The Car Hoarders

Decaying hulks are everywhere, but restoration will never begin and they’ll never, ever be sold


You hear rumors all the time: 80 Nash Healeys in Maryland; a Connecticut barn with scores of American cars turned on end to pack in more; dozens of wrecked exotics stuffed into ramshackle hen houses in New Jersey. Anyone who’s ever chased old cars has heard tales of cantankerous recluses who gather cars and store them badly while metal rusts and soft parts rot or get chewed to bits. These are the car hoarders.

It’s hard to track a car hoarder and even harder to approach one, though it’s a bit safer than raiding a dragon’s lair. These folks value privacy and aren’t inclined to talk to strangers, so caution is advised. Several collectors I spoke to were hesitant to talk, wondering if they could be hoarders, too. “No, of course not,” I’d assure them. “You’re restoring cars and selling some; you’re nothing like that…”

Hoarder or Not?
Fishing reel heir John W. Shakespeare had a penchant for Bugattis in the late 1950s and early 1960s, when many sold for the cost of a new Chevy. None were pristine and most were in at least a partial state of disassembly. Some were in another state altogether — Florida — while the bulk of his 30 Bugattis remained in Centralia, Illinois. That he sold all 30 Bugattis, including a Type 41 Royale, to the Brothers Schlumpf, proved either that he wasn’t an irreconcilable hoarder or that eventual buyer Fritz Schlumpf was relentless.

Dr. Sanjay Saxena, director of the University of California San Diego Obsessive-Compulsive Disorders Program, is a specialist on compulsive hoarding, which in June 2013 will be included in The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders for the first time. Saxena says: “People save for utilitarian reasons. They collect items that have monetary value, or are liquid or useful. Sometimes the reasons are sentimental and are rooted in love or in one’s past.” Although the collecting may start out with some order, that order can break down. In Shakespeare’s case, the “order” was long gone and it took months to reassemble and disinter the long-idle cars before sale.

The man to whom Shakespeare sold his 30 Bugattis was hardly a pillar of moderated appetites. Fritz Schlumpf was obsessed with Bugattis and ruthless in their pursuit. But with his orderly acquisition, restoration processes, and excellent storage and display facilities, Schlumpf didn’t fit the classic hoarder’s profile, though his pathological quest for Bugattis cost him and brother Hans their textile empire and, ultimately, their fabulous collection.

Florida industrial psychologist Dr. Geoff Hacker is on a mission to collect, document and restore limited-production American cars he has dubbed “Forgotten Fiberglass.” A glance at his front yard or the other properties where his cars are stashed screams “hoarder.” However, Hacker systematically acquires the cars, restores them and sells them. Because the rest of his life is well organized and he’s anything but secretive, his example clearly supports Dr. Saxena’s contention: “If it’s one type of item and they’re moving in and out, it probably isn’t compulsive hoarding.” But it’s a different story if cars or other items continue to accumulate and deteriorate, and the owner increasingly withdraws into his or her obsession.

Hoarders Don’t Advertise
If ever there was a poster-boy for hoarding, it was A.K. Miller. The rare visitor found Miller and wife Imogene in a ramshackle house down a dirt road in rural Vermont, with a large cache of Stutz automobiles in various rundown outbuildings and no visible means of support. Miller believed in paying pennies on the dollar and was generally formidable. He had no social security number, never paid federal taxes and lived under the most primitive conditions. “There was an indoor toilet,” says Miles Morris, former vice president of auction house Christie’s, “but no walls around it.”

If you banged on his door and he didn’t send you packing, Miller might put you to work chopping wood while dangling the possibility of a glimpse of his Stutz trove. In later years, the Millers became obsessed with their newfound fundamentalist religion and increasingly reclusive, and the cars continued to deteriorate. Yet despite their eccentricities and painfully frugal existence, the couple had amassed well over $2 million in gold, silver and securities, not to mention their many Stutz cars.

Not So Sweet Home Chicago
Dr. Hacker explains that compulsive hoarding is not really a complex problem. “You’re talking about a high-energy person with the inability to release anything. And you have an enabling person, possibly a spouse.” The enabler was certainly present for A.K. Miller, as well as for Chicago collector/hoarder Lee Roy Hartung, who proved that Miller was hardly the only man for whom collecting old automobiles devolved into something dark and unhealthy. But as Dr. Saxena explains, “Compulsive hoarding doesn’t always stand alone.” Clinical psychologist Marc Perlman, Ph.D., agrees: “Sometimes we get lucky and there’s a singular issue, but much of the time it’s intertwined with other stuff.”

When he died, Hartung left behind a large building filled with layers of artifacts. Collector friend Dale Walksler said that when Hartung started his collection in the 1960s, “it was very orderly, with precise rows of cars. But he held onto everything, from baby buggies to one of the largest known license plate collections.” Walksler explained that in time the storage building turned into “a tunnel you walked through and it became chaotic.”

After his death, Hartung’s lady friend invited Auctions America to auction the collection. But, says Auctions America’s Ian Kelleher, she also wanted to keep random items. Kelleher recalls that it took the Auctions America team two full months to sort Hartung’s lifetime of gathering into 1,600 lots. In the process they loaded 10 large dumpsters, “one of which was half filled with broken dolls.”

Like A.K. Miller, Hartung was tough. As Walksler recalls, “He’d not sell, but he would trade, and it caused pain to whoever was trading with him. He was always on the large side of the deal. He lived on the property without water for 40 years and his every minute was spent collecting.”

After the Hartung experience, Kelleher commented that “I don’t think LeRoy had any interest in sharing things after a point. He was paranoid about people breaking in and robbing him. In the end his stuff ran his life.” Kelleher adds: “I’d fly home and look at my things and wonder how much stuff I really needed.”

Cured of Collecting?
Hoarding can be treated, primarily through the combination of cognitive behavioral therapy and medication. “Psychotherapy is many times more successful than drugs alone,” says psychopharmacologist Ken Brasfield, Pharm.D. But the best treatment is using both together. “The wrong drugs can increase anxiety and OCD, and hoarding patients have high anxiety.”

In many cases, hoarders hoard until the end of their lives, and it’s left to the surviving family members to bring in the dumpsters and auctioneers. The late Harold LeMay gathered thousands of cars, and it was only after his death that the family started selling them, saving the most important cars for display at America’s Car Museum in Tacoma, Washington.

For every hoarder there are many more healthy collectors. What sets them apart is the knowledge and acceptance that they might have too many cars, and so they sell one or more. Sometimes the collections are culled, and other times collectors sell to make room for a new acquisition. For collectors, using and sharing their cars is what matters most. For hoarders, it’s all about the hunt or the having.

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    I appreciated the explanation on the difference between hoarders and collectors, as I saw serious disfunctions with many of the owners of the automobile collections, whether they be large or small. Auto wreckers (junk and scrap yards) seem very healthy places (business) by comparison.

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