My brother and I were born with mutated petroleum soaked genes. We never met a car we did not like. Tools were permanently attached to our hands. I lived in fear, that if my brother should acquire a permanent partner, and God forbid, should have a family, that both would be relegated to the garage so that the house could be reserved for cars. Cars in all stages of re-built were our recreation. Exhaust fumes our favorite perfume.
So, the first time I caught my brother in flagrante delicto with Schatzi, stroking her and whispering to her lovingly at the beginning of summer recess long ago, I knew that I would have a formidable rival for his affection. His glazed eyes and wry grin were an indication of a hopeless infatuation. I believed I was big enough to accept competition. However, he appeared to be totally spellbound by this rakish dowager with obviously expensive tastes. In the end, I had to settle for a ménage à trois
Schatzi, you see, was a classic 1949 Bentley Mark VI with a 4 ¼ -liter engine and an insatiable appetite for petroleum derivatives of all kinds. His experience with her would be an education in modern economics. He learned his lesson too late, though, because he never anticipated a day when old cars would replace diamonds as a hedge against inflation. If he had, he would have locked her in a vault in Switzerland.
Max acquired Schatzi (or perhaps it was the other way around) just before I came home. She was just under 19 years of age then, with something over 100,000 miles on the odometer. Lesser automobiles of her age had been consigned to the scrap heap; she was simply mature-just hitting her stride.
To be precise, Schatzi was a Rolls Bentley; she had been hand-built many years after Roll-Royce had taken over the financially beleaguered British motorcar firm of old O.W. Bentley. Once a precision sports and racing car, the Bentley became, at the hands of Rolls-Royce, the younger sister, indistinguishable except for its grille. It was built for the diffident buyer who eschewed the ostentation of a Rolls and preferred something cheaper. In those days, it sold for about $300 less.
One night at dinner Charles handed my brother a picture of Schatzi, parked at an abandoned RAF fighter station, she was up for sale.
The machine was lovely. It was 4,000 pounds of sage-colored, understated elegance, paneled in French walnut, doeskin upholstery and a discreet rear window that could be closed with an electric blind. The two huge doors, which provided walk-in access to both the front and rear seats, were on a scale more suitable to Westminster Abbey. This was not a car; it was one of the Stately Homes of England. Max ran amok. He just had to have her.
The next morning, he learned he could have her for a fraction of the original cost. It was a pretty healthy fraction, actually, but by hocking all his worldly goods and selling some of the automobiles he had, he was able to come up with the payment and the shipping and customs charges.
So it came to pass that on a warm early summer day Max was standing at the dock on the Hamburg waterfront. He told me later he felt as if he were meeting a mail-order bride.
The first problem was getting it started. Schatzi did not have what we normally think of as a car key. The doors and dashboard were unlocked with a cabinet-latch key. Consulting the leather-bound chauffeur’s manual, he learned that there were three separate and elusive switches that had to be flipped to turn on the ignition systems. The starter button was concealed under the carpet. He found it, and the big engine softly purred to life on the first try. He sat there, listening to the ticking of the clock, trying to find the short gearshift lever.
It had slipped inside his pants’ leg. ‘Right away I knew she liked me,’ he said.
By the time I got to know Schatzi, Max’s memory of that first drive was hazy. He managed to get her home and in the garage without attracting undue attention from the authorities, who probably would have been intrigued by the 5-year-old British license plate and the fact that Max was sitting on the wrong side.
I later found that owning, or being owned by, a conspicuous car has its disadvantages. Once, while we were driving along the Autobahn at a perfectly legal speed, I heard Max mutter, "Not again!" I glanced out the rear window and saw the flashing red lights of a patrol car.
"What have we done?" I asked. "Nothing," he replied. "Trust me. It's all right."
He didn't even take his wallet out of his pocket as the patrolman walked up. "What's the trouble?" he sighed.
"I've been following you for a couple of kilometers," the officer said. "I just had to take a look at her."
"Remind me," my brother said as we drove away a quarter of an hour later, "never to use this thing if I decide to stick up a bank."
There were, of course, satisfactions.
Tailgate picnics took on a whole new dimension. The boot -a hermetically sealed, double-walled safe designed to accommodate a steamer trunk or, in a pinch, the crown jewels - had an outside lid that folded down to make a level table, seating four. For more intimate dining, or in inclement weather, oversize mahogany trays folded out of the rear of the front seats, turning the car into a comfortable imitation of the lounge at London's Connaught Hotel.
As I mentioned earlier, owning the Bentley was a lesson in economics. Max had been warned that it would "use a little oil." Actually, I've known diesel trucks that consumed less. One of its strongest selling points was its custom-made aluminum body. That also meant a strong breeze could dent it, and that a minor collision would have created a lifetime endowment for a body-and-fender man. It guzzled gasoline the way W.C. Fields did gin. Spare parts were usually in museums; his mechanic, an innovative genius who had been repairing Rolls-Royce engines since serving with Montgomery in North Africa, often had to fashion gaskets and the like from the castoffs of trucks and buses.
The rarity of spare parts was brought home to him once when someone liberated the distinctive "Flying B" hood ornament. After a number of Rolls dealers informed us that replacements didn't exist, Max bought one from a fence he knew who occasionally augmented his income as a police informant. He said he'd been using a Bentley hood ornament as a bookend for years. Sure he had. After that, he kept it locked in the trunk.
One day he noticed that a taillight was out. That seemed innocent enough. But when he replaced the bulb, nothing happened. "It was a short circuit," he explained later during a phone conversation. "I managed to find it and get the light working, but most of the original wiring is shot." He sounded tired. "I'm afraid it all has to be replaced."
"How much?" "I can't honestly say. It just depends on how long the job takes."
"Is it very complicated?" There was a pause.
"I'd rather rewire an aircraft carrier." While tracing the offending wire through the body, he had found something even more sinister - electrolysis. The aluminum had started to decay where it met the steel frame. The whole car should be taken down to bare metal and refinished.
The next day, he got an estimate for restoring the paint to mint condition. "Three or four thousand bucks," the craftsman said. "That's as close as I can come."
On the way home, in a sudden rain squall, the windshield wipers quit.
He decided the time had come to make an honest car of Schatzi. He found a collector of classics with what he thought was more money than sense. He added the Bentley to his stable in return for $2,500, and Max made peace with his bank.
That was in 1971.
That same year, Rolls-Royce introduced the Corniche. It retailed for $30,000. Today the Corniche sells new for $115,000. The 1971 model, if you can find one, is worth $65,000.
According to Charles Schmitt of St. Louis, one of the nation's top Rolls- Royce dealers, the market for classic cars took off in 1978.
"People have found out that classic cars are more than just good automobiles, they're good investments, too," he said. " Anyone who bought a Rolls- Royce in the fifties, sixties, or seventies will never lose money."
Well, almost anyone.
In 1974, Schmitt sold a Rolls-Royce Phantom for $280,000.
A few years later, he saw Schatzi again. Her face had been lifted, her chrome restored to a dazzling shine, and her paint job possibly redone by Elizabeth Arden. Schatzi sat proudly among other beauties of her day, competing for the grand prize in a concours d'elegance.
He sought out the crazy collector who had so graciously taken her off his hands. He didn't have the courage to ask what Schatzi was worth now. Nor did he approach her.
He was afraid she might have seen him drive up ... in a Ford rental car.