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A Life of Discovery

Shaun Tolson

My car’s radio signal for Boston sports talk succumbs to static about an hour’s drive south of Bob Bahre’s historic estate in northern New England. A few seconds later, it’s replaced with the Southern twang of an unidentifiable country music singer’s woeful ballad. “So much for that,” I think, as I approach the location of Bahre’s auto collection, which is housed in a showroom set on the edge of the White Mountains. As I pass snowmobile repair shops and moose crossing signs, one thing becomes clear: this highly regarded auto collection is not easily discovered.

Bahre did not plan to establish a 60-car collection in such a remote location. Instead, the collection materialized gradually over time, and like so many other collectors, Bahre realized one day (several years into the process) that he was well on his way to creating something special. “It just gradually came about,” he says. “I never said, ‘Gee, I want to build a great collection.’ It just seemed to happen.”

Most people know Bob Bahre’s name—if they know of him at all—for his connection to the New Hampshire Motor Speedway, a racetrack that’s located about an hour’s drive north of Boston and heralded as New England’s largest sports and entertainment venue. Bahre and his son built the speedway in the late 1980s and owned it until January 2008. Classic car enthusiasts may recognize Bahre’s name from various concours programs over the last couple of decades (he’s one of only two collectors who have shown a car at the Amelia Island Concours d’Elegance every year since it began in 1996). Locals, on the other hand, have enjoyed an up-close view of the cars in his collection on the one day each year that Bahre opens his showroom’s doors to raise money for a nearby charity.

Every other day of the year, however, the 86-year-old collector aims to avoid the spotlight. One of the only times that Bahre purchased a car at auction, he swiftly evacuated the premises, leaving TV and newspaper reporters to speculate on the identity of the collector who had just made the record-setting purchase. And when his cars win awards, as they often do (Bahre has claimed 10 victories at the Pebble Beach Concours d’Elegance, as well as many awards at Amelia Island over the years), it’s Bahre’s collection manager, Jeff Orwig, who’s behind the wheel and later up on stage accepting the honors on Bahre’s behalf.

During a recent interview with Bahre in his 9,000-square-foot showroom, the grandfatherly collector reflected on decades spent collecting and restoring valuable American and European classics, sharing numerous stories that support his belief that any car is obtainable. Acquiring those hard-to-get vehicles simply requires the right amount of persistence . . . and plenty of patience.

Bahre grew up working on his family’s farm in Suffield, Conn., and vividly recalls milking cows by hand—his family didn’t own a milking machine. Coming of age during the 1930s and early 1940s, Bahre was fascinated by automobiles and always wanted one, but the first car that his family owned, an old Model A Ford that cost $5, was a solely utilitarian purchase. The car immediately was converted into a plow for the fields, since a tractor was too expensive for the family’s budget at that time.

Bahre’s first means of income came from welding simple trailers for other farmers in the community, and once the family could afford a tractor, Bahre recalls using it to build victory gardens during the early 1940s for a few dollars each. Soon he had graduated to building houses, and it wasn’t long before he had his hand in property development, which became his most consistent means of income over the years. When it finally came time to buy a car for the pleasure of owning one, Bahre remembers buying an early Packard from the late 1920s or early 1930s. The car’s owner was living in Georgia, so Bahre purchased it sight unseen over the phone. That would become his first serious lesson in car collecting. “I sent my brother down to get it,” he says, “and holy Christ, when it got back here . . . what a mess!” As Bahre recalls, the car was in poor shape and was painted an outlandish shade of red. “I advertised it and got rid of it quick. I didn’t lose anything,” he notes, “but I didn’t make anything, either. After that, I learned a lesson: you have to look at them first!”

Bahre put that lesson to work when he purchased a 1929 Duesenberg Model J Derham Roadster in the early 1970s. That car led to a flurry of additional Packard and Duesenberg acquisitions, and many of those cars came with interesting and, in some cases, unbelievable stories.

“Back then you would hear about cars here and there, and a lot of them weren’t for sale. But if you talked to the owners long enough, they were for sale . . . like that Duesenberg down there,” he says, pointing to a 1937 Duesenberg Model J Convertible Coupe by Rollston.

“That’s one of the sexiest-looking Duesenbergs they ever built,” Orwig says of the car. “The greatest Duesenbergs are the ones that are pure, with the original frame, the original body, and the original engine. And of all the remaining Duesenbergs, the number [that meets those criteria] is pretty small. The number [of surviving examples] that are beautiful and more desirable is even smaller, and Bob’s got a whole line of them here.”

As Bahre tells the story, he had heard through the grapevine that the car belonged to a gentleman living in rural Michigan, but he also heard that the owner had no plans to sell it. The car was in dilapidated condition—the owner had partially disassembled it in an attempt to return it to its former glory. However, Bahre also learned that the gentleman had no real money to speak of, which meant a complete restoration likely would never occur. By this time, Bahre had enjoyed some commercial success and felt confident that a generous offer for the car could change the owner’s mind. So Bahre tracked him down and made a trip out to see him. However, before he did, Bahre stopped by the bank and withdrew $500,000 in cash, and when he packed for his flight to Michigan, Bahre filled a separate carry-on bag with his recent withdrawal.

“I said to him, ‘I really want to buy it,’” Bahre recalls of his face-to-face meeting with the owner of the car, “and he said, ‘Nope. It’s not for sale.’”

So Bahre did exactly what he’d known he would have to do. He unzipped the carry-on bag and dumped out every last bill of that $500,000 on the man’s living room floor. At this point, the man’s wife insisted that she speak with her husband privately, so they adjourned to the basement. “I sat there and sat there and ended up falling asleep on the couch,” Bahre recalls. “It was at least an hour before they came back upstairs and he said to me, ‘Well, you better call your driver to come get it.’ But he wouldn’t say, ‘I’m going to sell you the car.’

“And that’s how I got that one,” he says with a chuckle.

The story sounds as if it had been written for Hollywood, and yet, 25 years later, while Bahre owns the car and the story, outsiders rarely see the car, and hardly anyone hears Bahre recount the story.

The hunt is the major appeal for many collectors in all categories, and Bahre is no different. “I liked to get cars that people didn’t know about,” he says. “I mean, somebody always had to know about something, but if you just listened, you’d hear about a car and a person who wouldn’t sell. That’s what I liked to hear, when you had a car where the owner wouldn’t sell it, and then I’d try to go and get it. At least you didn’t have everybody else trying to buy it.

“Some guys chase broads,” he adds. “I chase cars.”

No one knows that better than Orwig. One of his caretaking duties for the collection is documenting how, where, and when Bahre acquired each vehicle. “This building is full of examples of the chase,” he says, sitting next to Bahre and reminiscing about how it all came together. “He loved the chase, the hunt, and then talking the owners into selling something that wasn’t for sale. And he rarely failed at it.”

As proof, there’s the 1931 Mercedes-Benz SSK in its original condition, which Bahre acquired directly from the estate of a New York City socialite for $916,000 in 1986. Then there’s the 1929 Duesenberg Model J Derham Roadster that Bahre retrieved in 1974 from a run-down shed in New Jersey, a space that Orwig says was “piled so high with stuff you could barely tell what the car was.” And there’s also a 1934 Packard 1108 Convertible Victoria by Dietrich. When Bahre discovered that particular car, he owned five of the six custom Dietrich Packard Twelve body styles that were made—a rare feat, considering that only a handful of examples of each model were ever produced. It seemed the odds were slim that he would ever find the sixth. But one day in the late 1980s, a man walked into one of the bank buildings that Bahre owned and told him about an old Packard that he had heard was just sitting in a garage in eastern Maine.

Bahre went to check it out, not expecting the trip to amount to much, and was shocked to discover it was an example of the last custom Dietrich Packard that he was missing. What made the find even more fascinating was that the car was full of pine needles and pine cones. “He had put it in the field during Hurricane Gloria,” Orwig says of the car’s owner. “He figured it was safer sitting out in the middle of the field with the top down [during the hurricane], and then he put it back in the garage . . . pine needles and all.”

Of course, sometimes, great cars found Bahre. In 1986, Bahre received a phone call from a fellow collector who was in a jam. The collector owned an unrestored 1938 Alfa Romeo 8C 2900B Spider, but according to Bahre, he was hard up for money and his girlfriend was threatening to leave him if his financial situation didn’t improve. Against his will, the collector decided to sell the car and he contacted Bahre. The two agreed to terms and Bahre wound up with a car that most experts consider to be the most valuable Alfa Romeo in existence. “He loved that car and wanted to keep it,” Bahre recalls, “so I have to thank her for me getting it!”

Only twice has Bahre bought a car at auction, and the more well-known instance occurred in 1980, when he traveled to Florida to buy a 1934 Packard Twelve 1108 LeBaron Sport Phaeton that previously had belonged to Frederick Hussey, an aviation entrepreneur during the 1950s who also had ties to the Macy family (which founded the department store). Bahre was determined to not be outbid and ended up setting a world record for an American car sold at auction at that time—he paid $350,000 for the car, though he admits now that he was willing to pay twice that if he had to. “When the TV cameras came over, I got the hell out of there,” he says, “because I didn’t want anybody to think I was nuts. I just wanted that car so bad.”

“The world thought that some guy had lost his mind paying that much for a Packard,” Orwig adds. “Everybody thought that was insane, but there’s only one person laughing now. And the key is . . . he wasn’t buying it because he thought it was a bargain. The price he paid was half of what he was willing to pay, and the world still thought he had lost his mind. He just had this sense of what the true greatness was, even if nobody else agreed, and that’s what I see when I look around this room.”

Bahre’s intuition also dictated how he chose to care for his cars over the years. During the 1970s and 1980s, the collector car community traveled down an unfortunate path, according to Orwig. For a period of time, unconditional sparkle and shine reigned supreme; it was seen as the ideal end result of any classic car restoration. Everyone, it seemed, was over-restoring their automobiles.  Everyone, that is, except Bahre, which is why Orwig believes his boss was instrumental in showcasing classic cars restored to their original factory condition. “I think he started it,” Orwig says of the now-preferred method of 100-point restoration. “My dad was involved in the Antique Automobile Club of America and we’d go to shows when I was a kid, and I remember that that guy named Bahre always brought in the most amazing cars. So I think he went and got great cars and said, ‘I want them done and I want them done right.’”

However, Bahre also had the clairvoyance to know when he shouldn’t restore a car. At least 15 cars in Bahre’s collection remain unrestored, including a 1931 Duesenberg Model J Convertible Victoria by Rollston, a 1933 Rolls-Royce PII Henley Roadster by Brewster, and a 1934 Packard 1106 Sport Coupe by LeBaron. “I always thought it was amazing that he just resisted,” Orwig says. “That all-original Duesenberg down there, or this front-wheel-drive Packard that’s only got 6,000 miles, or the Alfa, or the SSK, those cars were not welcome anywhere when he bought them. You couldn’t take those cars to a concours event; you needed to have a show car. But he didn’t restore them, because he knew they were too important in the condition that they were in.”

These days, Bahre isn’t spending much time on restoration projects, but he doesn’t have to. His 1934 Packard 1106 Runabout Speedster by LeBaron, once owned by Clark Gable, shines as bright today as it did when it was first restored—and that was more than three decades ago. Today, he’s content to enjoy the fruits of his labor. “I love it here,” he says, sitting on a simple folding chair placed in the center of the red carpeted walkway that runs the length of his showroom. “I come down and sit here and look at them, and if anybody saw me they’d send me to the shrink. They’d think I was nuts.”

However, that doesn’t mean Bahre isn’t still pining for a few specific cars to round out his collection. He’s tight-lipped on what they are, and he won’t speak a word about where they’re located. His only comment on the subject merely reveals that he knows who owns the car, and that the owner knows of his interest. “I think if she ever sells it, she’ll call me,” he says.

If she does, you can bet Bahre will eagerly make the trip to negotiate a sale. He just might have to bring a bigger carry-on bag.

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