What could command the presence of 50 private aircraft, more than 10,000 spectators from 47 states, and a phone call from Jay Leno's secretary? Here's a clue: It wasn't Barrett Jackson.
Could it have been a '54 Corvette thought to have been owned by the legendary John Wayne?
Last summer in Lubbock, Texas, Ritchie Bros. Auctioneers (RBA) held a unique, unreserved auction to liquidate the assets of Jonathan D. "Jody" Nelson. Nelson had pleaded guilty the previous April to embezzling more than $77 million from his employer.
Given the extravagant nature of Nelson's take, the size and scope of the auction field were understandably impressive. The ill-gotten gains included everything from 42-foot Fountain Lightning boats and multiple aircraft to an '04 Ms. Pac-Man videogame and an autographed picture of Dallas Cowboy icons Tom Landry and Roger Staubach. Also included were several large pieces of farm equipment, along with an assortment of trucks and SUVs.
If you're wondering how this all fits into the context of a Corvette magazine, consider that there were also three collectible, low-mileage Vettes auctioned off during the day. In Nelson's collection were pristine '94, '82, and '54 models, each with its own story to tell.
The '54 was the talk of the event, thanks to the popular belief that it was once owned by Wayne and to reports that Leno was interested in adding the car to his own collection. We spoke with Bobby Love, territory manager for RBA, who neither confirmed nor denied the Wayne rumors, stating, "[Nelson] was a fanatic about John Wayne. He owned multiple Winchester John Wayne commemorative rifles, he had many autographed pictures of him, he even had a copy of The Duke's funeral expenses listing what type of coffin he was buried in. Is it possible [the car] was John Wayne's? Yeah. Unfortunately, all I've got is the title."
The car was finished in Polo White over red and powered by its original 150hp Blue Flame six-cylinder mated to a two-speed Powerglide automatic. It was showing minimal signs of aging, indicating it had likely been the beneficiary of a restoration at some point in its history. The presence of dual hood releases dated the car as one of the first 500 produced for the '54 model year. (Later '54 models used a single hood release to open the latches.) Incredibly, the trunk still contained the original color-keyed side-window bag.
We watched with growing disbelief as the '54 sold for $119,000-considerably more than forecasted and closer to what a rarer '53 in similar condition would typically bring. Apparently, there's no substitute for a celebrity pedigree- apocryphal or not.
Next up was the '94-a flashy red-on-red car with the 300-horse LT1 and a four-speed automatic. Its aftermarket additions were limited to chrome five-spoke ZR-1-style wheels. Other than that, the car appeared to have just rolled off the showroom floor-not unexpected considering its odometer showed only 14,155 miles. The crowd went crazy over the Vette, and it eventually sold for $24,000.
The last Corvette offered was an '82 Crossfire-injected model with a four-speed automatic trans. It featured a rare Charcoal finish and a silver-grey interior. It, too, was in fairly new condition, showing only 21,273 miles. The bidding ended at $16,000, and the car had a new owner.
It was a good day for validating the value of older Corvettes and a testament to the cars' enduring viability as collector vehicles. As Bobby Love recalled, "The '82 was the Corvette of my youth. I would have loved to have bought it and relived a bit of my teenage years."
Unfortunately, the question of whether the '54 Corvette was actually owned by John Wayne wasn't answered definitively. In our research, we located GM documentation showing that Wayne was given a similar white-over-red '53 for use in promotional events. Could this be a case of confusing the '53 and the '54 Vettes for one and the same? Could Wayne have bought a '54 years later? Either is possible, but regardless of the car's true history, it makes for a fascinating story.