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The California Collection

There's a treasure-trove of rare and valuable cars stashed away in the Southland, three to a driveway and 100 to a warehouse. Many of the best are rarely seen.

July 29, 1999|PAUL DEAN | TIMES AUTOMOTIVE WRITER

It was agreed by the parties of all parts that this objet d'art would be bought and sold and moved in secrecy. Like a Monet landscape. Or an embalmed Lenin.

So only whispers leaked early last month when a 1931 Bugatti Royale, a ponderous king of limousines with a rampant elephant as an appropriately clumpish hood ornament, was rolled from its private museum in Orange County. Silence and security held as this very homely Quasimodo of French cars--built for European kings but not sold to a single sovereign--was crated and then air-freighted from Los Angeles to Germany.

The seller remains reclusive: Real estate developer and car collector William Lyon, 75, did not return several messages seeking to confirm that he was paid $8 million for his famed Coupe de Ville with coach work by Binder and wheels 3 feet across.

The buyer has gone to ground: Volkswagen of Germany, with holdings that include the heritage, nameplate and license to resurrect and build new Bugatti motorcars, declined to comment on its purchase of the old 12.7-liter Bugatti. Or of plans to make it the centerpiece of a company museum.

Yet in exchange for anonymity, those who buy and sell vintage cars like old coins, and several automotive insiders on the periphery of the negotiations, confirmed that the international deal went down. And that the covert, multimillion-dollar transaction was of definite interest--but of no great surprise--to Southern California's classic-car hobbyists, who constitute this nation's nub of a rich, lavish, elegant, quite private trove of very serious car collections.

Here, There and Everywhere

Nobody knows exactly how many collections are in the Southland. Certainly dozens, and maybe hundreds. And with more incoming, as prices for vintage cars stabilize, auction sales continue to soar, and a carport collection is born whenever an impassioned owner of a '50s Corvette and a '60s Mustang decides it would be cool to add a '70s Trans Am to the mix.

Total number of cars? There has been no census. But 100-car collections are common. Total value? "Don't ask, don't tell" is also the collector's credo. But some of the world's rarest and most expensive vehicles--such as Lyon's $8-million Bugatti, one of only six built and once a showpiece of the now-disbanded $42-million collection of Reno casino magnate William F. Harrah--have been housed in Southern California.

"My gut feeling is that there are more cars and collections squirreled away in California than in any other part of the country," says Keith Martin, editor and publisher of the Portland, Ore.-based Sports Car Market magazine. "You [California] have more people with money buying cars of the '30s and '40s they couldn't afford at the time. And you have a new, younger generation starting collections of what they remember: '50s cars and the early days of the Sports Car Club of America, belly-tank racers and hot rods.

"Sydorick's collection is a perfect example. It represents the hot period of collector cars, the Ferraris and Alfas, gathered by a man of impeccable taste, not trendy taste."

Sydorick. That's David Sydorick of Beverly Hills, retired investment broker and keeper with his wife and co-driver, Ginny, of a 20-car collection topped by a 1947 Ferrari Spyder Corsa. Its serial number is 002C, and that says it is one of the oldest Ferraris in existence.

"Some of the biggest and best car collections are out there" in Southern California, says Jeff Broadus, publisher of the 56,000-circulation Car Collector magazine, headquartered in Titusville, Fla.

"That will soon include the private collection of Glen Patch, who is moving his '57 Heaven to Palm Springs," Broadus says, referring to his magazine's former publisher and owner and his 70-car collection representing every American car built in 1957. "There used to be guys who collected only certain marques. Now there are multi-marque collectors."

And some California collections, he points out, have grown into museums: the Petersen Automotive Museum in Los Angeles, the Blackhawk Automotive Museum in the Bay Area town of Danville and the Nethercutt Collection, founded by J.D. Nethercutt of Merle Norman Cosmetics of Sylmar.

Letterman's Top 10 List

Many collectors, particularly celebrities, bury their holdings in personal countinghouses. Typically, only friends may call. Comedian Jerry Seinfeld has a gathering of Porsches, ancient and modern, in a warehouse near Santa Monica Airport. His neighbor is David Letterman, who owns Jaguars, Austin-Healeys, the pickup he drove to the West Coast when he was penniless and a 1951 Ferrari 212a he has described as "the homeliest Ferrari ever made--I drove it once and melted the clutch and my mechanic won't let me near it anymore."

Designer Ralph Lauren specializes in pristine exotics that rarely come out to play. But when they do, they're usually favored to win trophies at concours from Meadow Brook in Michigan to Pebble Beach on California's Monterey Peninsula.

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