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Collectible cars worth $149M are missing



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USA TODAY

On the night of June 19, 1997, one of the most famous cars in the world vanished.

The car, estimated to be worth $10 million, was taken from a hangar at the Boca Raton Airport in Florida in what was a brazen heist. The thieves did it with such precision that no alarm sounded or security guard took notice.

All that was left behind was a lingering unsolved mystery. The car, an Aston Martin DB5 used in the 007 film “Goldfinger,” has never been found. 

“When people steal these cars, they can’t sell them on the open market,” said Lee Coates, a spokesman for Select Car Leasing. “If you steal a really expensive car, it’s probably sold to a very rich criminal who just wants the car in their garage just to have it. It’s like when you hear of paintings being stolen, those paintings will never be seen again, but they will belong to some dark criminal somewhere.”

The treasure hunt

Coates spent the past month playing car detective for Select Car Leasing, a new and used car lease company in the United Kingdom that publishes blogs on various car topics. Coates decided to research and write about circumstances surrounding the disappearances of 20 rare and famous cars around the world.   

The idea came to him after reading about 19 historic cars being stolen from the Orlando Classic Cars Warehouse in Florida on June 1, he said. But days later, nine of them were found in California after people posted sightings on social media, he said.

“It was really cool to see people in the local community took photos of car sightings and got in touch to find them,” Coates said. “So that is why I decided to do this. Also, with the next James Bond (film) coming out in November, one of the cars that went missing was from a James Bond movie and I’m a big James Bond fan.”

Coates relied on various media reports, mostly those written close to the time when the car went missing, and some historic documents, in his research, he said. 

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If all 20 of the cars he researched were recovered today, they are estimated to be worth about $149 million collectively, he said. 

“It just blows my mind that that amount of cars, in terms of value, are missing and no one knows where they are,” Coates said. “If a diamond goes missing, the general public can see the value in that, but people who aren’t into cars don’t know where the value comes from. A car worth $10 million and it’s missing, that’s more expensive than a diamond.”

So here are the stories of a few of the missing 20 and those that have been found.

007’s Aston Martin DB5

In 1964, the silver Aston Martin DB5 that actor Sean Connery drove in the James Bond film “Goldfinger” was sold to a private collector for about $15,500. It was tripped out with a variety of prop gadgets such as machine guns and tire-shredders, various reports said.

The original owner later sold it to another collector, Anthony Pugliese III, for about $324,000. Pugliese stored it in a hangar with his other cars at the Boca Raton Airport  Authority in Florida.

“On the night of June 19, 1997, someone broke in and stole it,” Coates said. “From what we can tell, the airport hangar had some molding on it and they used a saw to get in and cut the padlock and they disabled the alarm and used chains and cables to load it on a flatbed truck.”

The car was reportedly so heavy it had to be dragged from its axles. Tire marks left the only clue — that it was possibly taken to an area where it was loaded onto a cargo plane, gone for good.

“The people who had the car stolen, hired private investigators to find the car and every few years there’s been sightings,” Coates said. “Four weeks after it was stolen, there were multiple sightings, but it’s never been seen again.”

There are believed to be 123 of the Aston Martin DB5s still around and those that exist are valuable, Coates said.

In 2019, a 1965 Aston Martin DB5 Saloon sold at RM Sotheby’s in Monterey, California, for $6.4 million. That model car is actually worth about $1.6 million, but because it was used in the 1965 James Bond film “Thunderball” it fetched much more. It was even rigged with the various spy props used in the movie’s scenes, Hagerty, which specializes in insurance and valuation of collector vehicles, told the Free Press at that time.

Another 1965 Aston Martin DB5 was stolen July 18 of this year while parked on a street in England. The car, made in 1965 and valued at $1.3 million, looks like the ones used in the James Bond movies,  though it was not. According to the website Carscoops, there is a $1,312 reward for anyone with valid information that could lead to its recovery.

The Titanic and the Coupé de Ville

For the past 108 years one of the rarest cars in the world has sat at the bottom of the frigid North Atlantic ocean amid the wreckage of the RMS Titanic.

The 1912 Renault Type CB Coupé de Ville, owned by William Carter of Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania, was in the storage area of the doomed ocean liner headed for the States with its owner, Coates said. The car was expensive for the day, costing about 3,000 francs or about $3,200, which would be equal to 10 years’ pay for the average worker at the time, Coates said.

Carter was the heir to a coal and iron fortune, Coates said, and he bought the car while traveling with his wife and children through Europe. 

“It had 25 horsepower,” Coates said. “It had a top speed of 35 mph. The car was a first of its kind because the model was made between 1912 to 1933.”

That fateful April night chaos broke out as the Titanic was sinking and Carter was separated from his wife and children. His family and their maid boarded a lifeboat.

Later, as one of the last lifeboats was lowered, Carter stepped aboard it with fellow passenger, J. Bruce Ismay, chairman of the White Star Line, which owned the Titanic, Coates said. 

But Carter’s manservant and his chauffeur both went down with the luxurious Renault. The chauffeur had driven the family, in that car, to the docks in Southampton to board the Titanic.

The tale did not escape the attention of James Cameron, who directed the 1997 movie “Titanic,” Coates said.

Cameron used a replica of the car in the famous love scene where the characters, played by Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet, have a romantic rendezvous. 

“That was quite cool how the director knew that fact and put it in the movie,” Coates said. “It was a throwback to the car going down.”

In recent years, Coates said, there have been reports of salvagers trying to locate the car on the ocean floor, but no luck. Coates said if it were found, it would be incredibly valuable. In 2008, a similar car was sold at a Sotheby’s auction for $269,500, he said.

“I think this one would still be down there, but if they could get it back, it would sell for more because it went down with the Titanic. It depends on how much seaweed it has on it,” Coates said. “There are only two classic, high-value cars in history that have sank.”

The other, the Chrysler Norseman concept car, went down with the SS Andrea Doria, an Italian passenger ocean liner, while it was being shipped to New York City for a 1957 auto show.

Oldsmobile Golden Rocket

The Oldsmobile Golden Rocket concept car has been dubbed one of the most radical designs of General Motors’ 1956 Motorama car show. 

The gold two-seater resembled a rocket. It was meant to invoke a futuristic vision. 

“It was part of a promotional anthem called Design for Dreaming, it was one of many cars,” Coates said. “But it was a concept car so there was only one of them ever built. It was made for the General Motors’ Motorama in New York at the Waldorf Astoria hotel in January 1956.”

The car made the auto show circuit, but when it was done it was common for automakers to scrap the concept cars in those days, Coates said. So the Golden Rocket was sent to a scrap yard to be destroyed, he said. 

“But there are no records of it being scrapped, which is rare for the time. So we have to put it as vanished or missing,” Coates said. “There’s no evidence that someone stole it, but there are no records that it was scrapped, so it’s a strange one.”

He said there was a rumor that it was spotted in New Jersey a few years after the Motorama, but that was never confirmed.

“One of the unconfirmed theories is that people who work in scrap yards often see the value in cars and maybe took it and put a new engine in it or something,” Coates said. “But this car design influenced the cars that came after it.”

Jim Morrison’s Blue Lady

Electra Records was so pleased with The Doors debut album in 1967 that it gifted lead singer, Jim Morrison, a 1967 Shelby GT500 in dark blue with a white interior, Coates said. 

The car had a 7-liter V8 engine and a manual transmission. The rock star called it The Blue Lady, according to published reports. But the Blue Lady did not stay in his life long. 

“Obviously, he lived quite a rock ‘n’ roll lifestyle,” Coates said. “It was April 1967 and he was driving down Sunset Boulevard in Hollywood. He crashed the car into a street pole.”

The original theory is that after hitting the pole, Morrison walked up the street to Whisky a Go Go, a bar where The Doors had been performing regularly. Later that night, when he went to retrieve the car from the crash site, it was gone and never seen again.

Another theory suggests that it was towed away by the police. Yet, another is that Morrison left the car in long-term parking at LAX airport during a concert tour, and returned to find it towed and sold at public auction. There is even a theory that Morrison totaled the car and it was crushed for scrap.

No one truly knows what happened to that car, Coates said.

“Most cars that go missing have a record of being towed, but there was no record of it being towed,” Coates said.

Morrison’s car has been missing since April 1967, Coates said. If it were ever found, it would be worth a fortune, he said. Last year, a Shelby GT500 from that era sold at auction for $2.2 million, he said. 

“When celebrities own cars, the cars always become more valuable,” Coates said. “So it would possibly be more than $2 million.”

Doc’s DeLorean DMC12

The DeLorean DMC12 is most famous for its starring role as the time machine in the “Back to the Future” movies. The studio had several of the cars, but it was the “B” DeLorean car that has vanished, or shall we say its parts have vanished. 

See the “B” car was the stunt car, so it took quite a beating.

“It was also known as the wreckage car because it was used in the stunts. It was used in all three movies,” Coates said. “It was the car that was struck by the train in one of the movies and it basically exploded. Someone collected all the parts of it and gave them to Planet Hollywood.”

The parts, which included a door and a bumper, hung from the ceiling as part of the decor at the Planet Hollywood in Honolulu, Hawaii, Coates said. 

Then, on April 18, 2010, that Planet Hollywood closed, he said. But while other movie memorabilia from the restaurant was collected for auction, the DeLorean wreckage was gone. 

“Someone probably just stole the car parts for their home because they loved the movies,” Coates said. 

Lost and found

Not all cars are lost forever; some are eventually found.

There were two 1968 Mustang GT Fastbacks used in the movie “Bullitt” starring Steve McQueen. They both disappeared for a spell. One was found in a junkyard in Mexico, but it was just a stunt double.

The other, driven by McQueen, was kept by a private owner in a garage for about 40 years, before that owner’s son dusted it off and took it to the 2018 Detroit auto show when Ford unveiled its 2019 Bullitt Mustang tribute, the USA TODAY Netwo Detroit Free Press has reported.

In January of this year, the car sold at auction to an anonymous bidder for a record $3.4 million — $3.74 million after commissions and fees.

Mummified Ferrari

Then there is the bizarre case of the 1974 Ferrari Dino 246 GTS. Some kids digging in the mud in the front yard of a home in Los Angeles in 1978 struck something hard. It was the car. And, how it got there is potential film noir. 

The Ferrari was in good condition when it was found despite having been in its suburban tomb for at least four years. 

It had been bought in October 1974 by Rosendo Cruz of Alhambra, California. On Dec. 7, 1974, Cruz had reported the car stolen, according to a report in Jalopnik.

But why the car had been buried in a front yard was a mystery. The people who buried it had likely expected to retrieve it at some point because they’d attempted to “mummify it in plastic sheets and had stuffed towels into its intakes to keep the worms out,” Jalopnik reported.

With no leads in 1978, the case of the buried Ferrari went cold. But Jalopnik posed its theory of what happened based on a “snitch” in the late ’70s. Cruz, the car’s owner in 1974, had hired a couple guys to make it disappear so he could collect insurance money. The plan was for the hired thugs to steal it off of Wilshire Boulevard the night of Dec. 7 while Cruz and his wife were at LA’s Brown Derby restaurant.

The hired hands were then to chop up the car and fence the parts, sinking the rest of it into the ocean, Jalopnik wrote. Cruz would collect the insurance payout.

But the hired help fell in love with the beautiful Italian car and couldn’t take the ax to her. 

“They torched out the rear badge, maybe as a souvenir, maybe as a claim check,” Jalopnik reported. “Then they buried her whole in some sucker’s yard in West Athens; some say it was in an old mechanic’s pit. The boss got his check, but the idiots never came back for her.”

Thanks to a drought in LA during that time, the car remained well preserved in its grave. It was restored by a private owner in 1978 and survives today, providing Coates with his next assignment as car detective. 

“I’d like to do a piece in the future on cars that have been found,” Coates said. “It shows, there is hope out there that these cars could be found.”

Follow Detroit Free Press reporter Jamie L. LaReau on Twitter @jlareauan

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