Thrill of the Hunt

The Psychology of collecting: Driving an old car is a lot of fun, but for some collectors , nothing beats the chase

Paul Sable has eight garage spaces, and they’re usually full. There’s an unrestored Nash-Healey coupe that hasn’t turned a wheel in 25 years, a Hudson Italia that doesn’t run, either, and a Fiat 8V Supersonic awaiting restoration. The only cars in his collection that run are a recently acquired Citroën SM and a 1962 T-Bird. Why? Sable is more interested in chasing and catching great old cars than he is in actually driving them. He isn’t alone.

“I like the adrenaline,” admits the Pennsylvania marketing professor. “It’s the rush of finding a car, and over the years it’s become a passion.” As a boy in Scranton, Pennsylvania, in the 1950s, Sable saw a 1932 Auburn cabriolet and it ignited his 50-year interest in collector vehicles. Over the last 40 years, while he didn’t “actively search or hunt for the car,” whenever he returned to the area, he always asked about it. “Then about three years ago I got a hit and began pursuing it.” He discovered it had been owned by a priest, who had left it to his brother. When the impoverished brother finally agreed to sell Sable the car, the payment went to charity.

Auburns aren’t Sable’s usual fare; he has long chased rare hybrids and has hunted and owned several Dual Ghias and Hudson Italias. Like many “extreme” car chasers, he keeps logs on the marques he owns, which means he knows where almost all the Hudson Italias and Fiat 8V Supersonics live. Not only does it help to authenticate the cars, but whenever one comes to market, he knows the story. And he admits to sometimes chasing cars, even if he knows that he’ll flip them right after he closes the deal.

Adrenaline and Perseverance

Dr. Geoff Hacker has been chasing what he calls “forgotten fiberglass” for years, doing his best to save these rare American-built, fiberglass-bodied sports cars from the 1950s. He’s best known as a relentless sleuth, but as a Ph.D psychologist he’s also a student of fellow car hunters. To him, people (like Paul Sable) who enjoy the hunt more than the having “get an adrenaline rush and extreme satisfaction and purpose from finding something that has gone unfound for years. To some degree there’s obsessive compulsion at work, and that compulsive attribute can become a skill. After all, when you master your dysfunction, you call it a ‘skill.’ These are very successful people who don’t let go. Speed,” Hacker asserts, “is not a requirement. Perseverance is.”

Long involved with the recently suspended Glenmoor Gathering concours, Myron Vernis is also well known as a hunter and collector of the strange and obscure — cars with names like Hoffman and Paxton. He agrees with Hacker when it comes to the adrenaline rush. “For me,” Vernis says, “it’s a thrill. There is nothing else that raises this kind of passion. It’s up there with a baseball player hitting a grand slam to win the World Series.” And that’s how he felt when, after 13 years of gentle pressure, the family of the late Brooks Stevens finally sold Vernis the one-off 1935 Hoffman X-8.

Homework and the Hunter

If there’s a key to Canadian collector Fred Phillips’ success as a car hunter, it comes down to his gregarious personality. If he’s hunting for Kurtis sports cars or specials, he engages the authorities on the marque. Same goes for Abarths or AMC prototypes and muscle. Through his extensive networking he gets to know people and builds friendships, which bear fruit when all these people feed him tidbits about special cars and where they lie.

One car he’d been after was a special AMC Rambler Scrambler. “I’d been looking for one for years,” explains Phillips, “and it shows up on eBay. Out of 1,512 Scramblers, it’s one of 10 that went to James Garner’s American International Racing team’s Baja effort.” It’s the only one known to exist, and one of just two four-wheel-drive cars the team built.

Phillips admits: “I’ve never driven many of my cars. After the chase, I’ve left cars sitting for years without bringing them home. It isn’t physically driving the cars — it’s finding the right car. A lot of people go ‘I want a Scrambler.’ I say, ‘I want the prototype or the Baja car.’ There’s the challenge of finding that vehicle that gets me really excited.”

To Hunt and Tell

Few people are more dedicated to car hunting than auto journalist and PR veteran Tom Cotter. The author of The Cobra in the Barn, The Corvette in the Barn, The Hemi in the Barn, The Vincent in the Barn and The Harley in the Barn, Cotter is an inveterate car finder, and frequently routes weekend bike rides or runs to peek into barns and garages.

Cotter likens car hunting to trying to find Captain Kidd’s treasure. “A lot of guys don’t care about having a restored car or driving it.” Rather, he asserts that “following up leads and opening up doors and hitting dead ends is the most fun an adult can have.” Like Vernis and Sable, he gets an adrenaline rush from the search and discovery process.

Cotter has long been besotted with all things Cunningham, and when he was starting his career in the early 1980s, he saw ads for leftover chassis. “A complete Cunningham C3 chassis for $4,500.” Unable to afford the price, he could only dream about buying one and having a body built. Many years later he mentioned he liked Cunninghams to a guy in Spartanburg, South Carolina. Pretty soon he was looking at the second C3 built. Unrestored, it had been the factory show car and featured in the Museum of Modern Art’s “Ten Automobiles” exhibit from 1952. Although not willing to sell it, the owner told Cotter, “You can come look at it any time.” Not ready to give up, Cotter sent Christmas cards and stayed in touch. After a few years, the owner promised him if he ever sold it, “you’re the guy.”

In 2009, Cotter called the owner and explained that he was putting together a Cunningham gathering in West Palm Beach, Florida, where the cars were built. “I told him, ‘If you won’t sell it to me, can I take it?’”

The reply sent Cotter’s heart racing: “I think I’m ready.”

“Now that I have the Cunningham, I’m complete,” Cotter says. He’s even pared down his collection, because most of his other cars don’t mean as much now that he has his dream car. The car has become a friend, and he’ll never let it go, because, he says, “I’m loyal to my friends.”

Many dedicated car chasers know that the key to landing the prize is perseverance. Once a car has been targeted, it’s essential to remain in regular contact. If the would-be buyer hammers too hard, the door can close forever. So as Vernis and Cotter agree, gentle outreach really works. Some hunters send holiday cards, some just drop by annually and others work hard to forge friendships. After all, if you’ve owned your Cord or Healey for decades, it’s easier to sell your beloved car to someone you know and trust.

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