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Friday
Mar102017

Wanna Buy a Duck?

By William G. Sawyer, Editor at Large

All photos © 2017 RM Sotheby’s

We present two new additions to the Virtual Collection. One is an obscure Italian luxury brand owned and driven by a number of entertainment personalities, while the other is a British racer that finished 3rd in its manufacturer’s legendary 1-2-3-4 finish in the 1929 Le Mans 24 Hour race. Both cars are featured lots in this week’s RM Sotheby’s auction on Amelia Island. And the headline? Read on.

1933 Isotta Fraschini Tipo 8A Dual Cowl Sports Tourer

Italy is renowned for building spectacular sports cars, but there once was an Italian manufacturer that attempted to rival Rolls Royce in the luxury arena. Cesare Isotta and the Fraschini brothers — Vincenzo, Antonio, and Oreste — started out importing and assembling French cars for sale in Italy. After dipping their toes in the automotive pond they introduced their own brand of high-powered vehicles. True to their Italian roots racing beckoned and Isotta proved its mettle by winning the 1908 Targa Florio. Just over a decade later, the brand moved upscale with the Type 8, a luxury car renowned as the first automobile with a straight eight engine.

Show business personalities, royalty, and even a Pope were lured to the brand that offered racing heritage and Italian style which many found more appealing than the somewhat dowdy offerings from Rolls Royce. Rudolph Valentino, Clara Bow, and Jack Dempsey joined the Aga Khan, the King of Egypt, the Queen of Romania, and Pope Pius XI in the roster of Type 8 owners, but our feature car, Chassis 1664, had so many brushes with fame it became a minor celebrity in its own right. The original owner is said to be comedian Joe Penner, whose catch phrase, “Wanna buy a duck?” amused radio listeners throughout America. The car found its way to Hollywood where it was acquired by Pacific Auto Rentals, a firm that supplied cars to the film industry. It first appeared in The Wolf Man (1941) starring Bela Lugosi, Claude Rains, and Ralph Bellamy. Next it appeared alongside Peter Lorre and Ilona Massey in Invisible Agent (1942). John Wayne and Claudette Colbert drove the car in Without Reservation (1946), but its most famous cameo occurred a decade later during a famous scene in which James Dean speeds past oil derricks gushing black gold in Giant.

Cinema cars come and go. Few stick in our memory, and those that do seldom appear in more than a movie or two. Rare is the car that appears in such a diverse selection of films over the course of a decade. What is it about this vehicle that enchanted Hollywood? In a word, style. Italian coachbuilders are renowned for their ability to craft alluring shapes that capture our every dream; motorcars that stop us dead in our tracks, jaws on the floor, panting to get behind the wheel.

 Dual cowl bodywork was common in the day, fashioned after nineteenth century coaches that separated royalty from the hired help. Coachbuilder Castagna turned that tradition on its ear with this jaunty, free-spirited design. One can imagine a movie star driving with an arm resting on the playful cutout in the door, a cigarette dangling from his lip, hair blowing in the breeze. This Isotta Fraschini provides luxury with a touch of sass, the perfect vehicle for the newly rich gleefully celebrating their rise from obscurity into the company of kings. RM Sotheby’s estimates this car will bring between $800,000 and $1.1 million at this week’s Amelia Island Auction.

1928 Bentley 41/2 Litre Le Mans Sports

Several time periods claim to be the Golden Age of Motor Racing. Some believe the free-wheeling Can-Am Series of the Sixties and early Seventies was the golden age. Others feel the deadly serious Teutonic competition Hitler fueled between Auto Union — now known as Audi — and Mercedes Benz in the Thirties was the high point. Still others, particularly those attracted to fast living and fast cars, pine for the days when The Bentley Boys ruled the tarmac.

W.O. Bentley’s creations were agricultural compared to the deftly engineered Auto Unions and Mercedes that followed a decade later. Large, sturdy vehicles with a dearth of creature comforts, what sophistication they lacked was supplied by the wealthy playboys who raced them. Chief among these was Woolf “Babe” Barnato, heir to the Kimberley Diamond fortune. If his last name sounds made up, you’re right. Barnato was the son of Barnett “Barney” Isaacs, who himself was the son of a secondhand clothing and rag salesman. As teenagers, Barney and his older sibling Harry appeared on stage as The Great Harry Isaacs and Barnett Too. Barney, a natural showman, liked the sound of “Barnett Too”, changed the name of their act to The Barnato Brothers, and he and Harry adopted it as their surname before travelling to South Africa in search of fortune. Barney, a prize fighter and gambler, found the rough-and-tumble life in the mining camps to his liking. Always a wheeler-dealer, he fought for dominance of the diamond industry against rival Cecil Rhodes. Both men became fabulously wealthy, at least in part due to Barnato’s scheme to keep diamond prices artificially high by limiting the availability of the jewels and limiting sales to a ten company syndicate that handled distribution to diamond cutters throughout the world.

Diamonds weren’t the only South African resources the Barnato family exploited. Gold was discovered near the town of Johannesburg, but it was intermingled with quartz and difficult to extract. They used their now considerable wealth to buy up claims and invest in a process to extract gold using cyanide. Great Britain and the United States adopted the gold standard around this time, and the Barnato family enriched themselves again by selling gold to governments.

Shortly thereafter Barney Barnato died at sea, leaving his fortune to his two year old son Joel Woolf Barnato, who became known to his friends as Babe. Young Barnato also inherited his father’s heavyweight prize fighter build and athletic ability. Upon receiving the first installment on his trust fund at age nineteen, Babe embarked on a life as a wealthy sportsman. As he collected trophies in fox hunting, motor boat racing, marksmanship, swimming, and tennis Babe stumbled upon W. O. Bentley and became enamored with his cars and the sport of endurance racing. Barnato’s fortune provided the fuel that lifted Bentley to the pinnacle of the sport, and he eventually bought the company in 1921 when he was but twenty-six years old.

Along with a cadre of wealthy playboys and sportsman including Sir Henry Birkin, the Dunfee Brothers, Dr. Benjy Benjafield, and Glen Kidston, Barnato set out to dominate endurance racing. He and his Bentley Boys won the 24 hour race at Le Mans four years in a row. Barnato himself drove the winning car, along with various co-drivers, in 1928, 1929, and 1930. Their most famous win was in 1929 when Bentleys took the top four spots. Our feature car, chassis #KM3088, finished third in that race with Benjafield and Sammy Davis at the wheel.

The opportunity to add one of the actual cars that created the Bentley Boys legend to our simulated museum is impossible to resist. This car, known as The Bobtail, finished second in the Double Twelve at Brooklands behind an Alfa driven by Giulio Ramponi. Sammy Davis and his co-driver, Sir Ronald Gunter, drove like mad men, with Davis tailing the Alfa on a wet track at 90 mph. The Alfa’s margin of victory was a scant 0.003 seconds.

At Le Mans later that year, Dr. Benjafield, founder of the British Racing Drivers Club, teamed with Baron Andre d’Erlanger. Problems plagued the duo from the start. They had problems with the battery, water pump, and lights, but those difficulties paled in comparison to the issue with the brakes. The front binders were so bad the mechanics disconnected them! Still, Benjafield managed to guide KM3088 to a third place finish in the toughest endurance race of them all.

RM Sotheby’s estimates “The Bobtail” Bentley will bring between $6.5 and $7.5 million.

Bentley 41/2 Litre Pedal Car

Since my daughter and her husband just blessed us with our first granddaughter last month it’s time to think about the younger generation. RM Sotheby’s has just the ticket, a pedal car that’s a credible miniaturization of the Bentley racers of old, complete with rope-wrapped steering wheel, wire mesh headlight covers, and Union Jack. What better gift for young Senna Richardson, a girl likely to take after her namesake. Ron and Nancy Rosner are offering this pedal car at Amelia Island, with proceeds going to Spina Bifida of Jacksonville.

Now, if only I can find a yellow baby bonnet…

 

 

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