RALPH’S DAYTONA -Bill Orth-
All vintage car enthusiasts love nothing more than a good “barn find” story. The idea of stumbling over a neat old car that’s been sleeping out of sight for years is amazingly tantalizing, even though they are sometimes victims of their storage environments and have just deteriorated away to piles of rust. Obviously, the value and scarcity of such a car varies a great deal as do the odds of finding one. A ‘72 Chevrolet Impala 4door sedan that someone’s grandmother stopped driving twenty years ago before it was left in a shed is simply one of hundreds of thousands of those cars; an interesting curiosity, but certainly not worth the expense of restoring and probably useful only as a donor car to help restore a more valuable Chevy. But the artifact is interesting to a car nut nonetheless. When a car that was built in very limited numbers and had great desirability, performance or prestige associated with it, the odds of finding a lost one become vanishingly slim. How many Bugatti Type 35s could still be playing hide-and-seek out there? Or original Cobras, or 16-cylinder Cadillacs? These rarities were so few and far between from the beginning that it makes finding one today very unlikely. Such cars were always valuable, so very few were allowed to quietly disappear, as they were a significant asset. When an elderly owner of something special passed on, family members often fought over who was going to get the prize. If it was just some tired old Buick, however, no one cared and many such relics just sat until some automotive archaeologist stumbled onto them, picked off a few needed parts and sent the rest to the shredder. Authorities on any special car can tell us how many were made and which ones, if any, are still unaccounted for today….but the odds get less likely every year of finding something like a Gullwing in a widow’s garage.
Given the huge variety of things people are fascinated by, there are scores of collectors who are constantly snooping through estate sales, overgrown back yards, sheds and barns looking for antique household items, old bicycles, motorcycles, toys, guns, sporting goods, books, stamps, cowboy hats and high button shoes. And everything else from Artwork to Zebra skins. If an antique furniture buff finds a desirable old car, he knows a car guy to pass its location on to, and vice versa. Uppermost in our world, of course, are Ferraris. Even the models made in relatively large numbers have been mostly accounted for, since we have been through two very strong market upswings—in 1988 and 1999—that encouraged the sleuths to diligently follow up any leads they had about an old Ferrari hiding in a garage somewhere. When a really rare one would sell at Barrett-Jackson for well into the millions, that would make international news and prompt anyone who’s Uncle Louie had one squirreled away somewhere to talk him out of it and put it up for sale. So there’s not too many left. Eccentrics have done everything from walling them up in basement garages to actually burying them. I have been fortunate to have found several over the years: a 206 Dino, three 250 pf Coupes and a 365GT 2+2, all of which were peacefully snoozing in dark garages, covered with dust and boxes of old clothes. And that doesn’t count the horde I was shown in a disused commercial chicken coop in New Jersey twenty-five years ago that included a Daytona, a Lusso, a California Spider, a 340 America, several lesser lights and a 275GTB!
Anyway, one more surfaced recently that led me on a three-month-long quest through the maddening structure of the California probate court and a frustrating competitive bid process administered by an inept attorney. Here’s the story: A rather eccentric gentleman in Redondo Beach had a foreign car repair shop, body shop and motorcycle dealership back in the ‘60s thru the late ‘70s. He had a weakness for Italian cars and focused his attention on Alfas, Maseratis and the occasional Lamborghini, but what he really liked was Ferraris. Besides the Ferraris he worked on, he personally owned several over the years that he bought as projects for his shop to restore. (One of which was an early pontoon-fender 250TR) In 1973, he heard about a damaged Daytona Spyder on the east coast. He bought the car as-is, had it trucked home and set his minions in the body shop to work repairing the relatively light front end damage. Following the repairs, being an independent sort, Ralph had his Daytona painted a particularly vile pale metallic green, just because the snooty local Ferrari “experts” all told him it had to be red. Beyond independent, Ralph was contrary, belligerent and an inconoclast. Unfortunately, he was also 6’ 4” and rather portly, so he didn’t fit in the Ferrari very well, and after accumulating only a few thousand miles, he parked it the day it turned 20,000 miles and never drove it again.
Ralph was also quite a packrat, and after selling his business in L.A., he retired to a modest home on a hillside in the Mojave Desert, in the proverbial middle of nowhere. (Google Earth: punch in “Llano, CA” and zoom in on 34.28.05.99N 117.50.04.82 W) He had accumulated quite a trousseau of stuff over the years, reflecting his many and varied interests…and his weakness for government salvage auctions. By this time he was divorced and the combination of no supervision, four acres of covenant-free desert scrub land and no neighbors led to an amazing collection of, well, crap. The trove included a couple of military surplus trucks; two bulldozers, a few huge forklifts, a dozen dead cars, bales of wire rope, pallets of empty oil drums, ship’s anchor chains, gallons of surplus paint, stacks of truck tires, steel workbenches, irrigation equipment, nine old motorcycles and practically anything else you can imagine that is heavy, dirty and mechanical. He had four old semi truck trailers that were filled top to bottom with his smaller treasures, like outboard motors, crates of dynamite, bizarre tools, hardware and bins and bins of loose parts, in which there was not a bit of organization. Distracted with all this tantalizing debris as he was, the Ferrari was backed into a dark garage on the property, the battery removed, a cover placed over it and the door pulled down….in 1980.
Fast-forward to early 2007: Ralph dies (intestate, naturally) at 75, and his estranged daughter becomes the executor of his estate. A lady who has had little contact with the man for decades is suddenly faced with four acres of junk, no estate planning of any kind and a valuable Ferrari in the garage of a now-uninhabited home two thousand miles from the city where she lives. Oh, boy. Making a very long story short, she and a friend who knew her father start sorting out the mess, including making inquiries as to who might want to buy the car. Months pass by while myself and others go to look at it and present bids to the estate. These bids have to be approved by the probate court (and distant siblings) and the whole process becomes an exercise in frustration for all involved.
The car itself had an interesting history even before it was entombed in the Mojave. Sold new at Luigi Chinetti’s dealership in Connecticut, it was traded back in when just a year old. The second owner, from Boston, only had it two months until someone in a Volvo coming around a curve in the wrong lane ran head-on into it. The owner decided to sell it unrepaired and that’s where Ralph entered the story and his tenure began. Curiously, although the Ferrari market was in a downturn when the Daytona was mothballed, he let it snooze through the huge value run-up when Enzo died in the late ‘80s; then the market cooled off for ten years until the internet’s many new millionaires triggered the next boom in 1999. Ralph and the Daytona ignored that one, too. Ironically, and to the benefit of Ralph’s heirs, the Daytona market has been heating up again for the past several years and the Mummy of the Mojave reentered the world at just about the right time this fall—after almost another ten years of patience.
When I flew out to see the car in early September, it was still covered with dust and tied to the garage floor with thousands of cobwebs. Amazingly, none of the dozen mouse traps Ralph had set in the car had caught any prey; there were none of the repugnant odors that often steep into hibernating cars and, overall, the car was in surprisingly good condition. The windowless garage, combined with the dry desert air had kept the car benignly dormant. Absolutely no rust or corrosion—the death knell for stored cars elsewhere—had developed, the leather was still pliable and the engine still turned freely, but the estate decreed that no attempt would be made to try starting it. The following three months consumed me with a preoccupation to acquire the car, led to another trip out there to stake my claim and schmooze the executors and trying to outmaneuver the other bidders.
Finally, in early December all the probate court’s waiting periods expired, the estate’s beneficiaries’ rights to protest or otherwise throw monkey wrenches into the deal ran out and we were awarded the car over the best efforts of other serious bidders. Two days later I was headed to California with our truck and trailer to collect the Daytona. Despite some snow & chain laws in the mountains, the return trip was uneventful and she arrived here safely. Continuing this car’s penchant for coincidence and uncommon experiences, we have just sold it to…the same gentleman who was attacked by that Volvo 34 years ago! He plans a full restoration to its original light cinnamon color and will park it in his garage next to his same-color Daytona coupe and a rare 275GTB/4C. Don’t you love it when a story has a happy ending?
-- Bill Orth –