long circular driveway and around to the back of the 20,000-square-foot mansion.

And there, behind the mansion, is the museum, brilliantly white, brightly landscaped, with a tall flagpole in front.

And a fortune in automobiles inside.

Lyon doesn't like to talk about the value of his collection, preferring to steer the conversation toward the beauty and rarity of the cars rather than their price tags. And classic car experts say that it is impossible to place a dollar value on many of the cars because they are either one of a kind or nearly so. Still, by any yardstick, the collection is immensely valuable.

"In terms of being one-of-a-kind, unique, special cars," he said, "the collection has been rated by other people as one of the top five in the world."

Here, then, is a rundown of some of the most remarkable cars:

A 1931 Bugatti Royale Coupe de Ville. Lyon calls this land yacht of a car "sort of the prize of the collection," and with good reason, for it is the sort of automobile that exhausts superlatives. A gigantic car, with an overall length of 22 feet and wheels measuring 3 feet in diameter, it sits on an electric turntable facing the entrance to the museum. The chauffeur's compartment in the front is open to the air, while the passenger cab far in the rear is encased in bulletproof glass. The hood ornament is a solid silver, rearing elephant.

This deep blue and silver monster was built, Lyon said, for a king of Romania. But, he added, "it took them so long to build it, by the time they delivered it, the king had been deposed."

It is one of only six such cars left in the world.

A 1908 Simplex. Bright white with gleaming brass fixtures, this early American car was produced in very limited quantities, Lyon said. He added, however, that even though it was built during the auto industry's infancy, it could reach a speed of 80 m.p.h.

A 1930 Marmon 16. This car is a kind of successor to the early Marmon in which silent film star Bebe Daniels was arrested for speeding in Orange County in 1921. The arrest touched off a legal comic circus and accorded Daniels the dubious honor of being the first woman convicted of speeding in Orange County. She was driving her Marmon at 56.5 m.p.h. when she was stopped. Lyon said his was originally guaranteed by the maker to do 100, "but I don't think I'd want to go 100 m.p.h. in it," he added.

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