Don Williams – a lifetime of elite collector cars
Old Cars Weekly
February 16, 1995
In May of 1993, a new auction company with new goals came on the scene. At a period when collector car auctions were seeing some rough times, the first sale staged by this new group saw a better than 50 percent sales rate. This was a new high-water mark for a premiere event in an industry where sales had been on the decline on the West Coast for several years before.
This new concern was the World classic Auction and Exposition Co., comprised of three longtime personalities in the sales of quality collector cars. They were Rick Cole, noted auctioneer from the Southern California area; Richie Clyne, who among other duties is administrator of the Imperial Palace Hotel and Casino’s Auto Collection in Las Vegas, Nev.; and Don Williams, owner of the Blackhawk collection in Danville, Calif.
Old Cars was recently invited to spend some time with Don Williams where we reviewed his life with collector cars and relived a few collector car memories.
Standing about five feet-eight inches, Don Williams is today in his early 50’s with silver-blond hair and a charming smile that is characteristic of many successful businessmen. When he arrives, he wears his dress shirts with the collar button open and a sports coat. When working one of his auctions, he is the one wearing the black tux with white Reebok tennis shoes.
“In my early 20’s, I began my life with collector cars working for Sam Bergman and Ilmars Kersels at the Old Time car store in Los Angeles,” Williams started. “That was back in 1966, and we were one of the few companies that dealt with antique cars of any kind.”
Williams claims that when he got into the business of dealing with collector cars he had not been a dyed-in-the-wool old car buff since the time he could identify the difference between a Ford and a Chevy. As a high school – and later college – student, his goals were to succeed in business. But after his initial experience with vintage wheels, he was bitten with a bug in a way that would rive him to own at least for a while, nearly every great car in the world.
In 1970, Williams went to work for Bill Victor in Santa Monica, Calif. Victor owned and operated Automotive Classics, and two years later sold the business to Williams after it had been built up to be a leading classic car dealership.
Not only did Automotive Classics produce income by selling quality collector cars, but being so close to Hollywood, it was only natural that when a period classic was needed for a film appearance, his company would be called on. Through these contacts, Williams met many influential people, and with his love of collector cars, he was able to encourage many of them to get involved with collector car buying and selling.
Always looking for new business opportunities, in 1976 Williams moved to the Phoenix-Scottsdale area of Arizona where he was one of the original business partners with the Barrett-Jackson collector car auction organizers. Many have credited his insightfulness and professionalism for having built this annual January auction into the successful event it is today.
Then Williams met millionaire land developer Ken Behring. Williams had been toying with the idea of developing an investment group to purchase and sell the highest in quality classic cars. Behring and Williams’ friendship was immediate. Seeing that Don Williams really knew his business and his classic cars, Behring decided to back his plan as its only investor.
One of Behring’s most ambitious projects at the time had been the development of the Blackhawk Plaza, a very upscale shopping center located in Danville, Calif. From 1982 to 1986, Williams was, to put it in his own words, “like a kid in a candy store, with all the money needed to get as fat as possible.”
With the Blackhawk Collection in full swing by 1988, Behring commissioned Williams to act as his purchasing agent with the hopes of putting together a world class collection of automobiles to be placed on display in a museum open for the public to see and enjoy. Behring wanted his museum to be established at the Blackhawk Plaza, possibly with the association of several other equally impressive museums. The Behring Museum is one of the most impressive collections of classic and vintage automobiles in the world. Williams not only assisted in the purchasing of these cars, but also worked with the design of the interior displays.
“We are not the museum, but we are located in the same center as the Behring Museum. Think of the word “collection” in terms of a fashion designer who presents his ‘Spring’ or ‘Fall’ collections. Those collections are for sale, just as the cars in the Blackhawk Collection are offered for sale.”
In a nutshell, that is what the Blackhawk Collection is – nothing more than a used car lot. A very exciting, high class, sometime breathtaking used car lot, to be sure. How many used car lots do you see with mirror-polished marble floors? And in which previously owned vehicle salesman’s inventory do you find such names as Bugatti, Rolls-Royce Silver Ghost and Packard?
Decorated in the flavor of a showroom from the true “Classic” era of the 1930’s, you may find a beautiful Isotta Fraschini in one corner, and a striking 1941 Chrysler Thunderbolt retractable hardtop coupe in another. In several of the display cases that line the showroom, you can see exceptionally well-preserved brass- and nickel-plated Woodlites, Trippe, Pilot Ray, and Marchal headlights. On the walls are displays of some of the most impressive pieces of automotive artwork ever produced. The Blackhawk Collection owns one of the largest groups of paintings in the country by the late automotive artist Peter Helck.
However, don’t think that all of the cars found in the Blackhawk Collection are pre-war Classics. On our visit we found a prewar Oldsmobile. Of course this little gold metallic jewel was the one-off 1954 F-88 show car – a two-seat roadster built in the tradition of the Chevrolet Corvette.
What motivates Williams to run such an upscale auto dealership that caters to buyers from around the world? Also, what drives him to start his days before six a.m., and go long after midnight?
“It was back in the 1970’s that I decided I would try to own at least one example of every notable classic car in the world.” Williams told Old Cars. “There are a few marques and specific models that have been elusive to date, but I would say that I have checked off close to 98 percent of the cars I set out to own. In some cases I have owned the same car several times, selling it to one person, buying it back, selling it and buying it again, and eventually selling it a third time.’
Williams knows his cars. He can recite certain coachbuilders’ traits, often citing obscure facts that only he knows. Possessing an almost photographic memory, his ability to recall business transactions, as well as names of people he meets is impressive.
“I believe in making use of every possible moment towards the end goal of enjoyment in life,” Williams said reflectively. “Whether I’m on the auction floor, the Blackhawk Collection sales floor, or out on the golf links, I am enjoying life. By presenting this real aspect of my life, it affects those I’m dealing with and makes it easier to get along with everyone.”
He has traveled around the world in search of the rarest of collector cars – both for his own enjoyment, and that of his customers. But what has led Williams to be so successful in this often hectic business?
“I believe that it is the way you treat your customers.” Williams suggested. “I have seen hundreds try to get into this business, and go bust real fast. They work up some capital, make a few quick deals, sell a few cars, and when their customers have a problem, they’re nowhere to be found. They were only around for a quick buck, not the long-term relationships that success is built on.”
“I have learned that it’s the way you treat your customers, on how they will treat you,” Williams continued. “Here at Blackhawk, we make sure that every car is only of the highest quality possible. By offering the best, we are willing and able to stand behind it. Even if there is a problem with one of our cars, we will take care of it. When the customer is ready to invest or add another car to his collection, he doesn’t have to go looking anywhere else. And the best thing to come out of this business is the large number of friends I’ve met. I think the friendships I’ve been able to establish speak of the real success I’ve had in this business.”
If the Blackhawk Collection can be deemed a success, the same holds true with Williams’ adventure into the sphere of collector car auctions. At the second sale of the World Classic Auction and Exposition in Monterey in 1993, an amazing 70 percent of the cars run across the block were declared sold. In fact, every sale they have presented has seen results above the 50 percent mark being declared sold, which is a bit unprecedented in this market.
“World Classic was established to consolidate several longtime West Coast auction events, as well as to present a company that is both reputable, and service oriented.” Williams claimed, “and we have net our basic goals in a relatively short period of time.”
“To understand the auction side of the business, a person has to realize just what the auction company is there for,” Williams said. “We provide a service for both those collectors wanting to buy a car, and those owners wanting to sell. Our company is there to put the two parties together.”
Don Williams understands what it takes to present a successful auction. Having been one of the original partners at the famed Barrett-Jackson sale, he was called back to this concern to offer guidance and his expertise at the 1994 event, and was on hand for the 1995 sale, too.
“Among some of my longtime friends are those I’ve met on the auction circuit,” Williams told us. “Thomas Barrett and the late Russ Jackson were both good businessmen, and the tradition they started over 20 years ago had contributed to the growth of the collector car industry. Working with the Jackson brothers today, as well as Tom (Barrett), allows me to remain in contact with the hundreds of collectors who have become friends over the years. Besides, it’s usually a bit warmer in Phoenix in January than it is in Danville.”
A final question was asked that many have asked before us; is there any relationship between the collections name and the legendary Stutz Blackhawk?
No. Again, this is a misconception that many people have,” Williams replied with a smile. “This area, before it was developed, was called Blackhawk Ranch. That name was given to the area back in the late 1800’s, long before Stutz ever used the name.”