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A Beauty of a Car Collection

Museums: The head of Merle Norman Cosmetics shares his passion for automobiles with the public--for free.

March 07, 2001|JOHN O'DELL | TIMES STAFF WRITER

J.B. Nethercutt makes his money beautifying women. He spends it beautifying cars.

The 87-year-old chemist's business is Merle Norman Cosmetics, the company his aunt Merle founded in Los Angeles in 1931 and that Nethercutt joined in 1932. He subsequently bought out the other shareholders and grew the business into one of the nation's most successful independent beauty products empires.

The $100-million-a-year company remains his first priority, but Nethercutt's passion is the automobile--a conglomerate of steel, plastic, wood, fabric and wire that, he says, represents "functional fine art that is part of the history of the progress of America."

Nethercutt's first car was a 1923 Chevrolet "with no floorboards and a loose piston." He gave the owner $12 and a .22-caliber rifle for title to the car and used it while courting Dorothy, his wife of 67 years--a redhead he affectionately calls "mommy."'

"The water used to come up through the floor when it rained, but mommy still lived at home when we were sweethearts," Nethercutt recalls, twinkling eyes and sly grin giving broad clues to the memories he's about to reveal. "So we didn't care. We used to go for long, long drives in that car just to get away from her mother. And somehow, cars have always played a part in our life together."

Those cars today number more than 180, and Jack Boison Nethercutt is considered one of the premier automobile collectors and restorers in the world. He's also one of the most unusual, in that he shares his collection with the public.

Many collectors tend to limit public access to their treasures. Southern California is full of nondescript industrial buildings and warehouses that hold car collections worth millions of dollars that are only rarely shown to the public.

Nethercutt, though, sees little benefit in keeping it all to himself. His "little hobby," formally called the Nethercutt Collection, is open to the public at no charge. Housed in an industrial section of Sylmar--about 45 minutes from downtown Los Angeles--the collection concentrates on custom-bodied cars of the so-called brass and classic eras from 1900 to 1947. The oldest vehicle dates back to 1898. The most modern is a 1956 Packard Caribbean Convertible.

The original facility is a five-story building next to a Merle Norman packaging plant and has been home to a portion of the collection since 1971. It is open to the public for tours conducted by a professional curator.

"His museum is unique in not charging admission," says Bruce Meyer, chairman of the Petersen Automotive Museum in Los Angeles and a longtime friend and admirer of Nethercutt. "But he wants to make sure that his collection is accessible to everyone."

Meyer, a collector himself, calls the Nethercutt Collection an assembly of "rare, custom-bodied cars, most of them one-of-a-kind. He finds them, buys then and restores them because he is driven to preserve this part of our history. It is the finest collection of its kind."

To make sure all runs smoothly, even after he dies, Nethercutt years ago established a nonprofit foundation, the Nethercutt Collection. Its annual budget is about $2.5 million, he says, and rather than relying on a finite endowment fund to keep it going, Nethercutt says he has willed the entire Merle Norman operation to the foundation. As long as women keep buying cosmetics, there will be money to fund the collection's never-ending work.

And work there is.

Most older cars were built on wooden frames that, over time, tend to deteriorate. The sheet metal gets dented and rusts. Leather and cloth upholstery rots, old wiring gets brittle and cracks, nickel plating corrodes, rubber hoses and belts deteriorate. The factories that made the components are long out of business. But the restoration-minded collector's job is to make everything like new.

Nethercutt, experts say, does it better than anyone.

"He invented the level of restoration that's the standard today," says Gordon Wangers, a Vista-based auto industry consultant and car collector. "He's a legend."

Dick Nolind, president of the Nethercutt Collection and executive vice president of Merle Norman cosmetics, says his boss of nearly 50 years "is a perfectionist in the best sense of the word. He wants perfection, and he's willing to invest the time, talent and money it takes to get it."

As part of the planned restoration of a 1933 Bugatti--the only Atlantic Coupe body ever built on a Type 51 racing chassis--the Nethercutt Collection has sent researchers laden with photos and blueprints to Paris to interview the car's 91-year-old builder, coach maker Andre Bith, to ensure that the reconstruction is faithful to Bith's memories of what he built.

That kind of attention to detail has helped the Nethercutt Collection win best-of-show honors six times at the annual Pebble Beach Concours d'Elegance--the grand prize of the worldwide classic show car circuit. That's more wins than any other collector in the 50-year history of the event.

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