classic car collections

The late Bob Lee didn’t mean to amass a car collection of worldwide significance. Massimo Delbo was one of the last people to meet him Reno, Nevada, is perhaps not the first place you’d think of when talking about cars, yet some significant collections have been harboured there. Everything began in 1956 when Charles H Retzlaff opened a car dealership that would become MCM – Modern Classic Motors – the first official West Coast Ferrari distributor. It was owned by William ‘Bill’ Harrah, who in later years went on to establish one of the most important classic car collections in the world.

This is what I had in mind when I arrived in Reno to visit a very special collector, one capable of keeping up the city’s little-known tradition: Robert ‘Bob’ Lee. It turned out that I was one of the last people to meet him – I’m writing this only a few days after he died, aged 89 (see last issue), and I can’t stop thinking about our two days spent chatting about cars and his special relationship with Enzo Ferrari himself, a friendship that lasted from 1956 until II Commendatore passed away in 1989.

‘My first memories with cars date back to 1945 and the yellow Auburn my mother had,’ he said. ‘It was a car very similar to one you see there (he pointed across his crowded storage facility) and I was about five years old. My mother was a fast driver, a policeman stopped us, and I simply asked if he would send us to jail. Not only did we not go to jail for speeding, but that day I saved my mother a fine.’

The entrepreneur Bob Lee was the founder of (among other businesses) Hunting World, and had two passions: guns and cars. He put together a huge collection of both, though, as he told me: ‘I’m not a collector.’ How so? ‘Because I don’t have a specific theme or a well-defined target: I simply gathered the cars I loved the most, or that meant something to me or my family. I still have my mother’s Rolls-Royce, simply because it was her favourite,’ he said, pointing again across the garage.

Growing up in New York gave the young Lee some contact with special cars but, as he told me, he gathered most of his information from magazines. When he was 25 years old and on his way to an African safari (his business organised conservation and hunting trips), he stopped in Italy and – purely by chance! – met Enzo Ferrari. ‘I talked with him – he referred to me as the “American gentleman” – and he told me that if I ever bought a Ferrari I had to call him, not [American importer] Luigi Chinetti.’

At the 1956 New York auto show, Lee saw the 250 Boano convertible, a one-off that he was able to buy thanks to a telegram he sent directly to Ferrari. ‘Chinetti was very upset,’ Lee remembered, ‘because the car was not for sale to him, and I paid very little money for it, but after this bad start we became good friends too.’

Lee stood and asked me to follow him to see the car – ‘It has been with me since 1956, it’s probably the oldest one-owner Ferrari in the world’ – but it’s by no means alone. Other Ferraris surrounded the 250 Boano, including two one-off sister versions of the 410 Superamerica in both cabriolet and coupe guises, the ex-Peter Collins 250 Cabriolet, the first 166 Barchetta Touring ever built (chassis 002), and 166 Barchetta Touring no 008, in which Chinetti won the Le Mans 24 Hours and Biondetti the Mille Miglia, in 1949.

‘I love Ferraris, I loved Mr Ferrari and, almost every year since that first car, I went back to Maranello to buy a new one. Sergio Pininfarina became a good friend too, and the cars just followed. I’m probably the only “collector by chance” around.’ The Rolls-Royce and Bentley collection also began in unusual circumstances: ‘I’d been caught speeding and had my driving licence suspended for a while. So, to get around, I had to hire a driver and find a suitable car. My mother had a Rolls, I bought a Bentley.’ That first Bentley became one of many, including ‘Olga’, his 1954 R-Type Continental, plus the ex-Woolf Barnato 1930 4% Litre blower with Gurney Nutting bodywork, and the two-seat S3 Graber Honeymoon Express.

The American cars section is filled with Cadillacs, among them a 1953 Eldorado Convertible with flagpoles on the front bumper: ‘It is a prototype and was used by President Eisenhower for the inaugural parade,’ said Lee. ‘It is here because of its historical importance.’ Close by were three framed photographs, showing Lee with no fewer than three former US Presidents visiting the collection, including both Bushes.

A turning point came in 1985 when Bob Lee first visited the Pebble Beach Concours d’Elegance. ‘I saw the most beautiful car ever, the 1939 Bugatti Type 57 Saoutchik Cabriolet winning Best in Show, and the car was – and is – simply the most beautiful I ever seen. I bought it the following day, and during the following four years I bought many cars, sometimes three at a time. Once I bought two ex-Queen Elizabeth II Rolls-Royces and, the following day, the British Government contacted me to ask if I was interested in two more. Prices were not like they are today, and the cars multiplied in my garage.’

For every car in the collection there is a dedicated space and a dedicated maintenance schedule, which includes a run every few weeks, with the mileage recorded, and a report kept of every single piece of work carried out – which makes any recognition all the more satisfying. Lee went on to score two Best in Show awards at Pebble Beach, first in 2006 with his 1931 Daimler Double Six 50 Corsica Drophead Coupe, and then in 2009 with his 1937 Horch 853 Voll & Ruhbeck Sports Cabriolet.

He admitted that he had few dreams left to fulfil: ‘I enjoy my cars and, more and more, the memories linked to them and their significance in my life.’ The 1962 Land Rover 109 is an unusual sight in such a collection, but is one of the most loved. ‘I worked with the technician in Solihull to prepare it for my safaris, based on my experience. It is a left-hand-drive car, equipped with a diesel engine because that is a kind of fuel always available. It has an extended chassis at the front, a rounded roof-rack to avoid being stranded in the bush, a spoiler to help keep the rear windows clean, heavy-duty undercarriage protection, four five-gallon cans for extra fuel, a VHF radio, vents in the roof, rifle racks, and hot and cold water tanks. It is totally original, and has never been repainted. As a car linked with sentiments, it is as close to the 1979 Volkswagen 1303 Super Beetle Cabriolet with fuel injection that my wife Ann and I received as a wedding present from (the auctioneer) Rob Myers when, after 30 years together, we decided to get married.’
Sometimes the most interesting collections really