Blackhawk’s Million Dollar Man
By Peter Frey
Don Williams, owner of the Blackhawk Classic Auto Collection, would someday like
to be able to look back and say, “I touched every great car in the world.” The way
it’s going, it’s more likely he’ll be able to say he’s owned them.
Don Williams, creator of the Blackhawk Classic Auto Collection, has brought and sold more million dollar automobiles than just
about anyone else in the world.
The Billion-Dollar-A-Year world wide hobby/business of car collecting is like a pyramid. At the base are the tens of thousands of enthusiasts who collect ’57 Chevys, ’66 Mustangs, and other fairly common older cars. The comes the smaller group of several thousand collectors whose passion run to cars built before World war II – older, rarer automobiles, but still readily available in relatively large numbers.
Near the top of the pyramid are those few dozen people in the world with resources to buy collector cars of which only one, tow, or perhaps half a dozen exist. These are cars as art, and they command multi-million-dollars prices.
At the very top of the pyramid is a small group of people – perhaps 10 in all he world – who know practically every detail or every great car ever built, who know every major collector on a first name basis, and who bys and sells these cars, moving them like chess pieces on a board that circles the globe.
In such a group, there must be one who plays the game better than all the rest, and at this rarefied height in the world of collector cars, that man is Don Williams, head of the Blackhawk Classic Auto Collection – the man who buys and sells more million-dollar cars than anyone else in the business.
“I was in Europe in 1985 when I got a call urgently suggesting I come to London, because a Greek shipping tycoon had gotten himself into trouble and had to sell his car collection,” William’s recalls. “When he opened the door to the garage I was confronted with 30 of the greatest classic cars in the world. I immediately bought 15 of them for a total of about $5 million. It was a once-in-lifetime opportunity, and I’m still kicking myself today for not buying them all.”
It’s an anecdote that contains a fundamental truth: For Don Williams, the thrill is in the quest, in the deal. The private, passionate moment that makes it all worthwhile is in the laying-on of hands that takes places when he comes to own yet another of the great pre-World War II classic cars that are the objects of his desire, the rolling works of art to which he devotes every walking moment of his life.
Yes he is not a “possessions person.” Though buying and selling classic cars is how he makes his living, he admits, “We’re all just caretakers. I’m short-term: collectors are long-term. Everyone loves the cars for their own reasons, but none of us is going to take them into the coffin with us when we go.”
As is so often the case, this man who is now a major figure in the hobby that he helped turn into a billion-dollar business got into it by accident, and progressed though the learning phases of his career under the tutelage of a series of mentors. Born in Seattle in 1945, Williams was just a young man when he met the first of those mentors – a wheeler-dealer named Sam Bergman, who brought and sold companies like, well, some people buy and sell cars.
“Sam took a shine to me, and as he bought one business and sold another, I stayed with him and learned about everything from restaurants to tape recorders,” Williams explains. “Finally he started a slot car company, built it up to be one of the biggest in the business, and sold it when he saw the fad fading out in 1968. We then opened one of the first collectible-car stores west of the Mississippi, called Old Time Cars, on La Cienega Boulevard in Los Angeles.”
Bergman, eventually decided to move on to yet another business, but Williams had been well and truly bitten buy the car bug. In 1971, rather than follow Bergman, as he had done in the past, Williams joined with car collector enthusiast Bill Victor (heir to the Victor Gasket Company fortune) to form a business called Automotive Classics. That partnership lasted until 1972, when Williams brought a controlling interest in the company and became his own boss.
At one time, Automotive Classics was strictly sales-oriented, but Williams expanded the business and began renting vintage cars to movie and TV production companies in Hollywood. During this “cars-to-the-stars” phase of his career, which lasted from 1972 to 1979, Williams became a major supplier of automobiles to film production companies, and provided cars of for such films as Chinatown and such TV programs as The Waltons.
The Hollywood connection provided yet another stepping-stone in Williams’ career. In 1971, he became involved in the auto auction business by producing California’s first-ever collector car auction, which took place at the now defunct Movieworld facility on Hollywood Boulevard. Eight years later, Williams joined with legendary classic car auctioneer/broker Thomas W. Barrett III (the second of his mentors) in the creation of what has now become the Barrett-Jackson Auction, the premier collectible/classic auto auction in the United States.
“In addition to the auction, I worked with Tom during the year selling the major classics that I now specialize in,” says Williams. “Much of what I know today started with the basic knowledge and understanding formed from listening to Tom.”
The third person who served as a pivotal influence in Williams’ life was Ken Behring, a fabulously wealthy real estate developer. Although his experience with automobiles was limited, Behring was so impressed by Williams’ knowledge and enthusiasm that, in 1981, he tapped Williams to help him begin buying cars for what would ultimately become one of the world’s greatest car collections.
“It was a revelation to me, to be able to travel around the world and actually buy these great classics that I’d been dreaming and reading about for years.” Williams says. “That was the step that led me to start assembling the resources, contacts, and team of experts that form the core of the Blackhawk Collection.”
Tucked away among the mansions and quiet splendor of one of the most exclusive gated communities in the country, just 30 miles from San Francisco, the Blackhawk Collection is arguably one of the most unique car dealerships in the world-though calling it that is like calling a Duesenberg “just an automobile.” At Blackhawk, Williams maintains the largest inventory of major classics in the world, with some 125 to 150 cars available on a moment’s notice to collectors worldwide. In fact, the collection has developed a reputation as a virtual Fort Knox of classic Cars.
Williams describes the cars in the Blackhawk Collection this way: “They are classics, built in very limited numbers before World War II, with coachwork done by the finest, most famous designers in the world. Almost without exception, they were priced beyond the reach of the general public, were sold to royalty, heads of state, movie stars, or the richest of the rich, and are currently valued between several hundred thousand and several million dollars.”
Yet even though there may be $100 million worth of cars sitting in the five climate-controlled warehouses, and an average of $50 million worth of classic cars are sold every year, it is an occurrence even more rare than the cars themselves for one of Don Williams’ customers to visit the Blackhawk Collection in person. At this level in the world of collector cars, business id done on the basis of personal relationships, fax machines, and pouches full of money flown by messengers from one end of the world to the other.
“Eleven years ago, when classic cars started selling for money that you could buy a mansion for, I saw the need for an organization with a worldwide network of connections and staffed with the most knowledgeable experts in the business,” says Williams. “People who can afford that kind of money want to deal with a firm that is as reputable, reliable, and solid as they are. The Blackhawk Collection is that firm.”
Blackhawk was founded in 1981, and three years later Williams became the first person ever to sell a classic car (a 1931 Figoni-bodied boattail Duesenberg bought by Gen. William Lyon) for more than $1 million. Over the past decade, the company has become one of the world’s leading classic car brokerage firms, buying and selling entire collections, assembling collections for enthusiasts, investors, corporate heads, celebrities, and royalty-and indulging in Williams’ particular passion, seeking out the rarest of a all classics, one-of-a-kind or limited-production models from the pre-World War II “golden era” of cars. Over the years, more than 2,000 of the world’s rarest and most desirable classic automobiles have passed through the doors of the Blackhawk Collection.
“There are only a finite number of these great automobiles around, and I’ve already owned a number of them, including a Mercedes Special Roadster, the tulipwood Hispano-Suiza, and the Countess De Frasso Rolls-Royce,” Williams says. “No one in the world can afford to buy them all, and I’m not selfish enough to want them all, but I think it would be great to look back and say, ‘I touched every great car in the world.’”
Williams is now in the process of opening a luxurious million dollar “display salon” that will house a rotating selection of 12 to 15 of the major classic cars in the Blackhawk Collection’s inventory, as well as selected rare automobile memorabilia and art. This will give the company a public face for the first time since it was formed over a decade ago.
“The cars are usually stored in controlled-environment ware-houses, and I usually do my business over the phone,” says Williams. “But the classic car business is changing, and opening this showroom reflects the fact that even the most successful broker has to get aggressive and start shining the spotlight on himself and the rolling art that is our stock-in-trade.”
Another example of this trend is Williams’ practice of exhibiting vehicles from his inventory at major shows in the United States and Europe, where the cars have frequently won awards but are usually just “on exhibit,” since he doesn’t want to be in competition with potential customers.
“Exhibiting these cars in a way of introducing ourselves to new buyers, and keeping our profile up with customers we already have,” Williams explains. “Besides, I really enjoy finding some dilapidated one-off classic, bringing it back to better than new, and showing up at major show with a fabulous car that on one has even seen before.”
Williams and the Blackhawk Collection have also become principals in several of the world’s largest and most prestigious classic car auction, including The Auction in Las Vegas, the Geneva Auction in Switzerland, and the World Vintage Car Auction and Exposition in Tokyo. (see sidebar).
“Auctions do not, as everyone thinks, set prices and indicate trends,” Williams says. “It’s private deals between individuals, the details of which percolate through the collector car community, that set the prices people are willing to pay at auction. For that reason, only about 5 percent of our total business is done at auction.”
Williams’ strong, divergent opinions, as well as his drive to position the Blackhawk Collection as the world’s premier name in classic and collectible cars, has led to innovative new concepts that are transforming the face of a traditionally conservative business resistant to change. Exemplifying his influences were the changes brought about by the inaugural Tokyo auction in 1991, where Williams achieved several long-cherished goals, including the opening of the Japanese market to the worldwide collector car business.
He adds, “That event also marked the debut of our ‘salon’ concept, in which the most valuable cars are displayed in a luxurious, dignified setting rather than being put on the auction block. Many collectors are reluctant to display their wealth, and feel much more comfortable dealing in the tranquil privacy of the salon. The idea was so positively received that I expect salons to become regular features at classic car auctions, and even to expand into stand-alone events.”
In keeping with his reputation as an innovator, Williams has begun planning Blackhawk’s grandest project yet, a World Tour Exposition, in which 60 of the world’s rarest, most desirable, most valuable cars will tour the globe for two years, making stops in major cities on five continents, where the vehicles will be available for viewing by enthusiasts and for acquisition by collectors and museum.
“Every successful businessman realizes that in this day and age you have to treat the entire world as your market, and the same will soon be true of the diverse world of collector cars,” Williams says. “After all, you can ship a car to any place in the world for a couple of thousand dollars, so cars should be worth the same in Tokyo, Geneva, London, or San Francisco. Great art has a uniform value worldwide, and so, in the future, will great cars.”
This project reflects Williams’ own passion for travel, which takes him to far corners of the globe at least 20 days out of every month in search of great classics. He’s recently traveled to the former Soviet Union and Eastern European countries, and predicts that a number of major classic cars which have been locked away since before World Was II will soon be rolling into the collector spotlight for the first time in more than half a century.
“It’s an interesting thing about time and cars,” says Williams. “They were created in the past as stylish transportation, and they will live on into future as great works of rolling art. It’s the cars that are permanent and the owners who are temporary. Most of them were built before most of us were born, and they’ll still be here long after we’re gone. Sometimes I get the distinct impression that although we think we’re buying and selling them, it’s actually the cars who are swapping owners until they find one they like.”
Peter Frey profiled the 25 most influential people in the collector car world for the January 1992 issue of the Robb Report.
JAPAN’S COLLECTOR CAR MARKET SPREADS IT’S WINGS
In 1853, Commodore Perry sailed into Tokyo Bay with a military force sufficient to compel Japan to break 200 years of cultural and commercial isolation imposed by the Tokugawa Shoguns. Though it could scarcely be foreseen at the time, this event, now known as the Black Ship Incident forever changed the face of world commerce.
In 1991, Don Williams followed in Perry’s foot steps and (on a smaller scale) again succeeded in opening the bottomless pockets of Japan’s merchant princes. But Williams didn’t use or need military force; he achieved his goals by offering the Japanese prizes that exist on a level above all else-priceless artifacts that embody the ultimate in craftsmanship and that are unique in all the world-in this case, classic cars.
Some predicted a flop, but the inaugural Tokyo World Vintage Car Auction sold $28 million worth of classic cars, in the process setting a one-day auction record. In 1992, with the Japanese economy in a recession every bit as steep as the one in America, Williams sold $13.8 million worth of classic cars between March 17 and March 22-$6.8 million of it in traditional over-the-block auction sales, and $7 million in the exposition format that Williams pioneered during the inaugural Tokyo event.
“The Japanese seemed much more comfortable with the collector car auction atmosphere this year than they were last year,” Williams said recently. “They prefer not to release the price they have paid for a car, and out of respect for the buyers and their culture, we’ll announce the vehicles sold, but not the price of each particular car.”
The results of this year’s event, however, did indicated an interesting new trend: The Ferrari market, which had crashed in a major way over the last three years, has rebounded-not to the speculator-driven levels of 1989, but back to a sane and predictable level of appreciation.