Years Of Searching Led To This Collection Of German Sleeper Perfection
Story by Didier Lavion
Photography by Hunter Kelley
It really all started with my father. Although he is not a collector, cars had piqued his interest enough such that it rubbed off and I shaped my own desires for them. In particular though, there were two events in his life that contributed to my fascination with automobiles.
The first was when he was training to be a paratrooper for the French army in the south-central region of the country back in 1959. This was also where my mother was living at the time, and, as you’ve guessed, this is where they met and then married. Anyway, he was looking for a car for day-to-day duties, and asked some of the locals if they knew of anyone selling such a thing. One person indicated that an old Spanish cab driver was selling his, so my father found out where he lived and went to inquire.
It turned out the old man was actually a Spanish Republican who had fled during the Civil War in 1938—like many others, he had brought his car with him, but now he was ready to sell it. My father arrived on the property and the two walked down to the barn where a large object filled the space underneath a sizable expanse of dusty tarp. Removal of said tarp revealed a 1928 Hispano Suiza! The Republican had just bought some new tires for it but decided that he just couldn’t afford to keep it anymore, and so offered it to my father for the price of the four tires he’d just purchased: 150,000 Francs, or just about 300 of today’s Euros. In other words, a pretty nice price from my father’s side! Despite the attractiveness of the numbers though, my dad decided that the timing wasn’t practical to buy something like this seeing as he was about to go into the Algerian War.
Instead he ended up with a Peugeot 203, a car that served him very well in the years to follow. His history with that car ended when he sold it to a couple in Britain, and the last he heard of it it had sold in the 1980s for a price near 70,000 Euros, and now it must be comfortably into the six-figure range. He certainly didn’t sell it for amounts near these way back then. Oh well.
So, what does this have to do with me? Well this was Lesson #1: there is never a perfect time to buy a cool car. There will always be some inconvenience, some aspect that isn’t aligned with the ideal situation. His experiences taught me that you’ll wait forever for the right time to do something, so whenever opportunities arose to own the cars I was interested in, I didn’t let them pass me by.
The second story from my dad’s life that impacted my own saga with cars requires us to fast forward now to 1991, a year in which my dad was looking to buy an old car for some reason or another, and he’d set his sights on a Jaguar XK120. This time I was present for and partly involved with the process. We drove together to Connecticut to visit an owner of a deli who’d inherited his late father’s right-hand drive XK120. We looked at the car, and despite a few issues (it was crudely repainted, the chrome-spoked wheels wore thin old whitewalls rather than radials, and it had some crappy vinyl seats in it at the time) the car ran and performed well, and he bought it. Once we had the car in the family though, my brother and I drove it most often; it was loud, it was fast, and it was just beautiful. We loved having access to that roadster, and we didn’t even know how special it was until years after we brought it home.
Several years after the purchase, a family friend was over for lunch and noticed the car. Being a Jaguar specialist of sorts, he asked my dad to open the hood after looking at the XK for a few seconds, also asking if we had a magnet handy. My dad and I looked at each other with a bit of confusion, but yes we had one somewhere, surely. So I found a magnet, handed it to him, and the gentleman then proceeded to wrap it in a handkerchief and run it over the body. As he went over each panel he exclaimed “No”, then “No,” another “No,” until he made his way around the car to the last one, the front right, at which point the magnet stuck and he said his sole “Yes.”
The gentleman raised his head and said, “You actually have an aluminum bodied XK120, all original except for this panel here, which was replaced probably because of an accident.” So we had another data point, and a special one at that given the short run of aluminum XKs, but not knowing much about these cars (this was before the Internet was so accessible), we had to learn the old-fashioned way, and with my brother I did a little bit of research on my own.
I learned that the car was one of about 200 aluminum bodied XK120s, only 58 of which were RHD, and of those this one was the third made. That meant that this car was actually one of the first three prototypes made, one of which was still with Jaguar, the second of which was in Australia, and the third of which had been lost for years. That third one was lost no longer; it was ours!
Moving ahead several years, my parents moved to Mexico and Dad was not driving the car anymore. Always looking for an opportunity to drive it, I would come down from Boston on weekends purely to take the car out for a spin. I loved it. My father had spent some good money restoring it though, and with the move looming, he was looking to sell. Needless to say, I was not financially secure enough then to purchase the car for the price he wanted, a now-paltry $48,000. To that end, I actually check on some of the selling prices of these aluminum bodied XK120s now, and the first one made—chassis 670001—sold in 2005 for $440,000. Almost a factor of 10 increase, and that was also 12 years ago and in a market that was nothing like today’s. So in our particular case, even knowing that that car would easily sell for around one million today (at least based on some of the selling prices I have seen), I would never sell it if we still owned the XK, “Not for a million bucks!”
So this was my Car Life Lesson #2: if it is already in the family, then try to keep it in the family! I want to stress that again; unless there are urgent monetary needs in the family to liquidate a car of value, hold on to it. The nostalgic element of a car like that and how it fits into the family history and memories tied to it is important, and it transcends monetary values that are likely to keep rising with time anyway.
Anyway, that’s the one that got away!
So these two tales are effectively the reasons why, in my mid-forties, I awakened from the dream of wanting to own certain cars to the realization that this was something that was well within my control to make happen. I decided that it was time to start building a collection of what I loved. From early on—very early on—I had a deep admiration for BMWs, but I never dove into having more than one at a time. My first was an E28 535i, and what a wonderful car that was! It was comfortable, competent, and beautifully boxy. The second I owned was in 1998, when my then-girlfriend-now-wife accompanied me to a dealer nearby that had a 1987 E24 L6 in the middle of their showroom. It had low mileage and had only been a one-owner car at that point, so I paid a healthy amount for what was basically a brand new L6.
That was my daily driver until 2003, when we moved to Toronto and I needed a snow-capable AWD for my daily. But I did import it into Canada with me, and then reimported it back into the US when I returned. And guess what? I still own that car, and contrary to my car friends’ beliefs, it is still immaculate too!
So it was at this point that I decided to develop a philosophy or a theme around collecting: take hold of the situation and really look for the cars that excited me. At first within your means, and then slowly expand from there. That was the plan overall, and as for the individual cars that would comprise the lot, I had some ideas in mind. Since my childhood I’ve had an obsession with fast German cars, but it was as an adult that I took the massive amount of knowledge I had accumulated over the years and identified what it was I really wanted to own. What I like are cars that no one except the true enthusiast would appreciate. The German sleepers. But in order for me to make proper purchasing decisions I also decided that there needed to be some qualifying elements to all the cars beyond my own interest in them. I had to be able to afford them of course, and they also had to have a future of likely appreciation in value. Wary that the up market I was buying in could lead to or in fact be a bubble, I also had to identify not just cars that had been rising with the tide, but solid foundational reasons as to why they deserved the higher prices year after year.
Here was the criteria that eventually became my mantra:
- Very fast, both in their time and currently
- Very limited global production runs or just rare survivors
- If they never sold in US? That’s even better
- Low mileage, but drivable and in very good condition while not being out and out show cars. This is a relative term. If you really want low, low, miles, chances are things haven’t aged well on those cars. So a low mileage driver is better for me.
- Worthy of liquidating some of my investments in the market.
- The ability to make a purchase decision even when the timing might not make sense.
- Did I mention fast?
So every year or so, I’ve embarked on identifying a car that would fit the above profile. My sources are both word of mouth as well as Internet-based searches, and limited to no one location. In certain instances, making these purchases has involved additional costs such as transportation and importation fees, additional insurance, and sometimes exchange differences that can work in my favor at times. Factoring all of this in, plus a tremendous amount of logistics and communication just makes the purchase that much more personal.
So what did I end up getting?
- 1987 BMW L6, the luxury edition of the E24 6-Series. It has 134,000 miles, and is one of 4,289 635 CSiA, but very few of them were badged L6 worldwide with every option available, including the All Leather option.
- 1992 Mercedes Benz 500E. The W124 built in conjunction with Porsche. Mine has 71,000 miles, and is also one of 10,249 in the world, but quite rare in the US.
- 1988 BMW M5. A US model first-gen M5 with 74,000 Miles. One of 1,440.
- 1974 BMW 2002 Turbo; the turbo E10. This one has 76,000 on the odometer and is one of 1,267 in the world.
- 1986 Alpina B7 Turbo. Faster than the M5, and one of just 236 hand built by Alpina.
- Not shown here, but I also own a 30,000-mile 1990 Mercedes Benz EVO II, one of 502 made. Expect a future story on this car in the coming weeks!
I think I fall squarely in the typical car collector’s demographic: getting older, but making more money now so interested in buying childhood dream cars. I search for these cars across the world, and have paid and hedged with different currencies at times too, so all of these elements combined with what I believe is sound criteria for the selections I’ve made hopefully mitigates any downward spiral in the case of a bubble. And I’m now the happy owner of six of some very rare cars that have limited exposure in this country; I definitely put a few miles on them, but aside from the joy of operation, they’ve allowed me to diversify my investment and retirement holdings too.
Though investments they may be, I drive my cars every weekend. Weather permitting of course. They need to be driven! Otherwise they rot. The seals, rubber bushings, fluids, electrical connections, all start wasting away when you don’t use them on a regular basis. Hence, my weekends are filled with driving around in my investments; much more fun than checking in on your IRA or 401K! Out and about in these sleepers, most of the time no one knows what they are, and there are occasions when I’ve take them to a dealerships for certain parts, and even they don’t know! But I guess that’s to be expected today.
That to me is my greatest satisfaction though, when I have a car that is worth everything to me, that few others are even aware of. I am hoping that a hundred years from now, if they still are together, someone finds them and realizes the rarity of putting these cars all under one roof. And to be clear, it’s not the money it takes to put them together, it’s the knowledge it takes to identify them in their rarity in a market that does not necessarily recognize them as such, and the effort that it takes to find them and make a decision to get the right cars. I can happily say that as far as I’m concerned, I have quite a few!