Very few classic and collectable car auctions achieve a ‘white glove’ result (ie. 100 per cent of lots sold) these days, but that’s exactly what happened at Bonhams’ Bothwell Collection sale in the USA on 11 November.
More than 400 lots were offered from Lindley Bothwell’s extensive collection, including automobilia, model trains, railwayana, street trams and even a full-size train. The pre-war cars were considered the premium items, though; a collection that was started by Bothwell in the 1930s and had been rebuilt after a fire in the late 1940s.
Fifty cars were offered, virtually all of which were pre-1930, with many from the veteran era. There were a few quirky vehicles, too, like a 1926 Rolls-Royce that had been converted into a pickup, a 1915 Studebaker ‘carved panel’ hearse and a ’29 Ford police paddy wagon.
Veteran-era racers were a focus of the auction and of these, a 1914 Peugeot L45 4 ½ litre competition racer with Indianapolis history proved to be the auction’s top seller.
Originally a spare team car built by Peugeot for the 1914 Lyon Grand Prix (the last European Grand Prix held before the start of the First World War), the L45 – chassis #1 and engine #1 – featured a dual overhead camshaft engine pioneered by Peugeot, as well as modern features like four-wheel brakes and centrelock wheels.
How and why L45 #1 came to America in 1915 is unrecorded, but in the US, the car was campaigned in numerous races, including the 1916 Indianapolis Sweepstakes (the name change that year coming after a reduction in race distance from 500 miles to 300), where it finished third.
After World War I, the L45 returned to Indianapolis for the 1919 500, as well as several other events across the US, then was mothballed before re-emerging under new ownership in 1923.
Bothwell knew of the L45 and had been trying to buy it since the 1930s. In 1949, while rebuilding his collection, he finally succeeded. As bought, L45 #1 was in remarkably good condition, still with its original engine, chassis and bodywork.
Soon after purchase, Bothwell took the Peugeot works racer back to Indianapolis, where it proved capable of 160+kph speeds, despite being more than thirty years old.
The car rarely left the California-based Bothwell Collection after that, but following an engine rebuild in 2000, it was sent to the UK to compete at the 2003 and 2011 Goodwood Festival of Speed hillclimbs. By that time, it was regarded as the sole survivor of the four 4 ½-litre L45 cars built by Peugeot in 1914.
Given its century-plus provenance, competition history at America’s most significant motorsport event, and influence on subsequent race car design, the 1914 L45 came to the Bonhams auction with a US$5 million high reserve. That proved to be conservative, with Bonhams describing the bidding as brisk until an unnamed American buyer purchased the racer for US$7.26 million (AU$9.1 million approx. incl. buyer’s premium), easily setting the new record for a Peugeot sold at auction.
The next best seller from the Bothwell Collection was another veteran racer in the form of a C1908 Benz 75/105hp Prinz-Heinrich Raceabout.
Powered by a 7.3-litre 4-cylinder engine with a 4-speed transmission, the 75/105hp Benz carried advanced features for its era, like overhead valve heads, a live rear axle and shaft drive. Built to win reliability trials rather than outright speed events, the Benz proved to be outstanding in this role.
The name came from Prussia’s Crown Prince Heinrich, a keen early motorist who had competed in the inaugural ‘Prince Heinrich Tour’ in 1907 and provided a silver trophy for the winner of the multi-day reliability trial in 1908 (Vauxhall’s ‘Prince Henry’ model of 1911 took its name from the same event).
The Benz in Bothwell’s collection had been originally used by trailblazing American racer Barney Oldfield, who had set various speed records in the earlier and more powerful ‘Blitzen Benz’, a 21.5-litre, 200hp monster that was a major drawcard wherever it appeared in the US.
Oldfield used the 75/105 in guest appearances across America, driving it to each event, then stripping off the lights and mudguards for promotional races and other competitive events.
After Oldfield, the car was owned by the head of a large Californian brewery, who sold it to Bothwell in complete, but rough condition in the 1930s.
Rebodied by Bothwell, the Benz was used for a number of non-competitive US events, before a full restoration – in the style of Oldfield’s ‘Blitzen Benz’ - was conducted ahead of the car’s appearance at the 2006 Goodwood Revival.
Against a US$1.5 million high estimate, the C1908 Benz sold for US$1.87 million (AU$2.34 million approx.). Like the Peugeot, this was a new record for a Benz sold at auction.
According to Bonhams, the results achieved by the Peugeot and Benz at the auction were typical of the other veteran-era racers offered. While those cars didn’t achieve similarly high totals, there were several that doubled and even tripled their pre-auction estimates.
Total sales from the auction exceeded US$13.7 million (AU$17.1 million approx.). Further details at bonhams.com/bothwell