“Finders of Keepers”
Four Sleuths who search far-flung corners of the globe for great classic cars.
By Phil Llewellin (Sept. 1999)
Creaking on rusty hinges, the old barn’s weatherbeaten door opens for the first time in more years than anyone can remember. You hold your breath, steeling yourself to find nothing more exotic than the remains of an ancient John Deere tractor, then gasp as shafts of light reveal the shape of a legendary grille amid decades of dust and cobwebs. So the rumors that lured you from northern Italy to New York to this remote corner of Montana were true. The guy who lived here in the Fifties really did own a Saoutchik-bodied Hispano-Suiza Type 68.
While the odds of discovering a five-star classic in such stereotypically romantic circumstances are not much greater than the chance of winning a fortune in Las Vegas, there are a few hawk-eyed sleuths who specialize in seeking treasure on four wheels. They cultivate contacts, collect clues, sift evidence, and, with luck, eventually get an inkling of how Howard Carter felt when he discovered Tutankhamen’s tomb.
Don Williams is perhaps the king of the car detectives because of his enthusiasm, knowledge, affability, determination, good fortune, and hard-nosed business acumen. The cars he finds for the Blackhawk Collection in Danville, California, are always outstanding and often one-of-a-kind breathtaking. They include a vast Daimler bodied in German silver and used for tiger-hunting in India. Unlike Fasal, the Australian Rolls-Royce enthusiast who first explored India by train, often stretching out on a luggage rack to save money. Williams had a wealthy backer, Ken Behring, who also founded what is now the Blackhawk Museum. “Ken was my Bank of America. He gave me the opportunity to travel the world and buy every car I’d ever dreamed about. I was on the road twenty days a month for ten years, felling like a kid let loose in a candy store.”
“I’ve been doing this all my adult life,” he said, gesturing to a lineup of cars for sale that included eight Model J Duesenbergs, an outrageously extrovert Horch 855 Special Roadster, and a colossal Mercedes-Benz 770K cabriolet for which $4 million was being asked. “As a kid in 1966 I went to work for Sam Bergman in Los Angeles. He ran the first old-car store in the United States west of the Mississippi, and people thought he was crazy. Another influence, Tom Barrett, would go anywhere for a great car and didn’t hesitate to knock on the doors of kings. Tom made me realize I could trade several cars for one that was really special. I started tagging my books with paper clips when I spotted something that appealed to me, and the goal became to touch each of them at least once. I’ve dreamed about some of these cars for twenty years, then finally found them and changed the silver paper clip for a gold one.”
A global network of contacts has enabled the Blackhawk Collection’s president to zero in on individual cars and entire collections. For instance, he was tipped off about a French villa whose walls concealed the Mercedes in which Adolf Hitler had paraded through Paris in 1940. The astonishing sixteen-cylinder Bucciali and the ex-Andre’ Dubonnet tulipwood-bodied H6 Hispano-Suiza were owned by a Greek shipping tycoon and hidden away near Monte Carlo. There is nothing unusual about buying collection of more than fifty cars, says the man whose one-deal record stands at 130. “But any individual who owns more than twenty has an obsession, so there’s a lot of emotion involved and you have to be careful. I never tell people what flaws their cars have, because that would be like criticizing their children. I just go in, take a look, and say ‘OK, you’ve got sixteen cars here and I’ll give you $8 million.’ I’m not interested in doing individual negotiations on sixteen cars.”
One trip took him to Germany where a detail glimpsed beneath a cover indentified the Erdmann & Rossi-bodied Mercedes 540K Special Roadster. Being told that it was owned by King Hussein of Jordan was a challenge. Williams sent photographs and details of every car to in Blackhawk’s inventory to the Jordanian embassy accompanied by a letter asking if there would be any chance of doing a deal. “There was no answer. After a while I called the embassy and was told that no answer was the answer.”
Williams shows no sign of slowing down: “The chase is everything to me, because I love cars as much as ever, have a collector’s heart in a dealer’s body, and still get a terrific buzz when I find a truly great car. The enthusiasm today is no less than when I started. But there’s more frustration, because there’s less to find.”