Auction Report

A stress test for the prewar segment

by Rick Carey
6 June 2021 11 min read
Photo by RM Sotheby's

The 2021 auctions at Amelia Island from RM Sotheby’s and Bonhams presented an important opportunity to take an in-depth look at the market for cars built before World War II. Out of 205 vehicle lots offered by the two auctions, 76 (37.1 percent) dated from before World War II, and 27 (13.2 percent) were built before American entry into World War I. This matrix breaks them down by model year.

 Amelia AuctionsPre-WWII (before 1942)WWI-WWII (1919-1942)Pre-WWI (before 1918)
Lots Sold/Offered181/20562/7740/5022/27
Sale Percentage88.3%80.5%80%81.5%
Sale Total$62,658,350$26,507,000$20,798,880$5,641,220
Sold <Low/>High Estimate49.7%/17.1%53.2%/19.4%%57.5%/22.5%45.5%/18.2%
Bid above $1M/Total12/$31,337,0006/$17,630,0005/$15,205,0001/$2,425,000
Top Sale$5,725,000 (RM)$5,725,000 (RM)$2,425,000 (Bonhams)

Thirty of the 77 sold pre-WWII lots offered (39 percent) were No Reserve, but even with that important qualification, there’s no escaping the conclusion that pre-WWII collection consignments performed well here. Measuring selling prices versus reserve on lots that had them, we’d go further and say they did better than post-war cars.

There were big Swings in some cars, not least the week’s top sale, RM’s Duesenberg Model J “Disappearing Top” Torpedo Roadster by Murphy that weighed heavily on aggregate comparisons, selling for $5.2 million hammer, $5.725 million all-in, against a $4 million high estimate.

But let’s cut the analysis a bit finer. Twenty five of the 77 prewar Amelia lots offered had crossed auction blocks before. It’s too tedious to parse all 25 of them (and not all were viewed and described on-site, which makes direct comparisons impossible) but some scored big wins and only a few took big hits. All in all, these sales suggest that interest in stylish, creatively engineered old cars remains strong.

Here are a few highlights, sorted by auction history.

1907 Locomobile Model H 35hp Touring Car

Rick Carey

Sold for $179,200 (estimate: $160,000–$200,000) | Bonhams Lot 133 | #4+ Condition

S/N 1578; Engine # 1291; Black with red wood-spoke wheels and chassis over black leather; natural cloth top. 350/35hp ALAM T-head inline four, 3-speed. RHD. Rushmore acetylene headlights, Gray and Davis kerosene sidelights, Solar kerosene taillight, Rushmore acetylene searchlight, Stewart speedometer, Phinney Walker clock, dual right side spares with mirror, Bosch magneto, Rubes bulb horn, three element exhaust whistle.

Evaluation: Unrestored original | Discovered by James Melton in Ambler, Pennsylvania, in 1946 with a wood pickup body, later passed on to Henry Austin Clark, Jr. Today, it’s in wonderfully complete and sound highly original condition. Not the original body but reportedly from the period. Believed to be the only surviving 1907 Model H. Runs, drives and tours. Has a delightful patina and begs to be driven. Comes with the refinished pickup body in case it needs to be put back into commercial service or haul paint and lumber from Home Depot. Clem and Mary Lange Collection.

Bonhams

Bottom line: Some cars deserve to be scruffy, and this is one of them. It wears its history proudly. Preserved by two of the most prescient early collectors, James Melton and Henry Austin Clark, Jr., it’s the only known survivor of its year and model. The exhaust whistle is a delightful relic of early collecting, too. The car perpetuates early automobile collecting history, is more than good enough to be driven and much too good to be confused by a restoration that would erase its history.

1910 National Model 40 Speedway Roadster

Photo: Rick Carey

Sold for $145,600 (estimate $250,000–$350,000) | Bonhams Lot 136 | #2- Condition

S/N 3272; Engine # 7273; Blue over brown leather; no top. 447/40hp ALAM T-head inline four, Mallory distributor, Linkert carburetor, 3-speed. RHD. Dual bolster fuel and oil tanks, dual rear-mounted spares, wood-spoke wheels, 36×5 rear, 34×4 front tires, radiator stoneguard, electric starter added.

Evaluation: Older restoration | Good older paint and upholstery. Brass and nickel are decent but could use attention. The frame and suspension are well-painted but over old rust pits. A quality old car that runs strongly. Clem and Mary Lange Collection.

Bottom line: OK, so this has to be taken for what it is, unsubstantiated oral history. Arthur Greiner entered a stripped down National 40 in the first races at the then-dirt Indianapolis Speedway, winning the best amateur trophy. His racer went back to National, got a Speedway Roadster body and was sold to the owner of the National Mining Company. It later went to a National mine in Calgary, Alberta. This National was discovered near Calgary in 1959 with several features (drilled cross members, raked steering column, short gear and brake levers, large fuel and oil tanks) that suggested racing origin. Later acquired by National proponent Jim Grundy, Jr., then restored by Don Meyer in its present configuration. Set fastest pre-1914 time at Goodwood in 2002. Is it the Greiner 1910 Indianapolis car? Probably not. But it’s a fun story, and there’s no evidence to disprove it. Today it is handsome, powerful and sporty, which substantiates its value here.


Data Dive: How are prewar cars performing over the long run?

Repeat sales—that is, cars that have sold more than once—are particularly helpful because they provide apples-to-apples price comparisons. By tracking a large quantity of such transactions in a repeat sales index, we can get a birds-eye view of a vehicle or segment. We’ve already built such indices for 1980s and ’90s classics, 1950s cars, and the Mercedes-Benz 300SL. In the case of prewar cars, the task was a bit more complicated, as the serial numbers we typically use to track specific vehicles were wildly inconsistent in this era. Nevertheless, we‘ve been able to confirm two or more transactions for some 750 prewar vehicles (Note that we focused on the high-end of the segment. We love Ford Model As, but they’re a completely different discussion.)

What does the index show us? Mainly, stability. Whereas the line for average price—which includes those noisy one-time sales—has fluctuated wildly, cars that have come to auction repeatedly have hovered around $500K for more than a decade. Which makes sense. Collectors who seek these cars tend to be wealthy enough to be insulated from economic pressures (although we do see a small dip following the Great Recession), and they know what they’re looking at. And of course, the cars themselves have been bought and sold for longer than most of us have been alive, making for a mature market. Mature, but not showing any sign of decline. —John Wiley


1913 Mercer Type 35K Runabout

Rick Carey

Sold for $2,425,000 (estimate: $1,000,000 - $1,500,000) | Bonhams Lot 142 | #2- Condition

S/N 1186; Engine # 954; Light yellow with black accents over black leather with a black cloth top. 301/34hp ALAM (65 brake horsepower) T-head inline 4-cylinder, 4-speed. Flechter carburetor, external gearshift, Rushmore headlights, C.M. Hall kerosene sidelights, electric Dietz Dainty Tail Light, body color wood spoke wheels, 32 x 4 Silvertown tires, electric horn, opening windshield, dual rear spares.

Evaluation: Older restoration | First identified in 1951 with Frank Miller in Glendale, Ohio, and listed in the 1954, 1961 and 1968 Stutz Club rosters with the Runabout body (not much more than a Raceabout other than doors, top and windshield) and the current engine and chassis numbers. Good older paint, upholstery and brass except for water spotted radiator. Old interior trim panels. Well-restored, well-driven and well-maintained. Road used chassis. Clem and Mary Lange collection.

Bottom Line: Sold by Bonhams in 2004 at Brookline, Massachusetts, for $412,000 in not much different condition than it is today. The Brookline underbidder had a rare case of "underbidder's remorse" and sought out the Langes, who had bought it. They declined a generous offer, and today's stupendous result shows the Langes were right. This is an heroic T-head Mercer, but one best appreciated by a slim sliver of collectors who appreciate its rare coachwork. This will be a difficult result to reprise, but the new owner likely doesn't care, because this is a singular car.

1919 Pierce-Arrow Series 31 38hp 4-Passenger Roadster

1919-Pierce-Arrow-Series-31-Four-Passenger-Roadster-_0
Darin Schnabel/RM Sotheby's

Sold for $123,200 (estimate: $200,000–$250,000) | RM Sotheby's Lot 122 | #3 Condition

S/N 311365; Engine # 311270; Grey with black fenders and aprons over black leather with a black leatherette top. 415/38 ALAM hp T-head inline six, 3-speed. RHD. Waltham speedometer and clock, varnished wood spoke wheels, dual rear-mounted spares, Dawley headlights.

Evaluation: Visually maintained, largely original | Known history of informed Pierce-Arrow enthusiasts from 1930, refurbished as needed along the way but never fully restored. Retains its original bodywork and wood framing but has a correct type replacement engine. The paint is protective if done only to driver standards, as is the older upholstery and interior trim with some wear on the bolsters of the bucket front seats. The engine compartment is clean and orderly showing evidence of touring use and age. A stately old Pierce, one of three believed to survive with this coachwork, which looks frumpy with the tall top erected but would be a sleek runabout with it stowed.

Bottom Line: Sold by Bonhams from the Short collection in 2011 for $141,200 and later offered by Gooding at Pebble Beach in 2011 and Scottsdale in 2014 without selling. Curiously, it was reported sold by RM at the disposition of the Elkhart Collection in October of last year at a price of $168,000. How it showed up here at No Reserve showing only 3 more miles on its odometer and changed hands for this modest price is unexplained. Its history, preservation and coachwork made it a sound value at Elkhart, and it is a good value here at the substantially reduced price.

1929 Duesenberg Model J 'Disappearing Top' Torpedo, Body by Murphy

Duesenberg
Ryan Merrill/RM Sotheby's

Sold for $5,725,000 (estimate: $3,500,000–$4,000,000) | RM Sotheby's Lot 156 | #1 Condition

S/N 2199; Engine # J-414; Brushed aluminum with black fenders and aprons and polished accents over blue leather, wood door panels with a blue cloth top. 420/265hp dual overhead cam inline eight, 3-speed. Chrome wire wheels, Firestone tires, dual sidemounts, Twilite headlights, single place rumble seat.

Evaluation: Concours restoration | One of six similar bodies built by Murphy, the only one with the rumble seat, brushed aluminum finish and flared lower tail. Originally delivered to David Gray in Santa Barbara, later updated with skirted fenders and 17-inch wheels. ACD Category One certified. Restored by RM, class 2nd at Pebble Beach in 2019, class winner at Amelia last year. Excellent paint, chrome, interior and top. The chassis is better than new. The only noted issue is an area along the lower rear of the bodywork where the aluminum has been worked and not completely brushed out.

Bottom Line: Sold by RM at Arizona in 2016 for $3 million before the most recent restoration. A spectacular car that blew expectations out of the water with this result. It is hugely expensive, particularly since there are believed to be three other similar Murphy Torpedos out there and it has exhausted its Pebble Beach allotment until 2029.

1932 Cadillac 355-B V-8 2/4-Passenger Roadster, Body by Fisher

RM Sotheby's

Sold for $156,800 (estimate: $150,000–$180,000) | RM Sotheby's Lot 157 | # 1- Condition

S/N Engine No. 1201917; Engine # 1201917; Red and cream over beige leather over a beige cloth top. 353cid 115hp V-8, 3-speed. Free-wheeling, chrome spoke body color wire wheels, wide whitewalls, dual enclosed sidemounts, dual remote spotlights, rumble seat, golf bag door, small Pilot-Rays, luggage rack, build sheet copy documented.

Evaluation: Concours restoration | Restored in the 90's, CCCA Premier and Cadillac LaSalle Senior and still looks like it. The paint, chrome, underbody, chassis are better than new. The upholstery shows scant evidence of any use beyond driving on and off concours fields while carrying a trophy. One of only two 355-B Roadsters known to survive of some 30 built.

Bottom Line: Reported sold by Worldwide at Scottsdale last year for $129,250, the result here is materially better than that but the Cadillac's presentation has suffered not at all and the odometer displays only five more miles than it did sixteen months ago. It is a sound value in a sound, usable and presentable Cadillac V-8 Roadster.

1933 Duesenberg Model J Dual Cowl Phaeton, Body by LaGrande

Rick Carey

Sold for $1,655,000 (estimate: $1,000,000–$1,250,000) | Bonhams Lot 143 | #1- Condition

S/N 2355; Engine # J-281; Black with red sweep panel over Rose leather with a black cloth top. 420/265hp dohc inline 8-cylinder, 3-speed. Chrome wire wheels, dual side wide whitewalls, chrome-wrapped dual sidemounts, dual windshields, wind wings, luggage rack, black cloth covered trunk, Twilite headlights.

Evaluation: Concours restoration | Engine swapped by the first owner J.H. Brewer from chassis 2302 replacing the original engine J-334. This body (#1007 from 2498/J-482) replaced the original Murphy Convertible Sedan by Russell Strauch in the 1950s. Later owned by Richard Boeshore and Jerry J. Moore. ACD Category 1 certified in 2006. Displayed at Pebble Beach in 2008. An excellent concours quality older restoration that has been updated with paint, upholstery and top in the 2000s and since then maintained in concours condition. Barely any use or age at all. Clem and Mary Lange collection.

Bonhams

Bottom Line: Sold at Barrett-Jackson WestWorld in 2008 for $1.1 million before the most recent cosmetic redo. LaGrande may have been Duesenberg's euphemism for stock bodies from E.L. Cord's Union City Body Company, but they reflect the design talent of Gordon Buehrig and are among some of the most appreciated and sought Duesenbergs. A superb automobile with known history and ACD certification, this is a handsome price for a handsome automobile.

1933 Chrysler CL Imperial Dual Cowl Phaeton, Body by LeBaron

Bonhams

Not sold at a $480,000 high bid (estimate $550,000–$675,000) | Bonhams Lot 162 | #1- Condition

S/N 7803639; Engine # CL1345; Light grey with maroon fenders and accent over dark red leather with a black cloth top. 385/125hp, 4-speed. Chrome wire wheels, wide whitewalls, dual sidemounts with mirrors, vee windshield, rear folding windshield, Flex Beam headlights, luggage trunk.

Evaluation: Concours restoration | Built for Marjorie Merriweather Post and would look right at home at her Palm Beach mansion, Mar-a-Lago. The body comes from her 1931 Imperial CG. Excellent older paint starting to show some flaws but no chips or abuse. The engine is clean and dry but the chassis has storage dust. The interior is excellent with minimal stretch on the front seat. Gauges are crisp and clear. Delaminating driver's windshield. Still very close to concours condition. Howard Fafard collection.

Bottom Line: Offered by Bonhams here in 2016 where it was reported bid to $580,000, this is an exceptionally handsome car with a colorful history. The seller's decision that it's worth more than this bid is understandable.

1933 Rolls-Royce Phantom II All-Weather Tourer, Body by Hooper

Rick Carey

Sold for $179,200 (estimate: $180,000–$230,000) | Bonhams Lot 170 | #3+ Condition

S/N 110MY; Engine # JC75; Dark olive green over parchment leather with a beige cloth top. 7,668/120hp, 4-speed, polished wheel discs, Michelin tires, dual sidemounts, Auster-style rear windshield.

Evaluation: Older restoration | Restored in the early '90s. Cracking old paint with many nicks, chips and areas starting to rust. The upholstery is sound but well-used. Good chrome. It may once have been a proud show car but now has been toured and the restoration's age shows. Knox Kershaw collection.

Bottom Line: Attractive coachwork contributes to the appeal of this U.S.-ordered Phantom II which is an ideal tour car with full top and rollup windows. It's been offered twice before, by Gooding at Scottsdale in 2009 and by RM at Arizona in 2017, attracting unsuccessful bids of $220,000 and $170,000 respectively. It was finally time for it to move on and the result here should be satisfying for both the seller and the buyer.

1934 Bugatti Type 57 Cabriolet, Body by Franay

Bonhams

Sold for $1,325,000 (estimate $800,000–$1,000,000) | Bonhams Lot 144 | #1 Condition

S/N 57127; Engine # 57127; Dark blue over tan leather with natural ostrich inserts with a beige cloth top. RHD. Marchal headlights, dual Cicca horns, folding windshield, dual chrome wrapped rear-mounted spares, black wire wheels, Michelin tires, rumble seat.

Evalution: Concours restoration | The only Bugatti Type 57 bodied by Franay, sweeping fenders, dual rear spares with chrome housings and a very-Franay thin chrome accent sweeping down body's break line. Ordered by German actress Hella Hartwich, then living in Paris with director Billy Wilder. After WWII owned by French moviemaker Jean Rouch and used by him in the film Petit à Petit. Restored for Clem and Mary Lange in 2012–2015, Best of Show at Keeneland in 2016. Original engine, cambox and transmission. Excellent paint and chrome. Inviting and unusual upholstery. Excellent engine compartment and chassis. Essentially flawless. Clem and Mary Lange collection.

Bottom Line: Most Bugattis have stories, but few are as colorful as this one's. Its handsome Franay cabriolet body is sufficient to commend it to even the most jaded collectors. The hammer price is 20 percent over the high estimate, but the car's appeal is difficult, if not impossible, to quantify and leaves the result in the hands of the high bidder and the underbidders.

1934 Mercedes-Benz 500/540K Spezial Roadster, Body by Sindelfingen

Rick Carey

Sold for $4,900,000 (estimate: $4,500,000–$5,000,000) | Bonhams Lot 160 | #2- Condition

S/N 105136; Engine # 105136; Red over cream leather with a black cloth top. 5,401/100-160hp inline supercharged 8-cylinder, 4-speed. Chrome wire wheels, Excelsior tires, Bosch headlights, dual spotlights, dual rear-mounted spares, rumble seat, semaphores, "waterfall" grille molding.

Evaluation: Older restoration | Built for Berlin attorney, Dr. Alfons Sack, with numerous special features. Extensively researched by Jan Melin. Factory upgraded with 540K engine and hood sides for Sack in 1938, stamped with the original 500K engine number. Discovered near Poznan, Poland by Alf Johansson and Birger J. Nillsen in the 1970s, restored in Sweden for Ingemar Bengtsson in the early '90s. Excellent older cosmetics. Doors close solidly. The chassis is done pretty much like new and not overdone. There are a few small chips and a paint flaw on the left cowl. The engine compartment is clean and orderly but old, oxidizing and a little oily.

Bottom Line: Sold by Bonhams at Mercedes-Benz in 2014 from Bengtsson for $4,222,179 (€3,105,000 at the time, this result is Euros €4,008,000) and little used since. It was originally "Speedgray" with green accents and silver leather, had partial rear wheel spats and chrome-wrapped rear-mounted spares and would look great in that livery. A magnificent automobile with a documented history of only a few owners and as expensive as it deserves to be.

1935 Mercedes-Benz 500K 3-Position Roadster, Body by Windovers

Darin Schabel/RM Sotheby's

Sold for $1,600,000 (estimate: $1,000,000–$1,500,000) | RM Sotheby's Lot 185 | #2- Condition

S/N 123699; Engine # 123699; Black over brown leather; black cloth top. 4,984/160hp. RHD. Skirts, Mother-of-Pearl instrument panel, body-color wire wheels, blackwall tires, cowl mounted semaphores, Bosch headlights, dip beam light, outside exhaust headpipes.

Evaluation: Older restoration | Intriguing British history with first owner William “Willie” Henry Rhodes-Moorhouse, whose Hurricane fighter claimed 12 kills during the Battle of Britain before being shot down in 1940. Restored years ago by M-B then cosmetically redone by RM Restorations in 2007 and still in excellent condition showing some use. Displayed at Pebble Beach in 2007 and Amelia in 2008. Represented as the original engine and body. Rare and attractive coachwork.

Evaluation: A Cabriolet A from Sindelfingen is worth this much, or more, and this Windovers-bodied 3-position roadster is more unusual and sleek. Bonhams offered it at Quail Lodge in 2000 where it was bid to $350,000 but not sold. The successful hammer bid here is close to its presale high estimate but should be regarded as a good value in a unique and well-restored supercharged Mercedes-Benz.

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