Remembering Don Williams—a giant in the collector car hobby
Don Williams, a beloved pioneer in the collector car hobby, has died at age 78.
It would be hard to find anyone—let alone a successful car salesman—who was as liked and respected as Williams. He started in the business at Old Time Cars in Los Angeles when he was just 21, before producing the first vintage car auction in California. He spent time with all the early greats of car collecting, such as Briggs Cunningham, Bill Harrah, and Otis Chandler.
In 1979, Williams moved to Arizona where he was an integral part of the Barrett-Jackson Collector Car Auctions (he had bidder pass #1 at Barrett-Jackson). He next moved to Danville, in Northern California, where he assembled an extraordinary car collection for land developer Ken Behring. It evolved into the respected Blackhawk Museum in 1988.
In a parallel effort, Williams established The Blackhawk Collection, Inc., which sold unique and high-end classic automobiles and race cars. In 1981 he became the first person to sell a classic car—the 1931 Figoni-bodied Duesenberg J—for more than $1 million. Williams held early collector car expositions and auctions in Japan and Switzerland in the late Eighties, and his expositions spread to other locations, including China.
Over time, more than $1 billion in classic cars passed through his hands. Yet the true measure of the man is how he’s remembered by his friends. Many people in the collector car world were eager to share their memories of Williams’ generosity and their fondness for him. I’m no exception:
For an installation in 2016 (“Bellissima! The Italian Automotive Renaissance,” at Nashville’s Frist Art Museum) Don loaned me the three iconic Alfa Romeo B.A.T. cars. It wasn’t a slam dunk. I had asked him several times and each time, his answer was not encouraging. I persisted because I thought those cars were important to the exhibition, and that their appearance on the East Coast would promote The Blackhawk Museum on the West Coast. Finally, Don acquiesced—it was a big deal because he didn’t often change his mind. He liked the idea of his cars appearing in a fine art museum—and once he changed his mind, he was a big advocate. I will always be eternally grateful. Those cars took a great show and put it over the top.
We’ve shared others’ warm recollections below. Their comments have been edited for length and clarity.
Mr. Pebble Beach
Sandra Button, chairwoman, Pebble Beach Concours: He was a wonderful friend to the Pebble Beach Concours, sharing more cars here than anyone else has over the past 71 years. The late Lorin Tryon [longtime co-chair of the Pebble Beach Concours] first invited Don to show a car at Pebble Beach in the early 1970s, and over the ensuing five decades he continued to show at least one car each year. Often, he showed more. If we needed a particular model of car to complete a certain class, it was Don we turned to; he likely had something spectacular to fill the need—and he would be happy to bring it.
Don helped to introduce us to the car world and the car world to us. It made possible the first gathering and public display of all three Alfa Romeo B.A.T.s in the late 1980s.
He never won best of show. He always said, “A car dealer couldn’t win it.” And, unfortunately, he was right.
So, Don changed his attitude. He told once me, “One year I was determined to win. I spent hundreds of thousands of dollars. And I didn’t enjoy the people; I didn’t enjoy the cars and it was all because of me. So I had to change my attitude.”
And from that moment forward, he just came to have fun, to be with people and to golf, and have a great time. That’s good advice for a lot of people who come to Pebble Beach. Some people are so focused, they lose sight of what a wonderful day and experience it is.
Don also deserves the credit for founding what is now Dawn Patrol presented by Hagerty, which we lovingly first called the ‘Don Patrol.’ In the 1970s and 1980s, Don competed with the Atwells for years to be the first entrant on our show field. He then transitioned to being a spectator, pulling a chair up to the entrance to view each car as it pulled in, and serving coffee to the Concours staff and friends.
He was always available to talk about cars. You could always have a long chat and a big chuckle with him. Thousands of cars went through his hands over the years. He wasn’t shy about having an opinion, about a person or a car. It wasn’t toxic. As much as he loved ‘the deal,’ he also loved the cars. Don once told us that although he knew he couldn’t keep them all, he wanted to try to play a small part in the life of every great car he could find—owning them for a time if he was fortunate, or perhaps brokering their sale, acting as caretaker, or at least seeing them in person.
Chris Bock, Chief Judge at Pebble Beach: “When [Pebble Beach Concours co-chairs] Lorin Tryon and J Heumann were trying to build the Pebble Beach Concours into a more relevant and international show, Don was the go-to guy who kept coming up with incredible European Classics year after year. They really counted on Don to fill the field with the ‘right stuff.’ In Don’s early days in Danville, before the big Blackhawk expansion, he had a small storefront showroom with just a few cars. Gordon Apker and I joined him for lunch one day, and he insisted on driving us to lunch in a Mercedes-Benz 540K. It ran great, but Don remarked after we were underway that he had forgotten that the car had very little in the way of brakes. It was an interesting ride!”
Lorin and J first decided to celebrate Isotta Fraschini at the Concours. Don brought the majority of the cars in the display. They were chosen for the Parade of Elegance, but unfortunately most of those cars were barely running, and that elegant parade turned into an exhibition of pushing, towing and coaxing to get the cars over the ramp! Don was still smiling all through the process. His devotion to Lorin and J and the Concours was without bounds. He helped the show become what it is today.
Williams was a pioneer in bringing cars to Peter Hay Hill for display. Often, he’d have thirty or more top level classics in his tent. ‘Some people thought that was the start of the Concours,” Don once quipped to me, ‘and they were looking for where they should pay admission.’
Miles Morris, director, MM Garage LLC: I am fortunate to be a current member of the Pebble Beach Selection Committee; some fifteen of us vet and choose the field each year. In days gone by, Lorin Tryon and J Heumann picked the field themselves with considerable help and input from Don. He knew where many of the great classics lived, and further whether they were going to be show worthy.
The biggest force in car collecting, post-Bill Harrah
McKeel Hagerty, CEO, Hagerty: Don Williams was a pivotal figure in the car world and for Hagerty. His vision and execution of Blackhawk raised the game when there were few true luxury offerings. He believed in us early on and gave us a chance to meet his best customers when he would set up his inventory in Monterey and Hershey. The Blackhawk Museum was an almost unimaginable place. The cars were so rare and so exotic, and they were presented in such an elevated way. It truly took your breath away.
Don was the inspiration for our Dawn Patrol activation at Pebble Beach. He was always the first one on the field watching the early cars roll out on the 18th fairway. He seemed to know every single car … probably because he owned it once or twice before.
Tim McGrane CEO, M1 Concourse: “He was a marketing pioneer. ‘The Auction’ [Barrett-Jackson Arizona] was the first no reserve sale of its kind when it started. The Expo in Pebble Beach that he and Richie Clyne did was a new concept, as no one would put a great ‘classic car’ across the auction block. His auctions in Europe with Erich Traber and then in Japan with Mitsubishi were successful.
Then he, Richie Clyne, and Rick Cole founded World Classic Auction and Exposition Company for a few years. He was the first American to take cars to Rétromobile. Marc Nicolosi and Francois Melcion would use the cars as a feature display. One year he convinced Chrysler to send over their Atlantique concept car. He got Barry Meguiar to hold the Meguiar’s Person of the year award at Blackhawk one year, the only time it was outside Los Angeles.
Miles Morris: I first came into direct contact with Don in the early 1990s after I joined Christie’s and quickly realized what a consummate and knowledgeable car power player he had become. He exuded tremendous, yet measured enthusiasm for the great automobiles passing through his hands. His skills at secretly sourcing, buying, trading and selling were backed up by his knowledge and quiet demeanor and disposition which clearly hid an uncanny instinct for consummating the deal.
Don was a master of what I call soft sale/ hard sale—luring his clients with empowering stories, provenance and importance of his automobiles yet often seeming rather non-plussed when one failed to meet his price expectations! He was dogged, however, when a deal was close and would pay great attention to closing a deal where possible, he was also, in my dealings, fair and honest. I recall him taking back a highly valuable vehicle in recent years, without argument, when it was discovered to have a questionable title and ownership.
David Gooding, president and founder, Gooding & Company: When he set up the Blackhawk Museum, it was a defining moment. He was the biggest force in car collecting, post-Bill Harrah. He was always at the forefront of the market. He had the biggest buyers and the most impressive collection. Don pioneered in Japan and China. He wanted to educate them about classic cars.
Over time, he owned so very many cars—they all passed through his hands. He had a huge influence on the market. He was proud to sell these cars.
Martin Button, owner, Cosdel International: Don Williams had the finest reputation, with more people, than anyone I know. His auctions in Japan, and Switzerland were absolutely five star. There was a Museum in Shanghai called SAM, Shanghai Auto Museum. Don and a Chinese organization had sixty cars there—he couldn’t import them on a permanent basis, so we shipped them in on a temporary permit. After a couple of years, that would expire. We’d have to take the cars out of China, bring them back to the U.S., and he would send over other cars to replace them. It went on for many years. He was a pioneer importing these used classic cars and trying to get them accepted by the Shanghai provincial government. But the Chinese federal government in Beijing wouldn’t agree to this. The initiative failed and finally he pulled out.
Another thing that Don was famous for was putting prices up. If a car wasn’t selling, he would actually raise his price, and then he would sell it! Don was counter-intuitive. He’d sell a car, then pay the guy more and buy it back, shortly thereafter, because he thought the market was strong. He could read the market and even make the market.
When Craig Jackson focused on muscle cars, he looked to Don to bring him back to the “respected” classics. The result was the Premium Collection, held in prime time, at 5 p.m. Saturday night. That was Don’s doing.
A quiet man with an enormous heart
Bill Warner, founder, Amelia Island Concours: Don would call me periodically just to ask about my welfare. He cared for people as much as he cared for cars. He was a quiet man with an enormous heart and passion for people and automobiles. He had exquisite taste, and he was always seeing the future before any of us recognized it. In short, he was the best and a good friend. I feel there were times he felt the culture was leaving both of us behind. I will miss his insight and knowledge.
Dave Kinney, publisher, Hagerty Price Guide: As a new to the profession appraiser in the early 1990s, Don would always take my phone call and direct me toward the answer I was searching for. He usually dressed like he was on his way to or from a round of golf at the country club; his warm smile, and ready laugh were omnipresent.
David Gooding: I knew Don for many years, beginning when my father was a curator for the Nethercutt Collection in the 1980s. And I’d see him when I worked for Christies’ in the 1990s. Don was always supportive and positive, whether he was buying or selling. He was very encouraging to me. He was always generous with his time and his cars. As a young man, I found him intimidating at first, but then I got to know him, and that ceased to be an issue. We’re all going to miss him.
Tim McGrane: He was a born salesman … and he was the ultimate mediator. He hated conflict, so his salesman skills would often find a way (to settle things), The Barrett and Jackson family were at odds after Tom passed away. He got them together and was successful in resolving the separation of the families. He also had the ability to deal with difficult people. Some of his top customers from around the world over many years were very challenging, but he had that diplomatic way of dealing with them over.
He had two sides … there was the public side with The Auction event in Las Vegas with Richie Clyne, when he was at Barrett-Jackson, and at Pebble Beach over the decades; however, his daily business was very low profile, almost anonymous. He was located in a nondescript building behind the gates at Blackhawk country club. Over the decades he had done many multi-million dollar sales, that even today would be headlines, but he kept it very quiet and low profile. Most of his customers were that way. The Tom Monaghan collection, the Samsung deal, the Ralph Engelstad IPAC collection, the Lyon Collection deal, and so many more over the decades. Everyone knew him, and he knew everyone. He was always on the phone and would be in the office very early, calling friends and acquaintances in Europe.
He hated meetings. He was a one-on-one person. He had that way about him that if you met him once you’d remember him forever and he’d probably remember you. And regardless of where he was, his afternoon nap was important.
Martin Button: Don was the only guy we know who had his ex-wife as his bookkeeper.
Dolores Tryon: In my next life, I want to come back as one of Don Williams’ ex-wives because he was so generous and kind—it tells you the character of the man.”
Keith Martin (Founder and Publisher, Sports Car Market): Don was a friend and mentor to me. From the earliest days of the Alfa Romeo Market Letter, he would pick up the phone and call me about the cars we were covering. He would never say “You got it wrong.” Instead it was, “Let me give you a little more information about this car.”
He was always gracious and had a good sense of humor about the collector car world. I already miss him.