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Selling in the Motor City: RM Auctions hawks muscle cars, classic sheetmetal and even a boat at Detroit event

Sun, 25 Apr 2010 00:00:00 -0700

The steering wheel in a 1960 Cadillac Eldorado Biarritz convertible is surprisingly thin. It's oversized and humongously circular, but still startlingly narrow considering it directs a very bargelike Caddy. Oh, and the seats are fairly comfortable. And the odometer has rolled over precisely 34,844 miles.

Not that the Internet bidder who paid the hammer price of $75,000 for the classic would know all of this. But we did. Because we got an up-close look at the Caddy and sat in it, minutes after it sold at RM Auctions' classic-car sale on Saturday in Novi, Mich.

And we weren't the only ones to check out this piece of iconic sheetmetal. Resplendent in white paint and chrome with the imposing bullet grille and monster fins in rear, the car sat on the show floor before and after crossing the block at the cavernous convention hall.

That kind of democratic setting is to be expected at an event in the blue-collar Motor City, where the crowd of car fans was mostly clad in jeans, sweatshirts and Detroit Tigers caps. Like a baseball game, many of the car enthusiasts munched hot dogs and sipped draft beer while the machine-gun-mouthed auctioneers barked out the bidding in rapid-fire staccato.

The Biarritz was one of the spotlight cars at the sale, but plenty of other classics sold for more attainable prices. A 1970 Chevrolet Camaro SS dressed in bright orange paint with white stripes sold for about $24,000 (the hammer price, not including other fees). With a 396 underhood paired with a four-speed, it seemed like a good buy. A 1962 Cadillac Eldorado convertible coupe--a bit like Don Draper's car on Mad Men, only with white paint, had less than 50,000 miles on the clock and all of the service records; it went for $37,000. That was also the price of a Boss 302 Mustang that thundered to the stage in black and yellow livery.

It wasn't all Detroit iron. A bright red 1991 Ferrari Testarossa sold for $68,000, gaveling just before another bidder could slip in a last-second try for $69,000. Earlier, a 1969 Porsche 911 T coupe went for $29,000, wearing caramel-colored paint. The sale wasn't even limited to cars: A 1947 Garwood wooden pleasure boat that looked straight out of a Ralph Lauren ad sold for $7,300 and came with a trailer to tow it to your favorite body of water.

Vintage cars from the gangster era were also represented, and a 1937 Chevrolet Coupe Street Rod painted a gorgeous shade of maroon with a five-window configuration and 350 motor, went for $28,500.

Greg Migliore
This 1970 Chevy Chevelle SS waits in the wings before it failed to sell on the auction block.

Still, plenty didn't sell during our time at the auction, and the bidding was closed before the reserve was reached on a number of impressive cars. A 1970 Chevy Chevelle SS with a 454 LS6 saw bidding stall at about $70,000 while the muscle car idled off to the side of the stage--ironically, the driver couldn't seem to get the car in gear. A menacing 1969 Dodge Charger R/T, orange and black with a 440 big-block engine and a product of Chrysler's Hamtramck, Mich., plant on the other side of town, had it's bidding closed at $43,000. Just restored in 2008, it was still in the for-sale lot when we departed on Saturday afternoon--even though it was so powerful the hood quaked when it was started. Another of the highlight cars, a 1966 Chevrolet Corvette Stingray 427 coupe had bidding closed at $75,000, despite the auctioneer imploring “the restoration of this is spectacular,” to the crowd. Cars that didn't sell during bidding were available later to anyone who wanted to submit a bid.

Perhaps that's to be expected in economically depressed Michigan, but the failed sales didn't dampen the spirit of the crowd on the wet spring day. One lady approached us unsolicited and recounted the tale of her husband's 1958 Impala--it was his car when they started dating--and she was particularly enthralled with a black convertible model like his Chevy that sat nearby, still for sale after not hitting the asking price on the block. The big Bow-Tie-badged car must have wielded some magic; the couple has been married for more than 50 years.

Greg Migliore
This 1969 Dodge Charger R/T waits its turn to head to the block. The car quaked under the power of the 440 V8 when it was started.

RM drew a sizable crowd for its annual spring auction in Michigan. The seats near the stage were almost all full, and plenty more people lingered around the cars throughout the building. More than 300 cars were expected to be offered. We worked our way to the front, and felt up much of the sheetmetal as it headed toward the stage (the checkered flag on the side of that '58 Impala is one of the best insignias on on any car, ever). We were able to feel the fabrics of the interior on several models and grab the chrome, push-button doorhandles from another era that feel more satisfying than any keyless entry option on the market today.

It's also a bit of a circus. Auctions are loud and semi-organized--no one stops you no matter how curious your behavior. We were right in front of the stage at one point, on the red carpet with one of the bid-spotters spastically pointing, gesturing and yelling for more bids right next to us. Wearing two ginormous gold rings, he awarded one bid to a guy causally noshing on a vanilla ice cream cone standing to our left (ultimately, he didn't get the car).

The auction continues through until 4 p.m. Sunday, and one of the highlights is expected to be a 1964 AMC Rambler once owned by former AMC chairman and Michigan Gov. George Romney. Come back to for complete results next week.

By Greg Migliore