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Flying A Garage makes a hard landing

Fri, 25 Sep 2009

It was one of the greatest rod, custom, drag-racing and classic-car collections ever assembled and it soon will make one of the greatest auctions. America's Car Collection, housed at the Flying A Garage in Winnemucca, Nev., had cars by Ed Roth, the Alexander Brothers and Harry Bradley, along with memorabilia from Von Dutch and Roth. There even is a Mickey Thompson mini bike, fer goodness sake.

How'd it all come together?

Ralph Whitworth grew up in the small, northern Nevada town of Winnemucca, where cruising was still the biggest social event in town in the early 1970s. Muscle cars ruled the roads in the little town, which sits on top of I-80 between Reno and Salt Lake City. Whitworth built a 1965 GTO from various junkyard parts, and his friend Dave Bengochea had a 1968 Mustang. They cruised the main drag in a post-American Graffiti paradise.

Whitworth went off to make a considerable fortune in the business world, working first for T. Boone Pickens, then for himself. He founded Relational Investors LLC and soon was controlling $7 billion in strategic block investments.

He was away from Winnemucca for 15 years but never forgot where he came from. When he returned 15 years later, the first thing he did was donate $1 million to the local school board, saying his time there had made him what he was. The second thing he did was start a car collection along with his friend Bengochea.

"We were puttin' together a hot-rod museum here in Winnemucca," said Bengochea. "We're on I-80 and we get several thousand people driving through every day. We thought it would mean a little economic upturn in our town."

Like two kids in a series of candy stores, the pair attended classic-car auctions throughout 2006 and 2007, paying handsomely for precisely the cars and memorabilia they wanted. What they bought were classics any hot-rodder would love:

-- The Boyd Coddington Silver Bullet

-- The Deora

-- Don Tognotti's AMBR-winning Five-Window Coupe "The Avenger"

-- Darryl Starbird's "Big T" Roadster Pickup

-- Tony Nancy's "22 Jr."

There are great race cars such as "Jungle" Jim Liberman's Nova Funny Car, Al Teague's Spirit of '76 streamliner, Tom "Tiger" Pistone's Mercury Cyclone Spoiler II, Al Unser's "Johnny Lightning Special" Indy Car and Buddy Baker's 200-mph Dodge Charger Daytona.

There were Ed Roth cars such as the Road Agent, the Mega Cycle and the Druid Princess, as well as recreations of Roth cars such as the Mysterion and the Outlaw.

At one point there were around 200 cars. "It was a great time we had collecting it," said Bengochea.

They put it all in a new 6,650-square-foot, climate-controlled building in Winnemucca that they called the Flying A Garage. The plan was to build a museum next and open it all to the public.

But things never got beyond that. Bengochea won't say what went wrong, and Whitworth could not be reached for comment. Rumors among collectors are that the whole thing collapsed along with the general economy.

Now it's all going on the block at RM Auctions' "Icons of Speed & Style" on Saturday at the Petersen Museum in Los Angeles. The whole thing will go.

"No cars'll be left," said Bengochea. "It'll all be gone."

You can see it all--and get a catalog for $80--through Maybe you can buy back the car you sold a few years ago.

By Mark Vaughn