I bought a new addition for my automobile collection from RM Sotheby’s at its recent Amelia Island sale. Parked in a corner of the viewing tents was a dark blue 1934 Tatra 77 that, through some combination of pheromones and kismet, I knew was going home with me. I have written about the process of making a buying decision at some length in my book, The Archaeological Automobile, but this most recent acquisition provides another opportunity to muse on how I do this analytic stuff in real life.

Does the tail wag the dog?

The primary issue in understanding decision making is determining whether the logical rationale for an acquisition leads the decision or follows it. I think psychologists who delve into this kind of thing have concluded that the decision process, involved as it is with cost-benefit analysis, relationality with extant objects, thematic extensions, and parallels, and so on, exists primarily to justify a decision already made by our unconscious. After all, what else is that sudden rush of cupidity, that “gotta have it” moment, we have all felt?

I do maintain a mental list of potential additions to my collection. This is the double-secret confidential list of cars that, if acquired, would benefit the collection materially. I commented in my book — tongue firmly in cheek — that I have segmented my collection into four categories:

1. Automobility, the history of road transport.

2. Porsche, a study collection.

3. Vitesse, the development of the sports and sports racing automobile.

4. Revs, the story of single-seat racing cars.

These categories, I said, were cunningly selected to let me buy any damn car I want.

Not true, of course, and when further refined by insisting that all cars in the collection enjoy benchmark or major significance as historical, aesthetic, technological or socio-economical objects, qualifying cars become harder to find. But make no mistake, even within these narrowing criteria, there are qualified objects for sale at any given time.

However, we live in an age where the cost of most cars identified by my screens are crazy expensive. And it is this last criterion, affordability, “bang for the buck,” that makes adding cars to my collection challenging. For under no condition will I lower the quality of my collection from that established by Briggs Cunningham, whose world-class cars make up almost half of my automotive holdings.

Streamlined opportunity

Which brings me to the Tatra. The Czechoslovakian masterpieces of Hans Ledwinka, an Austrian expatriate engineer, were among the most advanced, technically interesting and visually arresting cars of their age. They sport highly aerodynamic and streamlined coachwork, with rounded windshield corners, rear-wheel spats, full belly pans and that long, long teardrop tail with dorsal fin and louvers for the rear-mounted, air-cooled 2.9-liter V8. This is a combination of ingredients of some fascination. It is the kind of car that Flash Gordon’s nemesis, Ming the Merciless, would have driven while performing his dirty work.

The problem with Tatras, aside from there being no parts, and no knowledge outside of Eastern Europe, and only a handful of operating examples anywhere, makes the sale of any pre-war Tatra something of note. While largely unknown, Tatras nevertheless enjoy rarified prices, and that has always put them on my personal back burner. But here was an outlier estimated at one-half to one-third the accepted number for a well-restored car with no needs. I heard opportunity knocking.

More so, as already in my collection were two other 1934 automobiles that were also conceived around aerodynamics and streamlining, a LaSalle convertible sedan and a Chrysler Airflow Imperial Coupe. My interest lay in this three-car combination which would potentiate the value of the Tatra to the collection.

The LaSalle is beautiful, streamlined without being aerodynamic. The Airflow very much resembled the Tatra without the long tail. Both it and the Tatra are aerodynamic and streamlined. Indeed, both were developed in wind-tunnel experiments. Unsurprisingly, they strongly resemble one another. So by adding a Tatra, I created a real point of strength in the collection built about the varying roles of innovation, technology, aerodynamics and marketing in the 1930s.

Stand back

Of course, nothing is unalloyed bliss, as the low estimate indicated. This poor car was the product of a stalled restoration and was then “salvaged” for auction by another shop. So, my Tatra is a 10-footer. If you stand far enough away and kind of squint your eyes, it’s a nice-looking car.

That’s where the favorable buy comes in. I paid $390,000, including buyer’s premium. Ultimately, this car will require another complete restoration, down to the wood. Given Tatras, that will be neither cheap nor easy. Meanwhile, like some other cars in my collection that did their museum job well enough before restoration, this Tatra will immediately be engaging viewers alongside the Airflow and the LaSalle.

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