Sally Kosmatka tried to find the words, but she had to pause mid-sentence.
“When I think about it for too long …,” she said as tears welled in her eyes. “I’m sorry.”
Her husband, Jack, reached over and patted her leg. Without saying a word, his gesture said everything. Jack knew Sally’s pain as well as anyone could. This would be a tough day for the Kosmatkas. They were about to see the most precious members of their classic car family go to new homes.
“It hurts,” Jack said, “but you gotta do it.”
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So on June 12, at Motostalgia’s Brickyard Auction at Indianapolis Motor Speedway, the Texas couple said goodbye to what has become known as the Texas Barn Find Collection – five well-preserved pre-WWII automobiles and a travel trailer that were stored in a warehouse behind their home near Austin. Untouched for 40 years, the collection included a 1932 Cadillac 370B V-12 Victoria Convertible, a 1933 Cadillac Model 370C V-12 Town Coupe, a 1938 Cadillac Series 90 V-16 Fleetwood Limousine, a 1923 Milburn Electric Model 27L, a 1908 REO Model G Boattail Roadster/Sedan Tonneau and a twice-used 1937 Kozy Coach Travel Trailer.
“I have feelings about them,” Sally said, stating what was already obvious. “I’m sad to see them go.”
John “Jack” and Sally Kosmatka met in Milwaukee in the late 1950s. They both enjoyed ballroom dancing, and it was at a dance that Jack spotted his future bride across the room.
“She was the right height for hugging and kissing,” 86-year-old Jack joked, eliciting laughter from his wife. “Then when we got married (in 1960), she took off her high heels and shrunk four inches.”
“He didn’t know I was such a short person,” Sally said.
Jack was certain, however, that he’d found a partner who supported his love for cars. “Best thing I ever did was marry this lady,” he said. But Sally was admittedly “lukewarm” about her husband’s hobby until 1968, when Jack bought her a classic of her own, an all-original 1915 Anderson Detroit Electric that she still enjoys driving. “She got a kick out of it because it was unique. As soon as we got it home she was out there cleaning it. It meant more because it was her car.”
Jack’s collection grew substantially during the 1960s and early ‘70s. He’d earned extra cash as a teenager by fixing up wrecked cars and selling them, but his attention quickly turned to antiques. One led to another, and another …
“My first car was a ’28 Buick; my dad had one so I bought one,” he said. “It was kind of a blah car – no power, no pep. A friend of mine had a ’33 Cadillac with a V-12. That impressed me. And we traded. But that car was in need of a lot of parts.”
So Jack started looking. Before he could find a parts car, however, he stumbled upon a gem that he just couldn’t resist – a 1932 Cadillac 370B V-12 Victoria Convertible. He knew Cadillacs well, but he was confused by this one. So he called a friend who worked for Cadillac and suddenly realized the Victoria was body No. 1, a prototype for the 1932 V-16 model. He had to have it. “I paid more than I ever had for a car, but I knew it was special.” Jack mortgaged his house to get the deal done, and he and Sally towed it from Pasco, Wash., back to Milwaukee behind a 1972 Lincoln Continental.
As for the other cars in the auction, Jack bought the 1908 REO and 1923 Milburn from an attorney who had received them as payment from a client. He bought the ’38 Cadillac Limousine – “the best car I’ve ever driven, by far” – in Detroit. The Kozy Coach came from a Wisconsin farmer who purchased it new and used it once.
In 1973, after Jack became ill and was forced to relocate to a drier climate, the Kosmatkas moved to Cedar Park, Texas. Transporting the cars took several trips, but they all made it safely, and Jack meticulously stored each one in the warehouse at his new home. “Truth be told, we didn’t like the house we bought,” he said. “But we really needed that warehouse for the cars.”
Jack planned to drive them all again, but even after his health was restored, the cars remained in the barn, collecting dust for the next 40 years. “Life doesn’t always go the way you plan,” he said.
The decision to part with the cars was an easy one, Jack said. “I’m 86 years old. I’m running out of time, so you have to think ahead. I don’t want to burden my wife with all this stuff to take care of. I love her very much, so I’m going to leave her well off. That’s what we decided – to part with all the cars – and that’s what we’re doing.”
Antonio Brunet, chairman of Motostalgia Auctions in nearby Austin, was aware of the cars and reached out to the Kosmatkas a couple of times. Weeks and months passed. Then he got the call.
“The moment those doors opened and I saw that V-16 badge … that V-12 badge … I knew that we had something very special,” Brunet said.
His first hurdle was to keep Sally from cleaning them up. “I almost had to hire a security team… She had a motherly instinct to take care of them and make them presentable. I almost threw myself in front of her because I wanted absolutely every single cobweb and speck of dust on the cars when we presented them. They’re all part of the story.”
Auction day arrived, and it was bittersweet for the Kosmatkas. Surrounded by relatives, they were bombarded with emotions – sadness, anticipation, worry, and also surprise. The two were simply dumfounded by the attention given to the cars and all of the interest in their story.
They were photographed sitting in the cars. They were photographed standing next to the cars. They answered questions. They also paced, occasionally wandering past each car, sometimes reaching out and touching them. It was an emotional rollercoaster ride.
“I would like to see someone get them who’s going to love them and appreciate them as much as we have,” Sally said.
To which Jacke added, “If the person who buys them wants to talk to me about it, good. I love to talk about it.”
“You love to talk about it all right,” Sally said with laugh. “You’ll chew their arm off.”
Sally’s jovial mood quickly turned gloomy. “I walk out to the building where they were and there’s this big empty space, and I think, ‘This is where they used to be.’”
“It’s strange how you become attached to something that you hunted down, protected and preserved all these years,” Jack said.
Hours passed before the auction finally began, followed by a longer wait as other cars crossed the block. At one point, Sally got up from her front-row seat and sat in the Kozy Coach one last time. Jack joined her minutes later.
When the moment arrived, the Kosmatkas were introduced. They stood and waved. Jack grabbed Sally’s hand.
The 1908 REO was up first. The car is unique in that its three-person back seat can be removed and replaced with a wooden rear section, turning it from a five-person touring convertible into a two-person boattail. When the hammer came down, it had been sold for $104,500 (which includes a 10-percent buyer’s premium).
The ’23 Milburn, one of only three in existence, went next. It was built during the company’s final year, before General Motors bought their competition and dismantled the factory. Like the REO, the Milburn cruised past its pre-auction estimate, selling for $165,000.
The three Cadillacs followed -- $308,000 for the ’32 Victoria; $55,000 for the ’33 Town Coupe; and $46,750 for the ’38 Limousine. The ’37 Kozy Coach also found a new home for $66,000.
Jack and Sally seemed relieved. It certainly helped that three of the six auction offerings – the REO, Milburn and Kozy Coach – were staying in Texas. Dr. Roberto Assael bought them to display in his Globo Rojo (Red Balloon) Auto Club Museum in El Paso.
“They’re from Texas; I’m from Texas; and they’re going to stay in Texas – in a place where everyone can appreciate them,” said Dr. Assael, who learned about the cars through a YouTube video and saw his museum collection grow to 117 with the new additions. “I’m sure this was very difficult for (the Kosmatkas). I’ve been collecting for 52 years, and I hope I never have to sell anything. I want to leave my cars to posterity.”
The buyer of the limousine spoke with Jack and Sally afterward, and the three of them posed for a photo in front of the car. He also asked Jack to sign his auction catalog.
The 1932 and ’33 Cadillacs went to phone bidders.
“It was better than we expected, very much so,” Jack said. “We’re very happy the way it turned out.”
“I’m sad that the cars are going, but I’m happy at the same time because they’re going to new homes that will be really great for them,” Sally said. “The museum isn’t too far from us, so we can go see them.”
Brunet called the experience “one of the best journeys in my career.”
“Jack and Sally are absolutely the most wonderful people. They’re car guys – and women – to the core. They dedicated themselves to these vehicles, and their hobby kind of took over their lives,” he said. “This barn find was like a time machine, and they allowed me in. It’s been extremely rewarding and an absolute honor.”