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California vintage car auctions: It's not all million-dollar autos

By Paul Ingrassia

MONTEREY Calif. (Reuters) - The 1962 Ferrari 250 GTO that sold for $38.1 million last Thursday got the headlines. But there's another side to the week of automobile auctions that precede Sunday's 64th annual Concours d'Elegance classic-car show at the Pebble Beach golf resort.

Like the vintage 1959 Riley that sold for $5,500. Or the classic 1951 "bullet-nose" Studebaker that went for even less - just $4,000. By comparison, the 1962 Chrysler Imperial equipped with "triple cigarette lighters" cost a fortune: all of $9,500.

There's a pecking order to the Monterey Car Week auctions that culminate in the Concours. At the high end are the Bonhams auction at the posh Quail Lodge in Carmel Valley (aka "the Quail") and the Gooding auction at Pebble Beach, where the suggested bidding range for a 1959 Ferrari 250 GT Series 1 (a "poor" cousin of the $38 million prize) was $4.5 million to $6 million.

Then there's Mecum. You can spend a lot of money at auctions conducted by this Midwestern auction house with headquarters in southeast Wisconsin. A 1969 Corvette L88 coupe, with a 430-horsepower engine, sold this week for $450,000.

But you can also spend a whole lot less. The Mecum "DNA," as its auction hands proudly explain, is "something for everybody." Its Monterey auction is held at the Hyatt, not at the Quail. In the Gooding tent at Pebble Beach you see guys wearing shorts with blazers. In the Mecum tent they wear shorts and tee shirts. Untucked, of course.

The 1959 Riley was a natural fit here. Riley is a now-obscure British brand that was launched in the late 1890s, then bankrupted and merged in the 1930s and 1940s before meeting its demise in 1969. The 1959 1.5 four-door Saloon model (named for its 1.5-liter, 68 horsepower engine) has chrome-laden front face that gives the car lots of personality, if not a high price.

"It was so cute I had to take a second look at it, and before I knew it I was bidding on it," said the buyer, John Yosgott of Sacramento, Calif. The 65-year-old Yosgott, a retired registered nurse, doesn't have a car collection. He bought the Riley for his wife. "As soon as I told her about it she wanted it," he said.

Less-expensive still was the 1951 Studebaker Champion sedan, with a pointed protrusion mounted in the front grille that's known as the "bullet nose." The Champion was introduced in the months following World War Two; a few years later it got the bullet-nose design that was distinct but polarizing.

The Champion got a nose job in 1952, so the 1951 model was the last Champion bullet nose. Studebaker itself, which was headquartered in South Bend, Ind., collapsed in 1966.

The most distinctive styling feature on the 1962 Chrysler Imperial was on the back end instead of the front grille. The garish tail fins of the late 1950s were quickly disappearing, but the Imperial sported "gunsight" tail lamps that looked like, well, a truncated rifle sight. The car also had a push-button automatic transmission and a triple-socket cigarette lighter, both of which seem like jokes today but were deemed modern conveniences back then.

Mecum's Monterey auction featured other cheap thrills too.

A 1963 Ford Falcon in pristine condition went for $9,500. A 1976 Porsche 914 Targa fetched $14,500. Another Porsche sold for even less, just $14,000. It was a 1960 108L, one of Porsche's lesser-known models. That's because it belonged to a line of vehicles that Porsche has long-since discontinued: farm tractors.

Paul Ingrassia, managing editor of Reuters, is the author of three books on automobiles, and has been covering the industry since 1985. The car he drives is ... a red one.

(Reporting by Paul Ingrassia; Editing by Frances Kerry)

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