At the Mullin Collection Auction, Old Car Enthusiasm Was Alive and Well

by Rick Carey
10 May 2024 5 min read
At the Mullin Collection Auction, Old Car Enthusiasm Was Alive and Well
(Photo: Gooding & Co.)

From the outside, 1421 Emerson Avenue in Oxnard, California, is a nondescript industrial building among many others. Inside, though, it has been a garden of earthly delights as collection after collection filled its floor and mezzanine. It first housed the collection of Otis Chandler, publisher of the Los Angeles Times, and later the collection of Peter and Merle Mullin. It was here on 26 April 2024 that select cars from the Mullin Collection were sold at no reserve.

During its Chandler years – when it was known as the Vintage Museum of Transportation and Wildlife – its displays and the underlying collections underwent many changes. The Vintage Museum, as it was commonly known, rotated displays reflecting both Otis Chandler’s interests and his evolving collections.

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When motorcycles were the focus, the feature display at one time included Daniel Statnekov’s unparalleled collection of board-track racers, along with a recreated section of lumber-paved banked oval track typical of where they were raced in the 1910s and 1920s. Then there were muscle cars, including the finest limited-production examples from the 1960s and 1970s.

(Photo: Brandan Gillogly)

And always there were classic cars. They were the Vintage Museum’s focus in 2006, when Gooding & Co. sold the collection at a 90-lot auction after Chandler’s death. I largely catalogued the sale.

That seemed to be the end, but soon Peter and Merle Mullin acceded to the property. They took a turn at an even better venue for their collection of major French design, and not just the stuff on wheels. They had Carlo Bugatti–designed furniture, the animal sculpture of his son Rembrandt and, foremost, the cars and other creations of Carlo’s other son, Ettore.

(Photo: Brandan Gillogly)

They refined the venue with art deco details ranging from an open-cage elevator and elaborate mezzanine railings to cladding the industrial-strength building posts with details recalling the cast-iron construction of the French Belle Epoque. The building was marked by banners for French marques and coachbuilders in the style of the great Paris auto salons. It reflected the Mullins’ passion, from a Figoni & Falaschi Talbot-Lago T150 CS Teardrop through a representative collection of Gabriel Voison’s idiosyncratic sleeve-valve–engined Avions-Voisins and rows of barn finds, from the fabled Schlumpf “Reserve Collection” and the fabulous Bugatti Type 22 Brescia salvaged after decades underwater in Lago Maggiore, to a phalanx of variants of the Citroën Deux Chevaux.

Peter Mullin passed away last year, and for the past few months there was a great deal of anticipation for this dispersal auction, conducted by Gooding & Co. The Mullins’ cars and their appreciation of great design were well established. Much of the collection, however, had been already gone off to new owners, leaving only a few outstanding designs for this sale.

1936 Bugatti Type 57SC Atlantic
1936 Bugatti Type 57SC Atlantic (Photo: Brandan Gillogly)

According to a 23 April Robb Report online article and interview with Merle Mullin, four important cars had been sent to the Petersen Museum in Los Angeles: a 1937 Talbot-Lago T150 CS Teardrop by Figoni & Falaschi, a 1938 Hispano-Suiza H6B Dubonnet Xenia, a 1939 Delahaye 165, and a 1938 Delahaye 145. The 1939 Bugatti Type 57SC Atlantic has reverted to its 51 per cent partner, Walmart heir Rob Walton.

Gooding had already sold 20 of the Mullin Collection cars in the build-up to this Oxnard sale in March at Amelia Island, Florida, bringing a total of £3,472,780, including:

  • Avions-Voisin C28 Clairiere (s/n 28917) for £175,650
  • Hispano-Suiza 15T Alfonso XII recreation (s/n 814) for £280,000
  • Bugatti Type 49 Berline (s/n 49377) for £306,,000
  • Delahaye 135MS Cabriolet (s/n 800727) sold for £306,000
  • Delage D6 Grand Prix (s/n 80004) for £427,000
  • Bugatti Type 35C Grand Prix (s/n 4634) for £457,000

Including them in the £14,911,695 total for April’s auction in Oxnard yields a total of £18,384,475 for the Mullin Collection, less than the £20,127,115 that the Chandler Collection brought back in 2006 (at the time a record for a one-day single-collection auction) but still an endorsement of collectors’ enthusiasm in 2024. What Rob Walton forked over for the Mullins’ 49 per cent interest in their Bugatti Type 57SC Atlantic only adds to the swag and may put the whole collection’s total over the top of Chandler’s 2006 auction (without adjustment for inflation, it should be said).

In truth, most of the Oxnard sale’s cars were old restorations. Many were raggedy barn finds from the Schlumpf Reserve Collection. There was a lot of rust in the preview, but still there were many lots in exceptional condition and a notable contingent of largely original vehicles that ignited the bidders’ interest.

Only five of the 38 lots I examined on-site earned condition ratings of #2 (“excellent”) or better. Fifteen were (sometimes generously) rated as #4 (“fair”) or worse.

That did nothing to deter the crowd in Oxnard, the people on the phones, or the bidders on the Internet. Bidding contests were prevalent, even when auctioneer Charlie Ross scraped the bottom of the barrel for opening bids on some of the lots. The sale was all at no reserve and some lots opened at nearly negative money. But they usually ramped up quickly into four and five figures, with a median transaction of only £21,564.

Throughout the sale there was good-natured interplay, often between auctioneer Charlie Ross and bidders who didn’t keep up, and sometimes among bidders determined to prove they were more committed than others. It was a shared enthusiasm among the many who appreciated the Mullin cars for what they might be, not the rusty/dusty relics they were today.

Notable transactions included:

  • 1938 Bugatti Type 57C Aravis Special Cabriolet by Gangloff, originally owned by racing driver Maurice Trintignant and restored for the Mullins under Trintignant’s guidance, a radical transaction at £5.28M, about three times the middle of its presale estimate.
  • 1927 Bugatti Type 40 Break de Chasse, a utility truck with wood bed and canvas wagon top from the Schlumpf Reserve Collection that was all there but exploded its presale estimate of £80K–£120K with a price of £356K.
  • 1937 Wanderer W25K Roadster, another Schlumpf Reserve Collection car and one of a handful of Mullin cars that didn’t originate in France, that rated a condition #4- but surpassed its presale high estimate with an enthusiastic bidding contest to a final price of £112K.
  • 1934 Bugatti Type 57 Ventoux Coupe, also a Schlumpf Reserve Collection barn find, was a bit better than the Wanderer, classed a #4 condition and largely complete except for some trim details, sold for £378K.
  • And, lest it appear that all was rough around the edges, there was the 1937 Delage D8-120 Three-Position Cabriolet, a sleek, beautiful car that was concours-restored with some road miles. It brought £584K all-in.
  • The Bugatti Type 46 Semi-Profilée, a rebodied and re-engined derelict Type 46 reportedly sold at the Barrett-Jackson/Coys Monaco auction in 2000 for £31K rewarded Jack Braam Ruben for his efforts to recreate it by bringing £883K.
  • Finally, it is impossible to ignore the last lot of the sale, a 1986 Citroën 2CV6 Special sedan that sold for an affordable £11,640.

There are several takeaways from the dispersal of the Mullin Collection.

The first and most important is that there still exists an appreciation of old cars with buyers willing to back up their enthusiasm and fine distinctions in chassis and coachwork with serious money. Bidders here in Oxnard and two months ago in Amelia bid with both their heads and their hearts for appealing cars.

Then, there is the elusive “provenance” consideration. With the Mullin cars, it was manifest in the nearly singular approach to the collection’s approach to French style and automobile history. The Mullin cars are the finest of the fine (including those sent to the Petersen Museum and the Type 57SC Atlantic transferred to co-owner Rob Walton). That provenance will always attach to these cars where “ex-Mullin Collection” sets them apart.

And, finally, there’s 1421 Emerson Avenue in Oxnard, a car lover’s mecca for a generation. The history of the place, the great cars and motorcycles that have been displayed and preserved here, is epic. It is a setting that should be seized upon and exploited by a new car collector from Southern California to continue its history.

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