My friend and colleague Marty Densch has been following the story of the Tucker convertible, recently announced to again go on the auction block, this time at Barrett-Jackson’s upcoming Scottsdale sale in January. What makes all Tuckers valuable to collectors, seemingly more valuable than much rarer cars, is the story of the car as well as the controversy that has surrounded it.
While the $2.65 million that Ron Pratte got for Tucker #43 last January was probably an outlier (Pratte’s collection is world class, #43 is in superb shape, and cars do sometimes sell for ridiculous prices at B-J’s hyperhyped auction), Tuckers are still generally worth more than a million dollars. A couple of months after #43 sold, Tucker #34 went for $1.32 million at Gooding’s Amelia Island auction. That’s pretty close to the price that Tucker expert Mark Lieberman told me Tuckers are worth after I asked him about the “$3 million Tucker” (including B-J’s commission) in between those two auctions. Lieberman told me that Tuckers are usually worth $1.1 million plus or minus about 10%, almost regardless of condition. In part that current value reflects rarity. There are only 47 surviving Tuckers, some built by Tucker Preston’s company, other’s assembled from uncompleted cars after the company went under, 48 if you count the convertible. Rarity is only one part of the value equation. There are only 19 Hudson Italias, coachbuilt by Carrozzeria Touring, and the last one that sold at auction went for a quarter of the typical price of a Tucker, $265,000. What’s the difference? The story. Francis Ford Coppola didn’t make a movie about the Hudson Italia and there aren’t any conspiracy theories perpetuated about that car and its maker.
The Tucker convertible has its own story, or stories, if you believe the car’s critics in the Tucker community who themselves allege a conspiracy regarding the ragtop. The car has been portrayed as a pastiche of Tucker parts from other cars held together with dubious documentation. That’s not entirely unprecedented in the world of collectible cars. I’m agnostic on the Tucker convertible’s authenticity and as an aside I will say that some Tucker enthusiasts (as opposed to the Tucker owners I’ve met) are
kinda nuts rather zealous in their enthusiasm, but the critics do make a persuasive case. For what it’s worth, the convertible is acknowledged to be made of genuine Tucker parts, the dispute is whether Preston Tucker actually started to make a prototype convertible, and that this is that car, as the alleged provenance maintains.
Completed in 2009, the Tucker convertible has been offered for sale before with an original asking price of $5 million, later reduced by a million dollars, still with no sale. At a Russo and Steele 2010 auction, $1.4 million was offered for for the car but that bid did not meet the reserve price. Eventually the car will change hands and that’s when the true value of the car, both financially and as an automotive artifact, will be determined.
A bit of an insomniac, I like having something to read by my bedside before I fall asleep. Recently I’ve been going through the catalogs from RM Auction’s sales held in conjunction with the Concours of America at St. John’s this year and last. Coincidentally, just before Marty posted about the upcoming auction of the Tucker convertible, I’d been thinking about the authenticity of some of the rather high-ticket cars in those auctions. It seems that there is a ready market for cars with prestigious nameplates from the classic era that are not exactly originals, in some cases being assembled together years after the constituent parts left the factories.
I suppose part of the matter is the existence of coachbuilt cars. Today, luxury car brands offer bespoke and personalization programs. In the classic era of the 1920s and 1930s, luxury marques like Cadillac, Lincoln Packard and Duesenberg went a bit beyond offering your choice of custom colors or interiors. In addition to production models, the luxury marques offered “catalog customs”, body styles, usually designed by an outside company like LeBaron or Brunn, that could be built to order. They also sold rolling chassis, usually with a factory grille, hood and front fenders, for which customers could then have coachbuilders build them one of their own catalog bodies or even a full custom job. If you can afford to have a car custom built, you’re likely to want to drive in the latest style, so it was also not unusual for high end cars to be rebodied as fashions changed.
Perhaps that’s why the crowd that collects classic cars is more tolerant of what I’d call one of none cars, cars that never were. Also, with all of the “Eleanors” that have been proliferated fast and furiously, along with other muscle car clones, replicas and recreations might be looked down upon from some quarters, but classic car collectors seem to embrace high quality replicants just as well as they embrace the what-ifs.
Fran Roxas is one of the world’s most respected car restorers. His Packards and Cadillacs have won top prizes at Pebble Beach, Amelia Island and Meadow Brook (now the Concours of America). His fabrication skills are such that the first time he attempted to build a hot-rod type custom car, the Packard Myth, a what-if coupe styled in the fashion of LeBaron by influential Art Center College of Design instructor Strother MacMinn, the car was a Great Eight finalist for the Detroit Autorama’s prestigious Ridler Award. Not long ago, two other one of none cars that Roxas built each sold for about a million dollars. They were Cadillac V16s that had been among the catalog customs offered by Fleetwood back in the day, but had never been actually built.
At last year’s RM Auction at St. John’s a 1934 Duesenberg Model J boattail speedster sold for just over a half million dollars. Looking over the catalog description, though, it seems that while the engine and cowl are original Duesenberg components, not much else on the car is original to either Duesenberg, or, for the matter, the 1930s. The car has an interesting provenance that’s far to complicated for me to relate here (there’s that bit about a good story again), but it involves respected collectors Bill Harrah and Dick Kughn, so the car has credibility. How much authenticity it has is another question, since the car is wearing a body crafted in the 1970s by restorer Bob Gassoway. Yes that body was styled by long retired Duesenberg designer Herbert Newport, but the car is based on a reproduction chassis and it was assembled more than 40 years after the last Duesenberg was built by E.L. Cord.
Another car sold at St. John’s last year was a 1930 Packard 734 Speedster Runabout. After the catalog description tells us that only 70 of the sporty boattail cars were made in 1929 and just another 113 in 1930, it goes on to say, “High performance, stunning good looks, and extreme rarity have made the 734 Speedster Runabout one of the most highly prized of all Packards today.”
So far so good. Then the catalog says, “Although understood not to be an original 734 Speedster, the example offered here is believed to comprise a number of original Speedster parts. The other parts are either original Packard parts or accurate reproductions. The body is well constructed, and its details accurately match those of original Speedster bodies.” Now I haven’t done the research to find out how much a genuine 734 Speedster goes for these days, but this car sold for $187,000, which by most standards makes it a valuable collectible, genuine or not.
At this year’s St. John’s auction, there were also a couple of not quite authentic cars that sold for real money. The Le Grande Speedster, also a boattail, was a custom Cord L-29, designed by Philip Wright, a young designer who worked for the Murphy company of coachbuilders. Auburn president Roy Faulkner (Auburn, Cord and Duesenberg were all owned by E.L. Cord) approved the design and one was built. Today we’d call it a concept car. It had a streamlined shape and aircraft inspired pontoon fenders along with a rakish vee’d windshield. Introduced at the New York Auto Salon in 1931, the car was later shown in Toronto and then went on a tour of Cord dealerships in North America. Refitted with round headlights to replace the original Woodlites which were illegal in Europe, the Le Grande Speedster was shown at the Paris Concours d’Elegance where it won First Place. Then it disappeared somewhere in Europe and it is believed to have been destroyed during WWII. Many Cord enthusiasts have tried to find it but considering how valuable it would be, if it still existed it most likely would have surfaced by now.
In 1995, Arnie Addison decided to recreate the car. First he compiled every photo and every bit of information about the original that he could track down. Then he acquired an original L-29 chassis, engine and FWD drivetrain and shipped it, with his documentation, to Greg and Jeff Tyree, expert fabricators in Turlock, California. After nine years of painstakingly accurate fabrication, all in all about 20,000 man-hours of research and work, including consulting with the archives at the Auburn Cord Duesenberg Museum, the finished project has been displayed at elite shows, has won awards and has been the subject of articles in Hemmings, Classic Car and Automobile magazines. The recreation is esteemed enough among collectors to have been in the renowned car collection of billionaire
ambulance chaser trial lawyer, the late John O’Quinn.
From the auction catalog:
Guided by publicity photos published by the factory and made available by the ACD Museum, the Tyrees meticulously recreated the La Grande Speedster in every detail, and the chassis, grille, and front bumper were refurbished to exact factory specifications. Mr. Addison’s search for authenticity included locating an ACD Club member, Bill Kinsman, who had seen the Speedster at the 1931 New York Auto Salon and recalled its original colors of Royal Cranberry and Cashmere Cream…
Tyrees’ restoration project included many intricate and unique details that had to be re-created to meet Mr. Addison’s insistence on accuracy. These included a cigar rack hidden in the driver’s door and a bar set including two decanters in a similar compartment in the passenger door. The leather upholstery and dash were reproduced using the aforementioned factory photographs, and this car’s special dashboard knobs were modeled after those of the de Sakhnoffsky-designed L-29 Hayes Coupe. The car’s unique radiator ornament was created by a third Tyree brother, Mark, a sculptor. The “flathead” Lycoming straight-eight engine was lavishly detailed and painted Duesenberg Green. The dashboard was fitted with a reproduction Duesenberg-type altimeter and chronometer, as used by the original car. A working convertible top was meticulously constructed and then carefully fitted to fully disappear under a metal cover behind the seats. The windshield, door hardware, handles, and exterior door hinges were custom-designed only for this vehicle and were faithfully reproduced.
Writing for Automobile in 2005, designer Robert Cumberford said of the Le Grande Speedster recreation, “Always skeptical about re-creations, I was particularly severe in my analysis of form and line, and I compared early photographs with the car from the same angles. To me, this is the La Grande, down to the last curve and detail.” At July’s auction, Addison’s recreation of the 1931 Cord L-29 Le Grande Speedster sold for $368,500.
Also on sale at St. John’s this year was a 1948 Hudson Commodore Eight Custom Station Wagon. Like Fran Roxas’ Fleetwood Cadillac V16s, this car is a what-if. While the then radical “step-down” 1948 Hudson was a success for the company and continues to be popular with collectors (a popularity helped by the animated movie Cars, which features the Fabulous Hudson Hornet), after WWII, except for some handsome conventional pickup trucks, Hudson had discontinued producing commercial and utility vehicles as well as station wagons. While a single prototype step down based pickup was built, apparently the company never considered a wagon. In 1946 Don Butler, who had spent the war as an illustrator for instruction and training manuals for the U.S. Army was hired by Hudson’s styling chief Arthur Kibinger to do the final drawings on what would be the step-down models. Though the company wasn’t interested in producing them, using the step-down sedan as a basis, Butler drew town car, pickup and station wagon versions. One of his town car drawings included the then popular woodie appliques. Those drawings were unknown to the public until 1982, when Butler published The History of Hudson.
Bill Eggert, a Denver Hudson enthusiast, admired the way Butler’s wood trim complemented the step-down Hudson’s styling so he decided to build a 1948 Hudson woodie wagon based on Butler’s drawings, a rust-free 1948 Hudson Commodore Eight four door sedan and the roof of a ’54 Hudson donor car. I spoke with Eggert at the preview for the auction and he told me that he wasn’t trying to create something with show-car quality. Unlike the other cars mentioned in this post, Eggert wanted his car to look like a prototype, so you can tell that the ash framing has been hand carved and finished to fit. The liftgate’s window is not glass but rather Lexan polycarbonate, so the car is not quite period correct, since that material wasn’t for sale before 1958. A 1948 prototype more likely would have used acrylic sheet which was then available, having been introduced by Rohm & Haas in the 1930s. The woodwork took him over a year to fabricate and fit including having to applique a thin mahogany veneer to the car’s metal panels to get the compound curves correctly. As with the other cars mentioned here, authentic or not, it has collectible value. The hammered price was $159,500, within the presale estimate of $150-$200K.
It’s clear from the six figure prices that regardless of how genuine or authentic these cars are, they have acquired value even if they seem to me to be just as cobbled together as the critics of the Tucker convertible say it is. From the fact that someone’s already offered 7 figures for that “Tucker”, though, it means that regardless of what the Tucker purists say, it’s already a valuable artifact and piece of history with a story, no matter how much of an authentic Tucker it really is or isn’t.
*Theseus’ paradox, also known as Grandfather’s Axe (sometimes George Washington’s Axe) is a paradox that raises the question of whether an object which has had all its component parts replaced remains fundamentally the same object. – Wikipedia
Ronnie Schreiber edits Cars In Depth, a realistic perspective on cars & car culture and the original 3D car site. If you found this post worthwhile, you can dig deeper at Cars In Depth. If the 3D thing freaks you out, don’t worry, all the photo and video players in use at the site have mono options. Thanks for reading – RJS