German collector “Dieter” was intrigued when he spotted an Internet ad offering Porsche 904 GTS chassis 904054 for sale.
“That’s odd,” he thought. “That’s the same chassis number of my 904 GTS that is sitting in my garage.”
The ad had been posted by TPE Ltd., a Japanese collector-car dealer operated by Akihiro Orimoto. The 904 GTS was owned by the Estate of Ken Allison from Lexington, KY.
That prompted a call to Dieter’s legal counsel, Damen Bennion, partner-in-charge of the collector-car practice at London’s Goodman Derrick LLP. Since the 904 was located in the United States and any legal action would occur in Kentucky, our firm was brought in as co-counsel.
Dieter had acquired his 904 GTS several years ago through Jan B. Luehn, a German collector race-car broker. The 904 was fully numbers matching, and it came with extensive documentation of its history and provenance including:
- The original 1969 sales invoice for the first sale to Gunther Selbach.
- Records of a number of races in which the 904 competed.
- Original registration documents from the earliest days onward.
- Numerous photographs of 904054 in all of its various color combinations — original silver, brown, red, and blue and white.
- Paint chips that coordinated with the changing color scheme, in order.
- Extensive correspondence and service records.
- Although Selbach had changed the engine in the 904, the original 904 engine had been acquired by Luehn.
The ownership history went from Selbach, to Torsten Andersson, to Leif Hansen, to Boo Brasta, to Sven Andersson, and finally to Claus Eliasson, who kept the 904 for 44 years.
Sleuthing on his own
Dieter is an action-oriented guy, and he decided to just give Orimoto a call and find out what was going on. Dieter didn’t mention he owned a 904. He instead posed as an interested buyer of the car Orimoto offered for sale. He also mentioned the car that had been sold by Luehn and asked if it was the same car. Dieter was totally convincing, as he elicited a lengthy and detailed response from Orimoto:
- Orimoto’s car was owned by the Estate of Ken Allison.
- The 904 was originally sold to Gunther Selbach, who raced the car successfully.
- Selbach’s original German registration was available.
- When Selbach decided to switch to racing “a faster Ford Mustang,” he sold the 904 to Roger Dale Suttles, a U.S. military officer stationed in Germany.
- Suttles brought the 904 to North Carolina, titled it as a street car, crashed it badly in a street accident, and then parked it in his garage.
- Over time, Suttles sold some parts off the car, including the engine and transmission.
- After Suttles’ death, the 904 was sold “by a judge of Probate” to Ken Allison, for which documentation was available.
- An original Certificate of Authenticity from Porsche is available.
- The 904 offered by Luehn was “well known as a counterfeit” within the European Porsche racing industry.
- Although Luehn’s ad states that original documents that prove the authenticity of the 904 are available, they really aren’t.
- The photos of the Luehn 904 clearly show newly embossed numbers.
So, two law firms an ocean and a continent apart formed a legal team instructed to force the Allison Estate to stop claiming their car is 904054. We rounded out the team by retaining an experienced investigator and went to work. We decided that my litigation partner, Brooks Cooper, would draft a complaint for filing in Federal District Court but, before filing it, make contact with the Allison Estate and see if they wanted to resolve this without litigation. The rest of us focused on the research.
The first inquiry was to request copies of all documents filed in the Allison probate case from the Kentucky probate court. Nothing of much use came of that.
Next, we requested copies of the probate file in the Suttles Estate. Suttles died in 1990 and left an estate of just over $18,300. The asset of interest to us was $500 of proceeds from the “Sale of Porsche (inoperable).” His mother had served as the personal representative, but she and the attorney who handled the probate had both died since, so we couldn’t contact them for more information.
We knew that Orimoto was wrong when he told Dieter that the 904 was sold by the probate judge. The file confirmed that probate in North Carolina is no different than elsewhere — Mrs. Suttles sold the Porsche and simply reported the sale to the court in the final legal filings.
Friends and family
I contacted SCM Contributor Prescott Kelly, who knew the Allison car well. He reported that it was well-known in Porsche circles that Allison was building a replica 904 from scratch. He was astounded that Allison or anyone would ever claim the car was authentic.
We determined that Suttles’ final military rank was SP4 — a relatively low enlisted rank, so he was not an officer as Orimoto had said. That meant that he could not have afforded a 904 in 1972, but he could probably have purchased a 356.
Our investigator had a tough time finding Suttles’ friends and family, who could be of assistance. The only useful connection was to Suttles’ nephew. The nephew wasn’t a car guy, but he recalled his uncle having brought home a very cool Porsche. He had no idea what model it was, so we showed him stock photos of a 356 and a 904.
He immediately said, “That’s it,” pointing to the 356. “My uncle gave me one of the hubcaps and I made a clock out of it. I still have it!”
More information from Allison
Meanwhile, Cooper had the complaint ready and sent a demand letter to the attorney representing Mrs. Allison, the personal representative of the Allison Estate. That prompted a response from a California attorney who had been newly engaged to defend our claim. He sent us the North Carolina title to establish the Allison ownership.
The title was odd. It was a very poor-quality copy, suggesting it may have not been made from the original. It misspelled Suttles’ name as “Settles.” It identified the make of car as Porsche, but there was no model number given. There was a “C” in the style box.
But it was the reverse side that raised the most concern. The first section, releasing the seller’s interest and identifying the buyer, was all typed. It named Allison as the buyer, but it did not name the seller. The seller’s signature was missing. Instead, “See — Power of Attorney” was handwritten on that line, and the seller’s address was typed in with the same typewriter. We asked for the power of attorney and were given a copy of Mrs. Suttles’ proof of court appointment, which was not the same thing at all. The typed date — 3/28/90 — matched the Allison story.
The next section, “First Re-Assignment of Title by Registered Dealer,” was filled in with the same typewriter, and essentially had Allison selling the car to himself on the same exact day. It was signed by Allison. However, the “reassignment” to himself made absolutely no sense.
Allison never titled the 904 in Kentucky, as required under Kentucky law. When asked why, the estate’s attorney claimed that Allison didn’t want to incur the sales tax. We all know that story, but it didn’t make any sense here, as he only paid $500 for the car.
We also learned that the 904 had been listed for sale with Heinz Heinrich, with whom Allison had a relationship before he died. Heinrich owns the 904 Store, claims to have handled “over 41 Porsche 904 GTS sales,” and claims to be “The expert on the Porsche 904 GTS…” Heinrich subcontracted the listing to Orimoto. That, of course, raised more concerns. Why would the expert on 904s subcontract this car to a Japanese dealer if it was an authentic car?
The estate pressed the significance of the Porsche Certificate of Authenticity, but that was meaningless. As all Porsche owners know, the CoA says nothing about the current condition of the car, and it does not say anything about ownership.
The attorney also pressed that Porsche had recognized Allison as the owner of 904054. Allison had contacted the factory and explained that he was restoring 904054 and needed a copy of the official blueprints for the 904 frame. Satisfied that Allison owned 904054, Porsche provided him with a copy of the blueprints. However, on close inspection, it appeared that Porsche based its conclusion on the North Carolina title.
North Carolina DMV
We had learned that one can pay $13 to the North Carolina DMV and get a complete copy of the title history of any car titled in North Carolina. We sent the North Carolina title to them and asked for the complete history. It took a while because the office was closed due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Eventually, we received a response from Robert Sawyer, State Law Enforcement Agent at the North Carolina DMV License & Theft Bureau. They were unable to locate the title we submitted to them. I called Sawyer to inquire further. “We can’t find any record of that title or that car. We think it’s a fraudulent title.”
Now we’ve got them!
To be continued next month. ♦
John Draneas is an attorney in Oregon. He can be reached through www.draneaslaw.com. His comments are general in nature and are not intended to substitute for consultation with an attorney.