|By Susan Caba
Reid Vann remembers the moment he first pined for a Porsche.
It was a steamy Sunday afternoon and he was stuck in bumper-to-bumper traffic heading back, with thousands of other Georgians, to Atlanta from a weekend at Lake Lanier. Traffic was crawling, with no opportunity to jump the line by passing. Vann, a college student then, was resigned to the sweltering 60-mile drive.
“Then, one time I saw a Porsche. He pulled out, passed, pulled in and disappeared into the distance while I was still sitting there. I said, I’ve got to have a sports car.”
Hardly what would seem a life-defining moment, but Vann didn’t wait long to get his car. He bought his first Porsche in 1960, shortly after graduation. At the moment, he owns “about nine or ten, I believe.” Luxury cars and sports cars became a central part of his life—he is the Reid Vann of Reid Vann Luxury Import Service.
“I think the thing that started me on Porsches was the fact that my first sports car had to be reliable and I had to be able to drive it every day,” says Vann. “I love its handling, I love its looks.”
Americans are passionate about their cars. So passionate, in fact, that there are hundreds of national and local clubs devoted to the
collection, restoration, preservation and pleasure of particular makes and models.
St. Louis is no exception, with about four dozen St. Louis car clubs listed on the Internet. While some revolve around classic luxury cars—the Rolls Royces and Bugattis—just as many are dedicated to (dare we say) more prosaic vehicles with names like Plymouth, Dodge, Pontiac and Chevrolet. There is even an American Station Wagon Owners Association.
Car aficionados range from non-owners who like to look, to Sunday mechanics with a hobby car, to serious collectors, like the late Fred Kemp, who amassed enough vintage Mercedes Benz to create a car museum in the Chesterfield Valley (see sidebar). Or like Mark Hyman, whose 15-year hobby morphed into Hyman Ltd. Classic Cars, a collectible car brokerage with an international clientele willing to pay multi-millions for a coveted car. Jay Leno and Ralph Lauren both have extensive
collections. There are several prominent
St. Louis collectors who declined to talk about their passion for cars.
| Mark Hyman, Hyman Ltd. Classic Cars
Why collect cars? After all, they’re expensive, difficult to maintain and not exactly easy to store and display.
“Why do people collect anything—old records, stamps? People seem to be acquisitive,” says Vann. “Every Porsche I see, just about, I would like to have. I’ve thrown up my hands and sold them off and, six months later, I start up again. You really need someone to put the brakes on you.”
“A lot of people get to the point where they have the disposable income and they like to buy the cars they couldn’t afford when they were younger,” says Bill Nelson, curator at the Kemp Museum, which opened in April. “The demand for Model As is almost zero. All the people that liked Models As when they were younger are dead.”
He stands next to a star attraction at the Kemp, a 1935 500K Mercedes Special Roadster, valued at about $2 million. It’s white, with a great sweep of curving running board that swells into a bulging front fender. The instrument panel is inlaid with mother of pearl. The brightwork (metallic accents), like an elaborately scrolled rear bumper, glows from decades of polishing with a soft cloth. The hood reaches out for what seems like forever and the back of the car is so massive, Mercedes included a step-pad to get to the rumble seat.
“It was an object of opulence for the people who could afford it,” says Nelson, adding that “it’s really like driving an old truck, it steers really hard.”
Hyman, who sells about 300 collectible, classic—and expensive, very expensive—cars each year, agrees with Nelson’s assessment that collectors buy for a variety of reasons, including nostalgia, prestige and appreciation of the vehicles’ craftsmanship. “You could equate it to a fine arts gallery,” he says.
“A lot of people are passionate about the cars because of their mechanics. They love the machines and they love to restore them. To many people, a car represents a time in their life—high school, their first date with their wife.
“To some people, a car is a love of the fact that they’ve made it, that they can afford it. They accumulate classic cars because they are cool, sexy toys. It’s all relative, whether it’s a 50 cent toy car or a $50,000 car or a $500,000 car.”
| A few classics from the showroom of Hyman Ltd. Classic Cars.
A leisurely stroll through Hyman’s showroom in West County confirms that these cars are, indeed, sexy. Voluptuous curves, supple leather, gleaming brightwork, rich colors—they have the glamour and sex appeal of old-time movie stars.
“They are absolutely the most outlandish, sexy things imaginable,” says Hyman.
Every collector has his (they’re mostly men) reasons for collecting a particular model. St. Louis real estate developer Bob Scott Jr., who collects and has sold cars, prefers Packards, Lincolns and Cadillacs from the 1930s and ‘40s. “They are always bigger and more powerful,” he says. “When you look at them, each one is different—cars nowadays all look alike.” His favorites of the moment are his 1936 rumble-seat Packard with a V12 engine and one of the few remaining 1941 Packard Woody station wagons.
Lotus owners like to brag that their high-speed British racing cars are, in the words
of Road and Track magazine, the purest expression of the term sports car. “They’re
little and fast—you have to know how to drive
the damn thing,” says Mark Pfeffer, an
officer of the St. Louis Area Lotus Lovers (STALL).
Perhaps because baby boomers are reaching the age of affluence, muscle cars from the 1960s and ‘70s are hotter now than they were in days of “scooping the loop.” The prices of 30-to 40-year-old hot rods are approaching the cost of a new, top-of-the-line Mercedes Benz. Even replicas of these beefy two-doors are getting pricey.
So, what do car enthusiasts do with
Well, drive them, for one thing. Fred Kemp remembers a road trip to Chicago he took with his father, the elder Kemp. One drove a silver gullwing Mercedes (now in the Kemp museum) and the other a 450 SL Mercedes. They periodically switched cars. “It was almost like a road rally,” Kemp remembers.
Speaking of the gullwing—the doors are hinged at the top; when both are open, the car resembles a seagull—there is a group of people who are fanatic about tracking the history of each of the 1,500 that were manufactured. When one is sold, they contact the new owner and update the provenance of the car, just like a curator would for any important work of art.
They restore the cars. Or, in the case of serious collectors, pay—lots—to have them refurbished. Several of the local clubs meet monthly. They stage road rallies and track events, to test the mettle of their vehicles. On the first Friday of every month, hundreds of car enthusiasts show up in Fenton for cruise night. (Details of this and other car events can be found on the Internet).
They wash their cars. Virtually every big meeting includes numerous opportunities to wax and polish. Cars are judged on their cleanliness with white-glove inspections. And of course, they trade tips and stories. A recent national meeting of GTO enthusiasts in West County included a substantial vendors display area for parts and souvenirs.
And they attend national and international convocations and competitions. The annual Porsche event, for example, can draw up to 20,000 people—so many that attendance at the official events is limited to 1,000. Last year, there was a rally in Australia for owners of Mercedes 190SL sports cars. People from all over the world shipped their cars in order to participate.
St. Louis, befitting its place on historic Route 66, is a frequent host for national car events. During the summer, some car organization or other draws hundreds to the city on almost every weekend. The city’s central location makes it a natural for car collectors to congregate, many traveling 3,000 miles to get here. The mother road still exercises her allure.
This year, the Lotus Owners Group (LOG) celebrated its silver anniversary in St. Louis. Lotus executives attended, bringing along several historic vehicles. Pfeffer spent many hours getting the event organized. He says his wife tolerates his hobby, despite the hours and money he spends. “It’s my only vice,” he says. “It’s kind of a poison or a passion, depending on your perspective.”
| Admission is $8 for adults, $6 for seniors, $3 for children ages 18 and under. The museum is open Wednesday through Sunday, from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. It is also available for private parties and corporate events. For more information, call (636) 537-1718.
If Cinderella were alive today, she’d want to go to the ball in one of the late Fred Kemp’s cars, quite possibly the opulent white 1935 Mercedes 500K special roadster that gleams just inside the entrance to the Kemp Auto Museum in Chesterfield. The bumpers swell in gorgeous curves, the dashboard is inlaid with mother-of-pearl and there is even a rumble seat to accommodate the modern-day equivalent of coachmen.
The Kemp museum is an Ali Baba’s cave of fabulous vintage Mercedes Benz cars. Opened in April, it holds 40-some vehicles collected over several years by the late real estate developer. Kemp didn’t live to see his dream of a museum materialize; he died in July 2004. But, in his museum, he left a treasure trove of elegance, beauty, speed and power.
“This was his private collection,” says Bill Nelson, Kemp’s longtime friend and curator of the cars. “He seldom ever sold one. And when he did, he regretted it.”
Set in a 20,000-square-foot showroom—with jet black floors and high intensity spotlights, to show the collection to its best advantage—each car has a story or some special detail to set it apart from the others.
“Clark Gable had a car just like this one,”says Nelson, stopping at one vehicle. “The company only made 98 of them. They had a fuel-injected engine, which was unheard of in 1956.”
He points out a boot scraper on the runner beneath the driver’s door of a 1939 540K cabriolet (convertible), a chocolate-y maroon with a cream top. A 1958 300 SC Roadster has just 60,000 miles on it and once belonged to actor Buddy Hackett. Here’s a car like one that Elvis Presley owned, over there is another that was delivered to the Shah of Iran. And, he says, looking at a Porsche sports car, this is a reproduction of the car James Dean died in, a very fast little car nicknamed “the little bastard.”
“If you’ve gotta go, this is the car to go in,” says Nelson. “You’d hate to die in a Yugo.”
The cars are like sculpture, all flowing lines, polished surfaces and dazzling workmanship. Some, like the silver 1955 Gullwing Mercedes sports car are very rare—so rare that a group of enthusiasts keeps track of as many of the 1,500 manufactured as they can, noting when the cars are sold, to whom and what work is done on them.
| Kemp Auto Museum in Chesterfield.
The museum is not just for car aficionados. The cars are beautifully displayed and only minimal mechanical information is presented, on the theory that those who would want to know the specs already know them, or where to find them. A visit to the museum is like a stroll through a sculpture garden, and can last as little as a half hour or as long as your interest holds.