By Stephen Williams
Take one rather remote, rather muddy Nebraska field on a weekend in early fall, cram it full of “new” decades-old Chevrolets—cars and trucks, some with less than ten miles on the odometer, many still sporting original stickers and seat coverings—and wait for the crowds to come.
Which they did: about 25,000 Chevy fans in search of a ride, or a souvenir.
Hundreds were delighted to drive off (or tow off) a total of about 2 million dollars’ worth of Chevys and Chevy “stuff”—some of the nearly 500 vehicles and bits of Chevrolet paraphernalia that had been collected over five decades by local dealer Ray Lambrecht and stored in various locations around town, including the muddy field.
Anyone up for a framed poster of a Chevrolet muffler? Someone bid, for $300.
How about a Chevrolet wooden yardstick, the kind some hardware stores give away? That one sold for $600.
Auctioneer Yvette VanDerBrink told us that by the first afternoon, six classics had already sold for a total of $545,000. The first to go, a 1958 Chevy Cameo pickup with 1.3 miles on the odometer, garnered the highest bid, $140,000.
At the other extreme, there weren’t any hot-rod bargains that might have been driven off by younger brand aficionados— the least expensive cars, bid at about $400 or $500, were scarfed up by Chevy collectors and mechanics to provide hard-to-find spare parts, or would be carted away and sold off as scrap metal, VanDerBrink said.
Nonetheless, “there were a lot of young people there to recapture what the time was like back then, and they made the atmosphere kind of carnival-like,” said Rocky Rotella, who was on the scene to write about it for Hemmings Motor News. “Parents brought their kids to show them something they may never see again. It’s like a dad taking a son to a train station to see one of the last steam locomotives come by,” he said.
Among the Chevy loyalists who traveled a long way to Pierce were Walt Heskes of Edison, N.J. and his twin sons, Aaron and Max, both 16 and about to test for their drivers licenses. On the Heskes wish list was a 1974 Vega GT. “We were hoping to find something for cheap and come home with it,” said Walt, but the Vega’s condition was much less than perfect.
Still, the trip qualified as a success for young Max.“Usually at car shows, it’s like, don’t touch my car. But this was hands-on. You got to touch the transmissions and the engines.” Max readily admits he’s a “Chevy guy,” and that both he and his brother would swoon over Camaros of 1970s vintage. “I’ve been reading articles all about the new Impala, “ Max said, “and I saw the new Corvette at the auto show in New York. One hot car,” he said about the swoopy 2014 Stingray.
While VanDerBrink wouldn’t give a specific revenue amount collected for the 96-year-old Lambrecht and his family, she did confirm that all 496 items on the bid list were scooped up by buyers paying by credit card, check and cash. “Lotta cash.”
About $30,000 of that cash was handed over by Bob Esler, who said he’d been prepared to pay $10,000 more if the bidding had escalated on the 1964 Bel Air station wagon with 326 original miles. Why?
“I’ve been a Chevy guy since I can remember,” says the New Jersey-born Esler, who now runs an auto repair shop in Westfield, Indiana. “This car brings back memories. My parents had a ’64 Biscayne wagon. It’s about nostalgia. Once you get to be 65, you look back and remember the good times.”
Esler adds that the Bel Air started on the first try. He had it trailered back to Indiana—he says he’ll drive it at home, but not more than a few thousand miles a year.
Of course, this wasn’t your everyday auto auction. The visitors who flocked to Pierce from as far away as South Africa and Australia far outnumbered the locals, and made the event more like a fair than a business offering. Forget booking a bed nearby: Esler said he had to stay in a motel 60 miles from the town. Considering that he drove 750 miles from his home to Pierce, that was no big deal.
When the dust had settled in Pierce—assuming it ever does—these were some of the more oddball items carted off by bidders, as compiled by the auctioneers and described on www.proxibid.com:
A Chevrolet 45-rpm single of “Corvair Baby” by Paul Revere and the Raiders. New and never played. 1965. Sold for—are you sitting?—$150.
1957 Chevrolet sedan. “It is yellow green in color. The car was in the dealership. It has a 283 V8 and 2bbl carb. Automatic transmission. Does not run at this time.” So what? It’s “yellow green”! Sold for $23,000.
The eccentric Lambrecht opened his Chevy store just after World War II and became known, in Nebraska circles as least, as one of the first practitioners of no-haggle salesmanship; if you didn’t like his price, you were advised to shop elsewhere. He maintained another novel policy as well: If the new cars in his inventory didn’t sell in their first model year, he stored them in warehouses near his farm in Pierce. The family decided about a year ago to engage VanDerBrink and collect their money. The rest is Detroit iron history.
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Stephen Williams writes about automobiles for The New York Times and New Car Test Drive, and has covered the industry for Ad Age and Automotive News. He has never bought a car off a cornfield in Nebraska, but maybe some day...
Photos courtesy of VanDerBrink Auctions