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Legends of Le Mans

Shaun Tolson

Bruce Meyer—collector, historic-racing enthusiast, and pursuer of high-speed thrills—offers up a succinct description of the 24 Hours of Le Mans: “It’s the Super Bowl of motorsports,” he exclaims. Meyer, along with many other collectors and experts, believes that the endurance race—the oldest annual auto race still in existence—is the one motorsport event that, by itself, can drastically impact the value of a collectible sports car. “Anything that ran Le Mans, I love,” Meyer says. “Running for 24 hours and winning against the world’s best drivers and cars is just huge. If I had a chance to buy any Le Mans winner, I would.”

Meyer doesn’t pause to acknowledge what a Le Mans–winning racecar might cost him, because he already owns one. Meyer possesses four historic racecars with Le Mans connections, but the crown jewel of that group is a 1979 Porsche 935 K3, the overall winner of the famed endurance race that year. Meyer didn’t acquire the car the way most collectors would, through an auction or a private sale. Instead, Meyer patiently worked out the details of a trade with the Indianapolis Motor Speedway Hall of Fame Museum, where he discovered the car, as he recalls, “languishing in the basement,” a couple of years ago.

On his end of the deal, the 71-year-old collector agreed to part ways with his 1952 Agajanian Special, the last upright-style racecar to win the Indianapolis 500, which it did in 1952 when Troy Ruttman, the youngest winner in Indy 500 history, was behind the wheel. As a Porsche enthusiast, Meyer is ecstatic about the trade; and even though he was partial to the Agajanian Special, having watched the car race when he was a boy, he knows that the Indy car is better suited for the museum than for his private collection. “It’s going to be enjoyed by more Indy enthusiasts in [the museum’s] hands than mine,” he admits, which supports a statement that Meyer made in a New York Times article in June 2012. “When you have a car that people enjoy, then you need to share it,” he told the Times. “That’s part of the responsibility of owning it.”

Meyer recognizes that another key responsibility for an owner of rare, classic cars is the duty to drive them, to keep them mechanically sound and in sharp working order. “I’m in ’em, I drive ’em,” he says of every car in his collection, but he laments that some great cars in other private collections are never driven. “When you experience these cars behind the wheel, it adds another dimension.”

Fellow collector Nick Mason concurs. Like Meyer, the 69-year-old British musician and auto enthusiast can’t keep himself off a racetrack, though he’s beginning to pare down the number of historic racing events that he enters. Unlike Meyer, however, Mason actually raced several of the cars in his collection during their respective Le Mans appearances.

Mason grew up watching his father participate in various motorsports events, and that sparked his own interest in racing. “I always was interested in motorsports,” Mason explains, “but Le Mans is special. My ambition was always to go to Le Mans and race there.” And Mason did, competing five times, though he enjoyed his best finish in his inaugural campaign, when his team, Dorset Racing Associates, finished 18th. “It’s immediately understood that it’s a heavyweight race,” he says of Le Mans. “It’s one of the toughest races of all in proving a car and proving a driver. There’s a romance to Le Mans, and the fact that it’s been around so long contributes to that.

“It’s to do with unlikely wins—the Old No. 7 Bentley in the ’20s and Duncan Hamilton with the D-Type Jaguar in the ’50s,” he continues. “Anyone who’s been to it or read about it will know some of those stories, and, of course, that adds to the power of the connection. The power of those stories is undoubtedly what gives this race a special cachet.”

Within Mason’s collection, the car with the most cachet may be a 1962 Ferrari 250 GTO, which finished third overall at Le Mans that year. Mason, who established his musical career as the drummer for Pink Floyd, dipped into the money that he made from the band’s eighth studio album, The Dark Side of the Moon, to buy the car for £37,000 (about $64,000) in 1977. Today, some estimate the car to be worth as much as $50 million, but Mason, who bought the Ferrari for racing purposes (and raced it immediately), continues to race it today, even knowing what the car is worth. “It’s almost an act of faith to keep it on the track,” he says.

Collectors who place importance on keeping a historic racecar on the track will often turn to John Harden, owner of the Vintage Connection (www.vintageconnection.com), a full-service restoration and race prep shop in Oklahoma City. Harden opened the business in 1985, but he’s participated in historic racing events for six decades. He says that the business was a natural extension of his vintage racing hobby, since racers regularly saw the quality of his restorations and would ask him to perform similar work for them.

Harden has welcomed a wide array of historic racecars into his 8,800-square-foot work space, including Allards, Lister Jaguars, Maseratis, Ferraris, and Austin-Healeys; and a handful of them had Le Mans experience. One such car, a 1953 Allard JR “Le Mans” Roadster— one of only two Allard factory entries in the 1953 Le Mans (and one of only seven Allard JRs built)—sold for $605,000 during an RM Auctions event in January. According to Harden, that particular car, which enjoyed a steady vintage racing career after Le Mans, is a perfect example of the type of vehicle (and the type of ownership experience) that the majority of his customers are looking for. “Most of our customers are bringing us cars that they want to race,” he explains. “We don’t do many restorations of racecars for people who don’t race them.”

That statement represents a double-edged sword. A collector and a restoration specialist must walk a fine line between maintaining a car’s integrity and preserving it with the necessary modifications to keep it up to code and on the racetrack. “If you have a car with a lot of provenance, which a lot of our cars had, you work to keep the car as original as possible,” Harden says. “You want to keep the car as original as possible, but depending on the car, you have to make these modifications to make them eligible for the current [historic racing] events.”

Harden’s restored Allard JR represents the ideal compromise. When the car sold earlier this year, it was offered with a comprehensive collection of spare parts, along with specific racing spares and a set of roll bars, which are required for entry in vintage racing events. That sort of spare-parts inventory is not always easy to come by, which is what makes Harden’s job so difficult. “The sourcing of bits and pieces for these old cars becomes an issue, and it takes time to build up the supplies,” he says. “The restorer is looking for authenticity in these cars, and he’ll go all over the world to find the parts.”

But Harden also finds that more and more vintage racing events are spotlighting fewer and fewer high-value historic racecars. Sure, there are collectors like Nick Mason, who believe that no car, no matter its monetary value, is too rare to be driven as it was intended. But Harden has witnessed how increasing auction values for these historic vehicles have altered the vintage racing landscape. “Back in the early 1980s, when we participated in the Chicago Historics, we’d go with the Allards and I’d race against 20 Ferraris all getting bashed and beat up and no one thought about it,” he says. “But then, they weren’t as valuable [as they are now].”

As classic cars continue to grow in value, many collectors and market analysts are looking for a commonality among the most sought-after examples. According to Paul Hageman, a specialist at Gooding & Co., the link that binds the most valuable pre- and post-war sports cars together is an association with Le Mans. “It is, without question, the most valuable race to have on a racing car’s résumé,” he says. “It’s always been a proving ground for manufacturers, and it’s the highest level at which a manufacturer can seek dominance and have that correlate into something marketable. Le Mans is one of the few races where you see a connection with the cars that are running and winning the race with the products that are being delivered by those same manufacturers.”

“It’s not as if there was ever a day when people said, ‘well, it was only a Le Mans car,’” adds Rupert Banner, a Bonhams automotive specialist, explaining that there’s no ebb and flow regarding the demand for racecars with Le Mans experience. “It’s never been a frivolous topic. Le Mans cars were built to survive 24 hours, and that alone was an achievement. Any of those cars that arrived on the market over the last 30 years have been coveted.”

According to Hageman, an aspect of Le Mans that differentiates the race from other historic events and circuits, like the Grand Prix, is the collector’s ability to get behind the wheel of an overall or class-winning automobile and drive it without difficulty. Modern-day prototype racers no longer offer this feature (see “Modern-Day Marathoners” on page 54 for information about owning and collecting contemporary Le Mans racecars), but according to Max Girardo, a specialist with RM Auctions, the 1950s and ’60s are the two decades that offer collectors the easiest transition into the driver’s seat. “It’s the golden era with the Jaguar D-Types and beautiful shapes,” he says of the 1950s, “and it’s reasonable that anyone can get into a car of that era and do a lap.”

Jaguar C- and D-Types with any racing pedigree regularly exceed $2 million when sold at auction—a 1956 Jaguar D-Type sold for $2.1 million at a Bonhams San Francisco sale in 2006, a 1952 Jaguar C-Type sold for $2.53 million at RM Auctions’ Pebble Beach event in 2009, and a 1956 Jaguar D-Type sold for $3.74 million at Gooding & Co.’s Scottsdale auction in 2010. Had any of those examples had experience racing in Le Mans, their respective hammer prices likely would have been considerably higher.

 In the pantheon of most-desirable Le Mans marques, Hageman cites six (in chronological order)—Bentley, Jaguar, Ferrari, Ford, Porsche, and Audi. Ford’s period of dominance is the shortest of the six, but Hageman believes that the American racecars are the event’s “most iconic” representatives, thanks to an upset over Ferrari in 1966 and subsequent victories the next three years. Gooding & Co. sold a 1964 Ford GT40 Prototype (a factory team car during Ford’s debut at Le Mans) for $4.95 million in August 2012, while RM Auctions sold a 1968 Ford GT40 Gulf/Mirage racecar for $11 million that same month. The Gulf car raced (but did not finish) at Le Mans in 1967, though it is perhaps more famous for its role as the camera car in the 1971 film Le Mans, which starred Steve McQueen.

Racecars from the 1920s and ’30s are in demand due to their pioneer status in the history of Le Mans, but they lack the drivability of the cars from the mid-20th century. Nevertheless, collectors will pay a premium for a well-documented early Le Mans racer. In 2012, Bonhams sold a 1939 Lagonda V-12 Team Car for £1.29 million (about $1.9 million) and a 1932 Alfa Romeo 8C-2300 Spyder Lungo for £2.69 million (about $4.1 million), while Gooding & Co. sold a 1928 Bentley 4.5-liter Le Mans Sports “Bobtail” for $6.05 million.

Porsche’s longest reign of uninterrupted dominance at Le Mans occurred during the 1980s, but only a handful of the marque’s racecars from the 1970s have crossed the block in recent years. One of the most notable, a 1970 Gulf-JWA Le Mans 917K Coupe, sold for $3.97 million during a Bonhams auction in 2010.

With nine Le Mans titles to its name, Ferrari is one of the most successful marques to participate in the event. Yet Hageman believes there’s less hype surrounding the Italian automaker’s victories than there is with other winning teams, primarily because most people expected those victories.

Despite a lack of buzz, Ferrari’s racecars have established the greatest values for historic Le Mans racers at auction. Gooding & Co. sold a 1957 Ferrari 250 Testa Rossa for $16.39 million in 2011, and RM Auctions sold two noteworthy Ferraris in recent years—a 1953 Ferrari 340/375 MM Berlinetta “Competizione” for about $13.06 million in May 2013 and a 1962 Ferrari 330 TRI/LM Testa Rossa Spyder for about $9.21 million in May 2007. Girardo says that, given a choice, he’d buy the Testa Rossa Spyder, which won Le Mans in 1962. “That’s the ultimate Ferrari sports racer,” he says. “It’s one of the most desirable Ferrari racecars in the world. That’s the car to have.”

Considering that Le Mans has an 80-year history, with at least 50 cars participating in the event each year, there’s no shortage of cars with a connection to the race. However, specialists agree that it’s rare for a significant car, like the 1962 Testa Rossa, to cross the block, which likely means it will be years before any of the recently sold Le Mans racecars reappear for sale. “There’s a presence of Le Mans–winning cars in all the big collections; it’s definitely a focal point,” Hageman says. “But the greatest cars rarely come to market.”

“It’s not impossible to find a [Le Mans] car,” Girardo adds. “Don’t get me wrong, it’s not that you can just pull up a list, but they do come up for sale. But finding a Le Mans winner or a class winner is a different story. Winners almost never change hands.”

Modern-Day Marathoners
During the 1950s and ’60s, it wasn’t unusual for auto manufacturers to part ways with their successful factory team racing cars, even the ones that outperformed all others at Le Mans. To be clear, several racing seasons often transpired before marques like Jaguar, Mercedes-Benz, or even Ferrari would sell their past competition cars to the highest bidder, but according to Rupert Banner, an automotive specialist at Bonhams, the guiding principles that influenced most auto brands during the mid-20th century were different from those that now motivate motorsports’ most successful racing teams. “Back in the day, it was just about what brought money through the doors,” he says.

“Manufacturers in more recent times, particularly because they are interested in retrospective designs, are much keener to hold on to their cars than they were in those days,” he continues, adding that most modern-day Le Mans racecars also embody a significant amount of advanced technology, proprietary information, and painstaking research and development that manufacturers want to keep from their competitors. “I can’t realistically see Audi or Porsche parting with their cars. They’re things that they hold in great esteem, and they don’t want to share them with anybody.”

In the event’s contemporary era—once prototype racecars began monopolizing the podium during the late 1960s—Porsche and Audi have dominated the field. From 1970 to the present, Porsche has won Le Mans 16 times, including seven straight victories from 1981 to 1987. Audi, on the other hand, has made the 8.5-mile circuit in northwestern France its own permanent victory lap in recent years, having won the 24-hour race 12 of the past 14 years.

Despite the fact that a contemporary Le Mans–winning racecar has never been sold publicly (it’s unclear if any have been sold privately), the occasional 21st-century Le Mans–participating racer has crossed the block. During RM Auctions’ Monaco sale in the spring of 2012, a 2007 Peugeot 908 V-12 HDi FAP sold for €1.68 million (about $2.15 million). The car, which participated in Le Mans in 2009, was the first (and to date, the only) Peugeot 908 HDi to be sold publicly. It’s also connected to the Works-Peugeot factory racing team’s overall victory in the event that year, although this particular example was not the winning car.

Paul Hageman, a specialist with Gooding & Co.—which sold a 1997 Porsche 911 GT1 Evolution with Le Mans experience for $1.27 million in 2012—points to the complex nature of modern racecars, as well as the expenses associated with them, as a pivotal reason why they don’t have as much collectible value as their vintage predecessors. “Contemporary racecars have to be significantly important from a race standpoint to have a lot of value,” he says.

A perfect example is the 2001 Bentley Speed 8 Le Mans Prototype that RM Auctions sold for $2.53 million during its Pebble Beach event in 2012. The car finished the 2001 Le Mans in third place, which marked the first time that a Bentley Works team finished on the Le Mans podium in more than seven decades. It also marked the first time that Bentley participated in the event in 68 years. “It ticked all the boxes,” Max Girardo, an RM Auctions specialist, says of the vehicle. “It’s a very aggressive, good-looking car; it’s the only one out of captivity and the only one that will ever leave the Bentley factory; it’s Bentley returning to Le Mans after so many years; and it came directly from Bentley as a factory racer. For a collector, owning that car is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.”

According to Girardo, predicting the future values and the collectibility of contemporary Le Mans racecars is a difficult thing to do, though he’s confident that they will never depreciate in value (provided a collector initially pays a fair market value for the car). Since only a few examples have come to market, however, determining that fair market value is not easy. In fact, because of such limited accessibility to Le Mans–experienced racecars over the past couple of decades, Banner believes the market may never expand the way the historic segment has. “I think for the majority of cases, they’ll be holding on to their most successful cars just as trophy pieces,” he says of modern-day manufacturers like Audi and Porsche. “They’re expected to hold on to their stuff; there’s marketability in it.” —S.T.

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Copyright 2014 Infiniti
Photo by Pietro Carrieri
Photo by Pawel Litwinski
Photo by Aldo Ferrero
Darin Schnabel/RM Auctions