By Mark Christensen
Photography by Charles White
The Blackhawk Museum houses rare automobiles and the stuff of dreams
Two arm-thick silver serpent sliver the mammoth silver fenders of the Maharaja of Rewa’s six-ton, silver-bodied 1926 Daimler, a metal castle riding on tires as tall as stagecoach wheels. The silver snakes gape opened-mouthed, red, forked tongues wagging on either side of the silver Greek goddess whose decapitated head is the Daimler’s melon-sized radiator cap. The serpents are horns. The Daimler’s windows are divided for a smoked partition when the Maharaja was accompanied by his mistress. There is only one door, on the passenger side.
Unusual in our world of pop out, built-by-the-hundred-thousand Chryslers and Camrys. But here, the otherworldly Daimler is just one of more than 150 near invaluable classic cars on display – more than 300 equally remarkable cars are in storage – each a product of an inspired automobile evolution whose double helix of genius and indulgence are birth not to the fiberglass phantasms of latter-day concept-car design but to dense-as-uranium, cost-is-never-an object dream machines born from the top of the periodic table. Don Williams, who has assembled this automotive equivalent of the Louvre, says “When I bought the Daimler, I told the towing people to bring a flat bed truck, They showed up with a tow truck instead and when they tried to lift the car, the front wheels of the tow truck popped off the ground.”
Labels limit. To pigeonhole the Blackhawk Collection as “mindboggling” is to damn with faint praise. One defining inhabitant of this automobile museum is a Bugatti Royale, the priciest car in the world. Only seven survive and each is valued at roughly $10 million apiece. The Blackhawk has a beautiful Royale on display, all but overshadowed by at least 20 even more rare and extravagant cars.
Perhaps the best ensemble of fine automobiles in the United States, any argument might hinge on when you visit. The exhibit changes regularly so patrons rarely see all the same cars twice.
The place is really less a museum than a university with a curriculum written in steel. Tucked in the desert hills above Oakland, you use a treasure map to find Blackhawk. Stone on the outside and inside black granite floors and soft-carpeted walls under a dark pin-lighted ceiling. Elegantly unobtrusive Art-Deco, two storied and high-ceilinged. Read that big, The creation of Mr. Williams, an unexpected figure in the Zeppelin-ego-ed realm of high-end car collecting. Casually dressed, blond, fit, in his late fifties, he is not from the I-me-mine school: “You don’t really ever own cars like these,” he says. “You are only their custodians.”
Williams was born in Seattle but grew up mostly in a dark-blue-collared neighborhood in San Diego. His high school cars were unpetigreed, a $100, 1955 Ford that “blew up,” then a $40, 1952 Plymouth “obliterated on one side.” He went to L.A. College and to work for Ilmars Kersels, his first mentor. “You hear about guys who constantly changed careers, well I was constantly changed careers just working for him. Ilmars did everything from selling tape recorders to manufacturing slot cars. I quit three times, but no matter what, I had to be back at work at seven o’clock the next morning.”
Williams’ first collector’s item was a 1941, 110 Packard bought for $600. When quickly offered $1,800 for the car, it occurred to him: I could make my life out of this.
“I did everything early – decided what I wanted to do early, fell in love early, had kids early. I was impatient for my future.”
We are standing by a 1933 Pierce Arrow Silver Arrow, a fast-backed little land yacht and Williams’ first really major buy – one of three still existing – only five were built. “This is not the one I bought. I bought another one. A guy in Watts wanted $6,500, a lot of money in 1968. The car was sitting in an old chicken shack of a garage. I offered him 45,000 and was on my way.”
But even $5,000 Pierce Arrows cost money, and banks are more likely to make loans to itinerant perpetual-motion-machine inventors than to young, unfunded luxury car speculators. Strapped for cash, Williams began supplying cars to the movies, and his big break was Chinatown. He made a deal with director Roman Polanski to provide 16 “feature” cars, plus about 30 ND’s (nondescripts) at $400 a week apiece. Sixteen weeks of shooting turned into 32 weeks. Bingo, egg money.
“You could buy cars for nothing that are worth fortunes today.” Like a Ferrari Barchetta that he picked up for $3,500, now worth $2.5 million. “Thirty years ago, it was just another car, which the owner left out on La Cienega and Sunset overnight. I told him to put the key under the mat and I’d pick it up in the morning.”
Onward, upward. He cites the exotic car boom of the late 1980’s as “the craziest time” and prides himself for being “the first to get out of Ferraris.” This, when “factory sticker” $300,000 Ferraris went for four times $300,000. His exit clue was flatfooted. “When I had so-called car experts - ex-real estate salesmen who couldn’t have told a Ferrari from a Ford six months before – telling me the bubble’d never burst. I knew it was time to sell. I’ve done fairly well since.
Though few, if any, of the automobiles here are available for purchase, Williams keeps a complete inventory of similar “buyable” cars on-site. Consider the difference between the chance to observe Miss May in Playboy and the chance to be granted Miss May’s hand in marriage.
What is Williams Rx for success? The information. “To keep people’s confidence, you have to keep your backers informed. So I tried to learn everything about each car I set out to buy. I did as well as I did largely because I became dedicated to knowing everything about each car.”
Williams will go to great lengths of creativity to acquire an automobile – he once traded his house in Scottsdale for a 1931, V-16 Cadillac all-weather Phaeton. But how to tell a transcendent car? “If a women likes it,” he says. “Women often have a better feel for timeless style than men. When I see woman gather around a car, I take notice.”
And for those tempted to invest? “Really rare, rare cars are recession proof and fad-proof. Go for the high end of the market. I may love a ’57 Chevy convertible, but even in mint condition with a factory four speed and fule injection, the value be limited – however hard to find, they were still mass produced – and the ’57 owes its value to a generation that will ultimately pass.”
He also favors finished products. “In the 1980’s, you could make money having a car restored. Not just because you were making the car better, but because while the restoration took place, the car would inflate in value above the cost of the work. Those days are gone. Restorations are usually a black hole.”
Sourcing parts for 70-year-old handmade cars is a nightmare, machining those parts bu hand is even worse. The costs are bank-breaking and, asked if he owns all the cars, he laughs. “No, I couldn’t do this without collector friends from England, China, Japan, all over the world.”
The Blackhawk collection is eclectic – everything from a right-hand-drive 1975 Ford Gulf Mirage roadster LeMans winner to an 1893 Duruea, one of the first cars ever made, a black wagon steered by a tiller, basically a horse buggy writ putt-putt car, on loan from the Smithsonian. All around, the rarest of the rare Aston Martins, Maseratis and Delahayes in every red, white and pearlescent hue. Dominating one end of the museum is a vast wood bodied boat tail 1924 “Tulip-wood” Hispano-Suiza – a model of which is available from Franklin Mint. Though the car is as long as a Mini-Cooper towing a Mini-Cooper, the rosewood body only weighs 120 pounds from the cowl back. There is also the 1937 red boat tail Murphy roadster Cadillac – its glistening flank slashed with the great swoop of chrome – beside Clark Gable’s Duesenberg designed by Gable and Everett Miller; a 1911 Rolls-Royce Silver Ghost, the second oldest in the world – the oldest one is owned by Rolls – and a 1931 Isotta Fraschini, the most expensive car of its time, parked not far from Lady Docker’s Daimler, another exquisite land yacht. Her husband ran the company, which supplied fine automobiles to the Royals.
“Unfortunately,” Williams says, “she bragged at a party that her car cost more than the Queen’s, which cost her husband his job and Daimler the Royal franchise.”
Among his favorite his favorite is a massively charismatic black 1931 Voisin, which looks like Darth Vader’s 1932 Ford hot rod – a car that missed best-in-show at Pebble Beach because of its “propeller” fan, which judges incorrectly judged it to be incorrect.
“When the car came up for sale, I knew it would go fast. I flew immediately to Florida and gave the owner a check. I said you can keep the car until the check clears but I would like the title. It’s a good thing I got it because by the end of the afternoon he had six higher offers.”
Does Williams have the best job ever, or what? Who would not be pearlescent green with envy (though if it’s and consolation many of these perfect machines are incontinent with age and pee oil everywhere). Ant regrets? “Aside from the computer, the automobile has had more influence on modern culture than anything else. Yet what university offers a degree based on the design, engineering and automotive manufacturing history? I’d love to provide resources for that, but haven’t had that much luck.” The museum was associated with the University of California but it was “ a bad marriage.” A shame. One could suffer a worse fate than entering the Blackhawk Museum on a Monday morning and exiting on a Friday afternoon three years later with a Ph.D.
In Priceless Car.
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