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What a Concept!

Shaun Tolson

hen lot number 992, a 1954 Oldsmobile F-88, rolled up onto the stage during Barrett-Jackson’s annual Scottsdale auction in January 2005, Jackson had no idea what to expect. It was the first time that such a dream car was being offered for public sale. The car had an alluring history: It was one of five concepts built as part of GM’s XP-20 project; it was unveiled at the 1954 Motorama held at New York’s Waldorf-Astoria hotel; and it was rejected as a production model, in large part because Chevrolet, then the biggest producer of GM products, feared it would outshine the recently debuted Corvette. All other XP concept cars are believed to have been destroyed, and according to some stories, chief designer Harley Earl saved this model himself, gave it (or perhaps sold it) to E.L. Cord—whose holding company produced Cord, Auburn, and Duesenberg automobiles—and helped him rebuild it in Cord’s Beverly Hills garage.

“With that car that year, we were trying to tell people that we need to take a look at our own American heritage,” Jackson recalls. “For some reason, we were only enamored with European heritage. We were trying to tell people that we should value our own heritage as much as anyone else’s.”

The interested buyers in the audience clearly shared Jackson’s sentiment. After an intense bidding war, the car was sold to John S. Hendricks for $3.2 million. “It is our Mona Lisa,” Hendricks declared after the sale. “This GM dream car uniquely embodies the revolutionary design spirit of the legendary Harley Earl, the ‘da Vinci’ of Detroit. The 1954 Olds F-88 concept vehicle is, I believe, America’s finest example of rolling art to emerge from the postwar era.”

Since then, a number of American concept cars from the 1950s and early 1960s (and occasionally the early 1940s) have crossed the block through RM Auctions but none have approached the value of the F-88. A 1960 Plymouth XNR and a 1941 Chrysler Thunderbolt came the closest, each selling for $935,000, while others, such as a 1954 Dodge Firearrow and a 1954 Packard Panther-Daytona roadster, have also exchanged hands for $700,000 or more.

Barrett-Jackson has sold a handful of other examples, including two 1954 Dodge Firearrows, a 1954 Pontiac Bonne­ville Special, and—most recently—a 1954 Plymouth Belmont convertible, all of which have exchanged hands for seven figures, but the F-88 is still tops (at least from a monetary standpoint). “Concept cars aren’t easy to sell because they don’t appeal to all your conventional collectors,” says RM’s Kelleher. “Some people are really enthusiastic about them and others aren’t as enthralled by them. It’s a smaller niche market.

“I think this is an area that is still underappreciated,” he continues. “There’s a strength to concept cars and they will continue to appreciate in value.”

What’s more, Kelleher says that the really exceptional examples that were built (and survive) have yet to come up for sale. He references a 224-page picture book, Cars Detroit Never Built, and declares that at least a third of the cars depicted in the book still exist but have never been sold. “You haven’t seen the top end of the market yet,” he says. “There are other cars out there in private hands from the period that are well known and well documented and when they sell, they’ll sell in excess of the prices that we’ve seen to this point.”

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