Monterey Car Week is the closest we get to automotive nirvana. We have grown accustomed to the week’s three major problems: finding acceptable accommodations, finding enough time to do everything we want to do, and getting decent dinner reservations. This year, for the first time, another problem manifested itself — car thieves have discovered Monterey.
Four collector cars were stolen during the weekend: two from Mecum, one from Russo and Steele, and one from a bed-and-breakfast parking lot in Pacific Grove. Coincidentally or ominously — we can’t tell which — they were all Chevrolets.
A red, restored 1962 Corvette was stolen from a Pacific Grove bed-and-breakfast parking lot. The owner reported that he had taken the car when he went out to dinner. He returned to the B&B at 8:30 p.m. He worked pretty hard to park it in a small stall he had been using next to the building, where it was not visible from the main street and only slightly visible from the side street. He didn’t have any worries about the Corvette, as Pacific Grove is an extremely quiet small town with no theft concerns, and the car was pretty well hidden away.
About 9:30 pm, another B&B guest who had gotten to know the owner returned from dinner, saw the owner, and asked where the Corvette was. Not having heard the car start, the owner figured the thieves pushed it out of the small tight parking lot and several blocks down the street toward the ocean before starting it. There were eight people eating dinner within 20 feet of the car, but none of them noticed anything.
Two cars were stolen from the Mecum lot at the Hyatt Regency on Del Monte Golf Course. The cars were a 1961 Chevy Impala resto-mod and a single-owner 1957 Bel Air that was unrestored and had been stored for the past 42 years. Both had failed to sell in the auction and were stored in the secure Mecum parking lot when they disappeared. “Legal Files” was unable to obtain additional information.
Sophisticated theft at Russo
In what seems to be a theft we could have seen in a movie, a 1961 Impala SS 409 convertible was stolen from the Russo and Steele parking lot at Monterey’s Fisherman’s Wharf. The Impala was described as the only all-correct matching-numbers example known to exist.
The Impala failed to sell at a high bid of $150,000. It was then parked in the secure parking lot along with another 275 cars — right next to a 166 MM Ferrari. The Russo parking lot is located within a municipal parking lot at Fisherman’s Wharf. The Russo lot is fully fenced with temporary chain-link fencing and is patrolled 24 hours per day.
The thieves took advantage of — or perhaps orchestrated — an altercation outside the other side of the lot between a very drunk antagonist and a passerby, which drew all of the Russo security guards to that end of the lot for a few minutes.
While the guards were occupied, the thieves took apart a section of the fence to get in, then replaced it to avoid detection. They hotwired the Impala and drove it out of the lot. They apparently knew that there were security cameras at the exit of the municipal lot that were trained on the driver’s side of cars exiting the lot. So they drove very wide at the exit, leaving the camera to photograph only the empty passenger’s seat.
In a huge surprise, the ’62 Corvette was recovered about two weeks later. A resident of San Jose (about 80 miles away) became suspicious when he noticed the Corvette parked near his house for about a week. He called his car-guy nephew, who had followed the Internet reports about the theft.
At about 8 p.m., the nephew called the Corvette’s owner, who immediately hooked up his trailer and drove from the Sacramento area to San Jose, picking up the Corvette at about 2 a.m. The Corvette looked like it had been ridden hard and put away wet, with lots of dirt and scratches, but it was otherwise in good condition, except for the missing hard top.
What were they thinking?
You just gotta love the Internet. Internet reports and chat boards boiled and bubbled about the thieves’ motivations. The most popular theory was that, as this happened in California, the cars were already on a ship to be delivered to wealthy foreign collectors who didn’t care about their nefarious history. But that isn’t very plausible, as cars can’t be exported without title documentation, and making up phony titles and altering VINs would take quite a bit of time.
The next-most-popular theory was that the cars were stolen for their parts and would be promptly dismantled. While that no doubt happens, it doesn’t make sense that it happened with these cars.
Take the ’61 Impala, for example. It was billed as having all-original parts, which certainly makes it rather unique. However, the value to all of those original parts is that they are all installed in the original car. Take them out of that Impala, and they become nothing more than used parts of no special value, hardly worth going through all the trouble to steal these cars from secure auction lots in such a public setting.
Many observers noted the fact that all three auction cars were no-sales, and some suggested that the owners should be suspected. That doesn’t explain the ’62 Corvette, but it’s also a big stretch with the auction cars. A different person owned each car. The odds seem near impossible that three separate owners all came up with the same idea, with two of them perhaps bumping into each other while “stealing” their cars in the same parking lot.
Interestingly, none of these theories explains the Corvette, which now appears to have been stolen for an old-fashioned joy ride.
Auction house responsibility
Many online comments centered on the culpability of the auction companies. “Legal Files” loved the syrupy romantic reference to auctions as “sacred sites where car lovers come to make their dreams come true,” the seemingly simple logic that, if the cars got stolen, then the “secure” lots were definitely not secure, and the total confidence that the auction companies are fully responsible for the loss of these cars. All of these comments are, to use an old legal phrase, pure “poppycock.”
The law requires only that the auction company take reasonable care to protect the cars from damage or theft. The key word here is “reasonable,” which is a relatively low-standard term. It is not an absolute guarantee that no loss will be suffered. After all, the auction company is not an insurance company. Looking back at the description of the Russo and Steele parking lot, it looks like they made a pretty good effort to protect the cars. What more could they have done? Put an armed guard inside each of the 275 cars?
There is also the practical point to make — all of these owners will file claims with their insurance companies, which will cover the losses. It will then be up to the insurance companies to decide whether it is worth their effort to try to recoup their payments from the auction companies. The owners may never even know what happens in that regard.
Readers will no doubt wonder if these are just isolated incidents or if car thieves have now discovered the collector-car world. That is a fair question, but only time will be able to answer it.
In the meantime, this is a great reminder that we should make sure that our car insurance is current. Most importantly, we should be sure that our cars are insured with appropriate agreed values to fully protect against loss.
Take the ’61 Impala, for example. Numerous press reports stated that it was worth $220,000, but it was a no-sale at $150,000 bid at one of the premier auctions in the country. That opens up plenty of room for a spirited debate with a claims adjuster — if you have a traditional actual-loss policy.
The same could be expected with the ’57 Bel Air. Its one-owner, unrestored status adds tremendous value, but an insurance adjuster could easily think that it wasn’t clean and shiny enough to be worth much.
Owners of such cars can easily find themselves behind the times in another way. Unrestored cars have risen in value dramatically in the past few years, and agreed values set even just a year ago can be well under the current market. Readers should review their agreed values regularly, as they can’t argue for higher coverage after a loss occurs.
Finally, I long ago learned an old racing saying: Never put a car on the track if you aren’t willing to walk away from it. Every time you race, you are taking the risk that the car might be destroyed in an uninsured racetrack crash. We should all bear in mind that some of that perspective also applies on the street.
We don’t live in a risk-free world. Every time you take your car out of the garage, you take the risk that it might be damaged, destroyed or stolen. We must accept that simple reality. All we can do is keep them fully insured, be as careful as we can, and do the best we can and move on when the unthinkable happens.
Or we can just never take them out of the garage, which would be the bigger tragedy. ?
John Draneas is an attorney in Oregon. His comments are general in nature and are not intended to substitute for consultation with an attorney. He can be reached through www.draneaslaw.com.