Herb Wetanson’s thick New York accent is authentic, and so is his heart. Both are evident as he says, “It’s a very emotional thing I’m going through at the moment.” After a lifetime of running restaurants (including Wetson’s, the fast food chain he founded) and collecting cars, Wetanson has decided that, at the age of 81, it’s time to pare down his collection of 65 classics. And the pruning begins with a pair of beloved Mercury customs that will cross the block at the RM Sotheby’s event on Saturday, December 8, at the Petersen Automotive Museum in Los Angeles.
Wetanson started building hot rods at 15, raced against Briggs Cunningham (and later bought three cars from him), and keeps a collection in Southampton, New York, that includes vintage Ferraris and Bugattis. But he’s never sold a car at auction before.
“I’ve bought, but I’ve never sold,” he says. “Frankly, I’m having a little trauma about it.” A room full of unknown bidders and a stack of legal documents required to close a sale aren’t exactly the friendly handshake deals that Wetanson is accustomed to making. But he believes an auction is the only place where his Mercury customs, two of the first three cars Wetanson is selling from his collection (the third is a replica Jaguar XKSS), can get a reasonable price.
The 1940 Mercury Coupe Custom by Los Angeles-area builder Rudy Rodriguez is special to Wetanson because he watched it being built in Rodriguez’s shop, Fullerton Fabrication, just over a decade ago. When the original owner ran out of cash before the project was done, Wetanson stepped in and finished the car. The custom was built to emulate what might have been a factory concept car, keeping the appearance just stock enough to make a strong connection to the original 50,000-mile Mercury coupe that was the donor car. A nine-inch chop to the roof, plus a delicate reshaping of every panel on the car, produces a sleek black puddle of sheetmetal that thoroughly evokes the Art Deco streamliner era but with a rakish attitude. It is perhaps a great hot rod for non hot-rodders who prefer it stock, but who can appreciate Rodriguez’s light touch. RM Sotheby’s figures it’s worth $125,000–$175,000.
Wetanson’s other car, a 1941 Mercury “Stengel” Custom by Coachcraft, takes him back to his childhood, when he saw pictures of the car in early rodder magazines. Built in 1941 for Peter Stengel at a reputed cost of $6000, the slightly baroque Mercury town car custom was the product of the then-new Coachcraft Ltd., a Hollywood firm started by three former employees of Howard “Dutch” Darrin. The roof is actually a rigid three-piece construction that includes two removable center sections that stow in the trunk, plus a “Victoria-style clamshell” that is also removable to make the car a full roadster. The body highlights include the lowered hood, raked windscreen, and rear wheel covers cut to evoke the slit of a ladies evening gown.
Wetanson has actually owned the Stengel twice. He purchased it in the early 1960s, then sold it back to the original owner, then purchased it again in the mid-2000s after spending nearly 40 years tracking it down. It spent a few years on display at the Petersen Museum, where it will be auctioned for what RM Sotheby’s expects will be $250,000–$350,000. Coachcraft is still in business, and both the company’s current owners and Rudy Rodriguez will be in attendance as the cars cross the block. The auction of classics and automobilia starts at noon on Saturday at the Petersen Automotive Museum, 6060 Wilshire Boulevard in Los Angeles.
For Wetanson, who also plans to be there, it will be a bittersweet moment. He doesn’t want to sell the cars he sees as movable art and that make him feel 18 again when he gets behind the wheel. But he also doesn’t want to leave his heirs with 65 cars to deal with when he’s gone. “I’m not a drug addict, I’m not a gambler, I’m not a playboy. I’m just a true die hard for cars,” he says. “I just wish I wasn’t 81.”