This is is a true story, told to me by Bugatti owner Alden Sherman: In the '40s and early '50s, a Duesenberg Model J sat moldering by the side of the road in suburban Connecticut. That car, worth millions today, was probably hauled away for junk.
Sherman, who has a car show named after him, also said he remembers being offered, in the late 1940s, a matched pair of SS and SSK Mercedes-Benz cars free from an owner who’d lost storage. “The SS had some differential problems, but it was eminently fixable,” he told me. “The problem was I had no way to move them and nowhere to store them.” A 1929 SSK recently sold for $7.4 million — in the top 10 of most expensive auction cars ever.
A musician friend of mine recently told me he was working on a house in rural New York in the 1970s and he found an old car in the barn. It turned out to be a Gullwing Mercedes, abandoned there by the previous owner of the house. Yes, it’s one of the most sensuous cars ever and worth way more than $1 million now. Back then, my friend alerted a collector friend, who coughed up $12,000 for it. Later, in the late ‘80s, I saw the Roadster version of that car, just pulled out of a walled-in basement — for $30,000. But that might as well have been a million for me then.
Here are some other great abandoned supercar stories. One man’s trash is another man’s treasure:
This incredible Figoni et Falaschi V-12 Delahaye was once a fort for kids' dirt-clod fights in Fresno. (Photo: Mullin Automotive Museum)
Art deco kids’ fort
A unique 1939 Delahaye Type 165 V-12, with an incredible streamlined body by Figoni et Falaschi, was shown at the New York World’s Fair’s French Pavilion in 1939, but then the outbreak of hostilities stranded it in the U.S. It was minus an engine (that ended up in Germany), but eventually it made its way out to California where a V-8 from a Cadillac was stuffed under the hood.
The Delahaye went to Hawaii, where a soldier used it for daily transport, then it came back to California where it was abandoned at a garage in Fresno,California. A tow-truck driver ended up with it, and it was finally discovered by French car collector Peter Mullin. According to the latter, the driver’s kids “used it as their fort when they had dirt-ball fights.” The restoration, including a reunion with that never-installed engine, lasted a decade.
Yet another Delahaye with Figoni et Falaschi coachwork, a 135M, was hidden away in Europe during World War II and then abandoned, disassembled, in a garage near Prague. Eventually resurrected at huge expense (“I bought three Delahayes to restore this one,” the new owner said), it was a Best in Show at Pebble Beach in 2000. Is there any doubt that this almost-lost classic is among the most beautiful cars in the world?
Another view of Gooding & Company's awesome engineless 1955 Hudson Italia. (Photo: Gooding & Company)
Hudson hornet’s nest
The Hudson Italia is a very rare bird, a trans-Atlantic classic with plain-jane Hudson six-cylinder, column-shift mechanics but a very snazzy Italian body by Carrozzeria Touring of Milan. It wasn’t a sales success, being hugely expensive at nearly $5,000 in 1954 and 1955, and just 25 were built.
I saw one that TV personality Wayne Carini has, and occasionally at car shows, but No. 24 was long hidden from view. It was sold to “noted UFO theorist and environmental engineer” Trevor Constable, who for some reason (probably to make it go faster) installed a 283-cubic-inch Chevy V-8 in it. But by the early 1970s, after a sale to Carl Mendoza, it was engineless and sitting forlorn on jack stands in a rented San Jose, California garage.
It sat on those jack stands for 40 years, until a new owner took over the building and “claimed the car and the balance of the garage contents,” says Gooding & Company, which will auction the car Aug. 16 at Pebble Beach.
Finally, in 2015, No. 24 was rolled out into the California sun, covered in dust but otherwise pretty well preserved (aside from not having an engine). The auction house thinks this abandoned property is worth between $100,000 and $125,000. Auctioneer David Gooding told me that buyers like seeing cars in their "as-found" state. "The warts and scars add to the story," he said. Gooding added that abandoned cars--often restoration projects that owners start and never finish--are fairly common.
Marlene Dietrich's Rolls after it was restored. From 20 years moldering in a disassembled state, it ended up auctioned for $524,000. (Photo: Bonhams)
The movie star Marlene Dietrich (right) took delivery of a 1930 Rolls-Royce Springfield (made in Massachusetts) Phantom I in June of 1929, and dispatched it to celebrity coachbuilders Hibbard & Darrin. With a special aluminum skin, it cost $24,000 all told, making it among the most expensive cars to be delivered a month after the Depression started.
The car was sold to a Colorado owner in the 1940s, and that owner’s daughter inherited it in 1974. A restoration was enthusiastically started, but as so often happens in those cases it was abandoned after some paint had been stripped off and chrome replated. The car sat for 20 years until it was finally rediscovered and, values being what they are, restored. It was sold at a Bonhams auction in 2012 for $524,000.
Laying an egg
A $2 million Koenigsegg Trevita was abandoned in a Zurich, Switzerland parking garage, and the owner didn’t even bother to get the darned thing between the lines. It had accumulated costs of more than 1,000 Swiss francs by the time Jalopnik wrote about it in 2012. “The ticket is probably pocket change to him,” the site ventured.
A presumably abandoned Mercedes in Dubai. Some 3,000 cars like this were confiscated and auctioned by the police last year. (Photo: Lis í Jákupsstovu )
An estimated 3,000 cars, many of them high-end luxury marques, were found abandoned in Dubai last year. A thick coating of dust from the frequent sandstorms is a dead giveaway. According to Business Insider, a British ex-pat explains that many high flyers (locals as well as foreigners) “take out big loans to finance flashy cars to keep up with their peers. But when things slowed down, they have struggled to make repayments and have fallen into debt.” Many are left in airport car parks on the way out of the country, and then wind up being auctioned for bargain prices by the Dubai police. Hundreds are sold each year. At one 2012 auction, there were Porsches and a rare Ferrari Enzo, one of 399 ever made.
There are many juicy stories of this type. Read about a mouth-watering French cache only recently resurrected years after the owner's death. Here are more in Portugal. The one place they don’t abandon nice cars is Cuba. No matter what happens to the old American iron there, it stays on the road.
Here's some I-see-it-but-I-don't-believe-it video of abandoned cars in Dubai:
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Marlene Dietrich photo: Bonhams