The quest for coveted manuals and tools
When a group of car guys gathered at the Pebble Beach Classic Car Forum in August 2018 to discuss collecting everything but cars — it became very obvious very quickly that we were in the company of some seriously obsessive and ardently passionate individuals who were realizing a dream — making a living out of a hobby.
“I don’t think any one of us set out to become dealers in car ephemera,” says David Kayser, a collector of postwar European sales literature and a historical racing specialist from Metuchen, New Jersey. “You start collecting automobilia that interests you, but end up with so much inventory you realize you should maybe sell some. And there you are — you’re in business.”
The trade of all things automotive, other than the cars themselves, is a multimillion-dollar industry as varied and eclectic as the automobiles it orbits. And yet, true collectors are inspired by the nostalgia and originality of an item, rather than its monetary value. “It’s not about the checkbook and it’s not about judging points at a concours,” says Tom Shaughnessy, veteran collector and former Judge at the Pebble Beach Concours d’Elegance. “The purist collector is passionate about his or her car and has to have every single piece of information and memorabilia associated with that car to create the whole picture.”
Some concours award points for the presentation of original manuals and tools, but not the Pebble Beach Concours. Chief Judge Chris Bock points out that while manuals and tools might be very relevant to a Ferrari, such items are less significant to a unique vintage automobile. “Take the 1904 Holsman Model 3 Roadster that was at Pebble Beach in 2017,” he says. “The two great-granddaughters of Henry Kerchner Holsman were there to tell the story of the automobile and that was more important than any accompanying items.”
The true collector isn’t trying to sway a concours judge, but rather has an almost fanatical need to gather as much information and as many items associated with a specific car or marque as possible — and such dedication to collecting starts young. David Kayser’s obsession with auto-related sales literature began at age seven, when he would ride his bike to car dealers to ask for sales brochures. “Once I had exhausted all the local dealers, I started to send typed letters to manufacturers all over the world,” recalls David. “They had no idea I was only seven. That’s how it all started.” David’s childhood collection morphed into Chelsea Motoring Literature, a fully-fledged archival literature business serving international clients who are motor car owners and those who have the interest, but not necessarily the car.
“The goal is to get the right items into the right hands,” says Cody Smith of Maitland, Florida, who specializes in Ferrari literature from 1949 through 1974. Cody has observed many changes in the hobby of collecting over the years. “It’s become a very serious business and having the original books for your car is a must,” he says. Books and tools for all levels of Ferrari are expensive; the very early manuals and pouches can command as much as $45,000 a set, whereas the manuals for a Ferrari 308 can cost around $2,000. “The literature for the ultra-rare cars is ultra-rare also, hence the price,” says Cody.
Naturally, any business dealing in rare and unique items is susceptible to forgery, and specialists go to extreme lengths to ensure they are purchasing an authentic item. Claus von Schmeling, the owner of Archivio Italiano, is an auto-historian extraordinaire. He started his love affair with collecting automobiles and their accoutrements in college, where he acquired a VW fire bus fully equipped with hoses and pump, and sold it for $15,000, which enabled him to buy his first Ferrari. With years of experience behind him Claus can discern the difference between a true 50-year-old specification-addendum for a Ferrari 250 GT that was originally folded into the back of the manual, and a hand-crafted forgery that has been painstakingly and artificially aged. “There is the paper, the type face, and then there is the smell. You have to stick your nose in there and breathe. If it smells of mildew — it could be an original.” Or as David Kayser puts it, “You use the opposite approach than if you were buying fish for your family. If it smells bad — buy it!”
The purist will hunt down every conceivable item that was originally delivered with a car. In the late 1960s and early ’70s, the original Ferrari factory package included a second set of keys, a small tin of paint, a tool kit and a set of handbooks in a presentation box. Other items might include a warranty card, specification sheet, list of dealerships, battery warranty, air-conditioning certificate, even the hangtag for the clock detailing how it should be wound, as well as a Shell-branded wiper cloth. These collectibles came in a Ferrari-logoed cardboard box with a checklist and the serial number of the specific car stamped on the outside. Because such valuables often went missing at the dock, Ferrari would ship the boxes separately to the dealer. Inevitably the dealer would unpack the box, place the items in the car and toss the cardboard box. “I can sell that empty Ferrari cardboard box today for $1,000!” says Tom Shaughnessy.
Other relevant collectibles might include documents detailing the provenance of a car: archival photographs, race programs, sales brochures and newspaper advertisements, or any piece of literature that develops the story of an automobile, its era, environment and culture — especially if the car is to be exhibited. “If you are going to the ball to dance with the prince, better make sure you have all the accessories — manuals, documents and tools — available to you,” says Tom, “because you can be sure the other girls will be dressed to the nines.”
Jerry LaBant from the Liverpool Motorworks, LLC, has collected original tools and literature covering British marques for over 50 years, beginning his lifelong addiction at age 15 when he would accompany his brother on a high-speed dash through the local countryside to dry off his 1967 MGB after washing it. “I think you have to have worked on cars to truly develop a passion for the tools and documents that go with them,” says Jerry. “I’ve worked on a lot of broken cars in my time!”
Jerry is a stickler for finding the correct item to complete a particular tool kit, be it for a Jaguar, Austin Healey or MG, and he scours swap meets, autojumbles and private collections to add to his inventory. “I might have to touch 100 wrenches to find the one I need to complete a particular tool kit and the one you want is always at the bottom of the box.”
Depth of product knowledge is key in automobilia collecting, especially as many documents and tools are individually dated or model stamped, such as the jack for an early Jaguar XK120 or the owner’s manual for a Mercedes-Benz 300SL Gullwing. “It is imperative to have the correct piece or document for each automobile,” insists Jerry. “That’s where the value lies.” Sure enough, the smallest and the cheapest item to produce in the 1950s XK tool kit — the 1/2 x 7/16 inch tube spanner — can retail at $300, enabling the completed and correctly stamped XK tool kit to demand $3,500. “The hunt is always better than the kill, and these items are finite,” says Jerry. “I get the chills when I find the right piece, and every time I sell one, it makes me a little sad!”
Undeniably, there is a pervading sense of depletion in the world of automobile memorabilia. Most tools and manuals are separated from their original automobile early in their lifetime. Manuals are removed from the glove compartment to make room for sunglasses. Tools often get taken into the garage to fix a bicycle or something and are never returned to the tool roll. Some end up as “cornfield tools” — Jerry’s term for items that break on the roadside and get tossed into a field.
“Truly collectible pieces are becoming ever rarer,” says Egon Zweimüller, Austrian auto-memorabilia collector and world-renowned restorer. “You can’t put a price on a 1938 Bugatti screwdriver with a worn wooden handle. That tool just lies so beautifully in your hand. It’s a piece of art. Priceless!” Egon purchased a poster of an Alfa Romeo 8C from a flea market as a child and hung it on his bedroom wall. At age 13 his father helped him buy an Alfa 8C book at the Mille Miglia. Today, Egon owns a 1937 8C and has restored a further five as well as scores of other top-drawer marques using his archive of hundreds of thousands of documents, tools, original parts, photographs and records to ensure exactitude and authenticity. “My 8C book is always by my bed,” says Egon. “I’ve read it probably 300 times. It’s a compulsion, I simply can’t help it.”
The relics of the Golden Age of automobiles are certainly ever more valuable and increasingly rare — and likewise their collectors. As David Kayser puts it, “The average age of my clientele is ‘dead’!”
The more optimistic automobilia dealers believe that collecting is less a declining hobby, and more an evolving specialization. “Who knows what people will collect in the future — maybe it will be a computer screen from a Tesla!” says Jerry LaBant, “But one thing is for sure. There will always be automobiles and there will always be people who collect auto memorabilia. It’s in our DNA!”