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Culture / Cars

Priceless Buicks

An Eccentric Billionaire Proves that Any Type of Car Can Be Collectable

BY Jim Shi // 07.10.16
photography Jim Shi and Bulgari

Allentown: the blue-collar Pennsylvania suburb most famous for a Billy Joel track of the same name is probably the last place one would associate with the Italian luxury brand Bulgari. But yet, it’s in this sleepy town — on an impressive 21-acre compound — that brand chairman Nicola Bulgari maintains seven warehouses, four of which hold restoration shops, all filled with classic American cars (think Oldsmobiles, Cadillacs, Lincolns, Hudsons, DeSotos and, most famously, Buicks).

Welcome to the NB Center for American Automotive Heritage.

On a recent visit to the sprawling facility to view Bulgari’s new, and world’s thinnest (in current production) ultra thin Octo Finissimo Minute Repeater, journalists were given a first-ever tour of the fully restored site. Among its jewels: a 140-foot by 78-foot drive-in movie screen that had been Allentown’s original drive-in theater, a track for exercising Mr. Bulgari’s classic cars, and the 24,000-square-foot Italian-themed stone barn that plays host to dinners and collector meets.

“We want to tell the future what inspired us and made us tick,” says Mark Gessler, president of the Historic Vehicle Association. “We’re passing along artifacts, and that’s what this place is about.”

Growing up in post-War Rome, Mr. Bulgari, who recently celebrated his 75th birthday, became enchanted with American cinema and the cars he saw in those films. Fast forward to 1995 and, at the recommendation of a friend to meet with a mechanic in Allentown named Keith Flickinger to help repair his 1942 Buick Special Estate Wagon, Mr. Bulgari would find the man who, till this day, maintains his vast collection like, well, a fine-tuned machine. “We don’t just talk about it. We live it, breathe it,” says Flinckinger. “These are not the cars of the nobility.”

In 1961, Bulgari bought his first car — a 1938 Buick. He was also the first Italian member of the Buick Club Of America, which will celebrate its 50th anniversary at Mr. Bulgari’s compound in late July. While Bulgari’s vast collection includes some truly priceless vehicles — including the first Camaro ever built, no. 00001, circa 1967 — it’s his Buicks that stand head and shoulders above the rest.

Herewith, in order, Mr. Bulgari’s Top 10 Buicks:

1. 1934 Buick Model 98C Convertible Phaeton

This convertible sedan is one of only five known to still exist out of a scarce 119 editions that were ever built. The largest series Buick built in 1934 and, according to Flickinger, the most elegant ever built. “This was designed to compete with Pierce Arrows and Packards on an elegance level,” he says.

2. 1941 Buick Roadmaster 

This arctic-silver convertible sedan, one of only 1,845 built, exuded performance, quality and luxury. When it came to style and elegance of pre-WWII cars, the Roadmaster, with its power-operated top, was the epitome for the Buick brand, because the U.S. subsequently went to war in 1942. “Buick really hit the peak in ’41 for style and elegance,” says Flickinger. “This car demanded the road. This was the king of the road.”

3. 1939 Buick Century

Not only was this the final year, design-wise, for Buick headlights to be housed externally, but General Motors built its Y-Job concept car — the industry’s first — modeled after this Century. Like all the classic Buicks, it boasted a Straight-8, or Fireball 8, valve-in-head engine. “It’s one of the smoothest-ever Buicks, as the brand turned more modern,” says Flickinger. “I have a real infatuation for that ’39 Buick front nose.”

4. 1935 Buick Model 96S Sport Coupe 

Shown here in its original “Ambassador Maroon” paint, this is the only known survivor of the 42 editions built (the car was found in Michigan and fully restored). This long wheelbase sport coupe has been dubbed by Flickinger a “charismatic gentleman” thanks to its special rear golf club door, rear rumble seat, and roll-up windows. “This is Mr. Bulgari’s favorite car for design meets driveability,” he adds. The series 90 Buicks produced between 1931-1942 are also considered to be the most luxurious cars ever produced by Buick.

5. 1963 Buick Riviera 

Completely original, completely preserved, this arctic-white coupe, with its distinctive bodyshell, epitomized General Motors at its best in the 1960s. Found in Ohio with 32,000 original miles and a mighty nailhead V8, the Riviera marked Buick’s foray into the prestige luxury car niche. Its front fascia, seeming to mimic a “diving” movement, sported new “Coke bottle styling” that exhibited a tapered-in appearance. 

6. 1941 Buick Special Sedanette 

Dubbed the “slope back” for its streamlined external design cues, this torpedo fastback, discovered in Arizona, has been fully preserved in its original state. The two-tone silver paint job is original, as are its 5,400 odometer miles and preserved lacquer. “Timeless elegance” is how Flickinger describes it. Its graceful, curving roofline from the windshield back to the rear bumper makes it easy to see why. 

7. 1923 Buick Station Wagon

Known as the forerunner of the station wagon, this 1923 Buick is an all-original vehicle from the carriage era — basically a motorized carriage. Originally used to pick up passengers at the train station, it helped usher in the transformation from carriage to station wagon. This classic boasts the original “non skid” tires and a hood ornament that was not merely decorative but also measured the temperature of the vehicle. 

8. 1932 Buick Model 91

Completely original, the massive Series 90 line featured a 134-inch wheelbase — longer than any prior Buicks. Found in Chicago, this Gatsby-era Buick really heralded the arrival of truly glamorous cars. “This 91 symbolized the moving from auto of necessity to auto of beauty,” says Flickinger. Of note was its superb flat, locomotive-like grille. 

9. 1930 GMC Yellow Cab

Yes, folks, this is the Yellow Cab that taxi driver Ernie used to shuttle George around Bedford Falls in “It’s A Wonderful Life.” Despite its GMC moniker, this 1930 Yellow Cab features a Buick truck chassis and had been completely disassembled when Mr. Bulgari bought it in May 2008 in California. After a 30-month restoration, it debuted in Allentown in 2010 just in time for the holiday season.

10. 1942 Buick Special Estate Wagon

This is the one that started it all. In 1995, Flickinger met Mr. Bulgari when the latter’s Buick Woody Wagon had been damaged in an accident. Following the repair, the jewelry house scion, who also owns Bette Davis’s original 1940 Buick Woody, enlisted the Allentown mechanic to work exclusively on his vehicles. This particular wagon, one of only three left, features a wooden body by Hercules and a roof that features layers of burlap, chicken wire and cotton padding on top of wood. “After this, the rest of my life changed,” says Flickinger.

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