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Classic Car Detectives

By Charis Whitcombe

The car with racing history. The car that starred on the silver screen. The car that lay in a field for decades. Delving into a car's history is a matter of knowing who to ask and where to go - but it also requires dogged determination and good luck. The Kidston team does this for a living, and here share some of their stories, giving tips on where to start...

"It's a thrilling experience to assemble the pieces of a large and complicated puzzle," says Business Manager Emanuele Collo, describing how a US journalist contact tipped them off about a Lancia Aurelia B20 'barn find' for sale with a modern car dealer in Oregon. The Lancia had - supposedly - Mille Miglia provenance but was about to be sold, so the team had only hours to act.

"The Mille Miglia archive produced a shot of the car showing the 'TO' registration. Knowing that, we quickly tracked down a copy of the old Italian log book showing all the car's owners: first the Lancia factory, and then five or six subsequent names. We called everyone on the list. Among them was Neapolitan racing driver Mennato Boffa. He had died, but we found and spoke with his son who confirmed his father had driven the car on the Targa Florio.

"The Aurelia was supposed to have a non-matching engine, but we checked the 1961 shipping documents that showed it had left Italy with the correct unit. We knew it hadn't been driven since '61, so why swap the engine? We sent someone to check and realised that the US dealer was reading the wrong number on the engine. We did the deal at five to midnight. It turned out the dealer had bought the car 48 hours before... from gypsies who had spotted it on Craigslist at the weekend. You couldn't make it up."

The first clue: period MM shot showing 'TO' registration...
Would you have known this is the same car?

The reasons for research are not always financial. Take the 1972 Ferrari Daytona Spyder currently with Kidston that a bit of digging revealed to be the (only) genuine Daytona in the hit TV series Miami Vice. "The famous Miami Vice Spyder driven by Don Johnson was not a Daytona at all, but one of a series of Corvette-based replicas," says Kidston consultant Steve Wakefield, but when he Googled the Daytona's original owner, a local cardiologist, he popped up in a Miami Vice context.

The facts seemed to fit. Florida - check, doctor's name - check, black/tan car before restoration - check. So the Kidston team watched the series' 1984 pilot and bingo, there it was, 22 minutes in, parked outside a café and clearly recognisable as the genuine item. "Will it affect the value? That depends on the buyer. Is it interesting? Definitely," says Steve.

With an exceptionally special car, a detailed history is not only fun, it's valuable. Hence the Kidston team's ongoing research into the aristocratic Eastern European first owner of a 250 GTO: mystery gentleman driver Kalman von Czazy. "A 2003 obituary names 'Gyorgy Miklos Czazy aka George Von Csazy', who died in Las Vegas aged 59," says Steve. "But it also mentions a surviving brother, Kalman. He was born in Budapest in 1941 and we're sure he was the GTO's original owner. The hunt is on..."

Not every scrapyard yields a priceless Porsche. This one did
Middle Eastern foray revealed how they preserve suspension

Often, the reasons for research are purely sentimental. Hence the request from a Kidston client for help in finding two cars his father - a well-known Italian industrialist - had owned.

"These weren't very valuable cars," confirms Emanuele Collo. "One was a 'coachbuilt' '73 Mini Cooper, and all we had to go on were its special features and unusual shade of brown. Finding it came down to a stroke of luck, as I spotted a small advert for a similar-coloured car. It turned out to be the actual one.

"Another was a bullet-proof Mercedes 6.9 in which the owner was chauffeured to work, while reading magazines using a rear-seat spotlight. We knew a reclusive Mercedes expert familiar with all the similar cars originally owned by VIPs. Through his phenomenal knowledge we found the bullet-proof car and, while the spotlight was missing, there was the hole where it had been. It was the final clue that confirmed this was the right car."

You can see how some cars ended up 'Missing in Transit'
The paper trail is always a good place to start

Tracking down 'family' cars is not unusual, as Simon Kidston himself admits. "I've gone to great lengths to return family cars to the fold. The toughest was finding the silver 'Gullwing' that my father collected new at the factory in '55. There are so many Gullwings answering that description that it took 22 years looking for this particular needle in a haystack." False alarms popped up from Seattle to Canada, all to no avail. Finally, using the chassis number, a government contact dug up a long-ago registered keeper's name in Switzerland.

Simon takes up the tale: "Would this person want to hear from a stranger? Luckily, the owner of a nearby hotel is a friend and confirmed he knew the man and would call him for me. I held my breath when he called back: 'He still has the car and will meet you next week...'

"The owner shook my hand and handed me the keys to his car. Not permanently, but I'm hoping one day his resolve might soften. The irony is that, after all the years of searching, the car lived 1km from my old school."

The needle in a haystack: a silver Gullwing like many others
But the smile proves that patience- and luck- sometimes pay off

There are too many tales of hunting for old family cars to tell here - from the Hispano-Suiza in a field in Jamaica; to the Porsche 911S spotted on the cover of an old magazine; to the Lancia Aurelia that coincidentally resulted in Simon first meeting Robert Brooks (and a job offer); to the Bentley abandoned in a Teddington dairy... and the elusive red Maserati 3500GT "which boiled at the mere sight of an Alpine pass" and was last heard of in Canada 30 years ago...

"Searching for a car takes patience and diplomacy," concludes Simon. "It might come down to knowing the right expert or how to follow a paper trail. The owners' club is a good place to start but it might be simply a matter of waiting until, one day, a magazine article or an advert or a throwaway comment gives you the vital clue to finding where the car is today. Luck is the most important ingredient of all."

If only auction goers knew what the shiny cover car once looked like!