By 10 a.m. on that crisp-yet-sunny Saturday last November, the freeway exits for Canal Winchester, Ohio, were parking lots—and it wasn't because of anxious fans heading for an Ohio State game in nearby Columbus. The several thousand people that descended on the bedroom community were headed to the sale of Chevy dealer and classic-auto aficionado Bob McDorman's car collection.
Describing McDoman as the consummate collector doesn't do the man justice. He's been hoarding collectible Chevrolets pretty much since he bought his dealership in 1965. He's been a pioneer in the collector field and a friend to enthusiasts, putting his time and effort into Corvette shows and other automotive events for decades. And over the years, his collection has grown to include some of the most significant Corvettes extant, including styling concepts, early production cars, and milestone models.
But after nearly 50 years selling new cars, and about that long collecting classics, the 78-year-old McDorman reached the point where it was time to make a change in his life. Maintaining a handful of collector cars is hard enough, but running a business and keeping tabs on nearly 160 collector vehicles would be daunting for someone half his age. Nevertheless, it was no small decision to sell off what had come to be known as one of the most important collections of Chevrolets and Corvettes in the world.
Of the 159 vehicles in McDorman's collection—starting with a 1915 Chevrolet Royal Mail Roadster—89 were Corvettes. He's bought and sold them over the years, but his roster of Corvettes was comprehensive and enviable for its inclusion of all model years. Well, all but one. There wasn't a 1991 model.
"I had a '91, but I sold it and just didn't get around to replacing it," McDorman said during a pre-auction interview.
More impressive was the fact that most of the Corvettes carried some sort of milestone recognition or were essentially brand-new cars that had never been delivered. The collection included a dozen cars with serial number 1 for their respective model years, while others included the 750,000th Corvette, the 999,999th Corvette, and similar standouts. And if you're into numerology, then a car like his '69 L71 3x2-inducted 427-powered car is up your alley: The 435-horse Vette carried serial number 00435 for the year.
A longtime customer and participant at Mecum auctions, McDorman handed the reins of the sale to Dana Mecum's company. The firm did a wonderful job readying the cars and McDorman's dealership property to handle the event, which also included the sale of incredibly rare original dealer signs and other memorabilia. But by early on the Saturday morning of the sale, it was clear the Mecum staff hadn't anticipated the crowd it would draw. As the cars backed up along the freeway and news helicopters fluttered overhead, several thousand enthusiasts squeezed their way into an auction tent that simply wasn't designed for such a turnout.
"We had no idea so many people would show up," said Mecum marketing manager Tom Christman. "It's amazing and overwhelming."
More than 1,000 bidders registered to buy at the sale, with several thousand more on hand to check out the cars and take in the landmark event. In fact, the number of bidders equaled that of Mecum's annual Indianapolis auction, which is a five-day extravaganza of more than 1,000 vehicles. In this corner of rural Ohio, those 1,000 bidders were competing for only 145 cars and the "mobilia."
The top seller of the sale was the custom '63 Corvette Fuelie roadster built for and known as "the Bunkie Knudsen car." Knudsen was Chevrolet's president, and the car is distinguished by large, prominent side pipes with header tubes that exit through the front fender vents. It sold for $400,000 (plus a 10-percent buyer's premium). The rest of the top five sellers included:
• $280,000 for the Florence Knudsen pink '64 coupe
• $160,000 for the Bill Mitchell Experimental Stingray XX
• $131,000 for a '53 roadster
• $130,000 for a '55 roadster that's believed to be the first production Corvette ever built with a V-8
In our estimation, the prices were right on given the state of the collector market these days, with many of the cars selling for arguably bargain prices. Some of the later-model cars sold for little more than their original sticker. Considering their milestone designation and brand-new condition, they should prove to be wise investments. In fact, the sale of so many low-mile, milestone vehicles may have had a depressing effect on the overall prices, as there were plenty of similar cars to pick from. Time will tell, as some of those vehicles will undoubtedly hit the market again soon—we saw the transporters and trailers from several well-known Corvette and collector-car dealers in the parking lot.
Interestingly, the sale last fall wasn't the first time McDorman has liquidated a collection of significant Chevys. He began collecting them pretty much the moment he bought his dealership, but in the late 1960s, a Chevrolet representative leaned on him to sell off the cars, arguing it wasn't good for his business. He did it, but soon starting amassing another collection. A similar discussion with another Chevy rep in the early '70s prompted another sale. After that, the suits in Detroit must have given up, because McDorman was left alone with his cars.
We couldn't help but ask if any rare muscle cars or Corvettes slipped away in those earlier sales.
"No," said McDorman. "No L88 Corvettes or Z16 Chevelles or anything like that."
It's different this time. Age and other responsibilities have made McDorman's decision to liquidate the latest collection all his, although he's keeping 9 or 10 favorite vehicles for his personal use.
"I've had my time with the cars and enjoyed it all very much," he says. "But it's time for others to get [some] use from them."
If the crowd on hand for the sale was an indicator, there are more than enough enthusiasts willing to take on that responsibility.