The ringmen worked this sale hard, and at its dramatic conclusion the owners were high-fiving as though they’d just won the lottery

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The Zephyr Street Rod on offer here is one of the most famous street rods ever created. This custom, all-steel Lincoln Zephyr three-window coupe was nationally selected by Goodguys and judged winner of “America’s Most Beautiful” Street Rod award.

Designed and built by America’s top street rod professionals, no expense was spared. The car comes equipped with air-ride TCI suspension, rack-and-pinion steering, air conditioning, C-4 automatic transmission, and an imported leather interior. It features a custom-built Lincoln V12 engine by Dave Tatom using rare, “one-of-a-kind” speed equipment.

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Detailing

Vehicle:1938 Lincoln Zephyr Street Rod

This 1938 Lincoln Zephyr sold for $432,000 at Barrett-Jackson’s Scottsdale auction, held on Jan. 22-25, 2004, and was the top sale of the event.

Inspired by Terry Cook’s chopped and radically lowered Lincoln Zephyr custom coupe, known as “Scrape,” Mike Shiflett of Otis Orchard, WA, began looking for an example that he could build into a street rod. Shiflett found this ’38 coupe in stock condition, drove it for six months, then took it apart and began working with Tim Stromberger of Tim’s Hot Rods in Spokane Valley, WA, to rebuild the car into a custom.

They picked a great place to start. Zephyr coupes are the zenith of art-deco styling. Considered attractive by rodders and restorers alike, the ’38 is one of the nicest because of its smartly vee-ed grille. Riding on a stylishly long 125-inch wheelbase, with a flowing roofline and handsome pontoon fenders, and packing a single-carbureted, 267-cid flathead V12, Zephyrs are semi-classics. They looked great the way they were, and as such, were never really hot-rodded in period.

Perhaps one reason was the anemic stock engine, really a flathead Ford V8 with four extra cylinders. It often suffered from overheating and fuel starvation, and in the rare instances where a Zephyr was redone, the V12 was usually dumped in favor of a hot-rodded Ford or Mercury flathead, or even more popularly, a Cadillac or Oldsmobile overhead-valve V8.

But in this car, the Lincoln engine is the piece de resistance. Instead of a ubiquitous 350-ci Chevy, it carries a real Zephyr V12, albeit one that was hot-rodded, by Dave Tatom of Mt. Vernon, WA. He installed a custom-made, highly polished three-carburetor intake with triple Holley 92-series carbs, along with a set of polished, finned high-compression heads. A custom set of exhaust headers dumping into a pair of glasspack mufflers rumbles with a nasty little rap when the engine is revved. The born-again engine makes a dyno-proven 178 hp (vs. a rated 110 hp stock). Altogether an impressive feat, considering that back in the late 1940s, about the only speed equipment available for these engines was a now-rare dual intake manifold (both Edelbrock and Edmunds made one) or an Iskenderian 3/4-race camshaft.

The 1938 Zephyr Street Rod debuted at the 2001 Spokane Auto, Boat and Speed Show, and was seen again at the Oakland Rod, Custom and Motorcycle Show. It won awards at both venues. I saw it at Oakland in 2002 and was impressed with the way the original car’s already great proportions had been improved on. Build quality was excellent and the car was imaginative and truly unique; retaining the original Lincoln V12 was a distinctive plus.

As noted in the auction catalog, the Zephyr went on to win the Goodguys Rod & Custom Association “America’s Most Beautiful Street Rod” award at the 16th West Coast Nationals in Pleasanton, CA, in 2002. Shiflett showed the 1938 Zephyr a few more times, then sold it to Rick Cooper (Coronado Classics) and Dennis LeKander (Idaho Auto Company). Initially, Shiflett had planned to have them take the car to Barrett-Jackson on his behalf, and sell it on commission. He changed his mind, apparently because he was apprehensive about a no-reserve offering. “We thought the workmanship was excellent, and we felt fortunate to be able to get this car,” LeKander told me.

Spreading their risk, the buyers offered shares to a consortium of four friends, and, as part of a comprehensive plan to publicize the sale, displayed the Zephyr again, at a November 2003 Goodguys event in Arizona. After considerable promotion by the buyers and Barrett-Jackson, the custom Zephyr was offered in prime time on the Speed Channel, where it sold for an astonishing $432,000-the highest known price ever paid for a street rod or custom car. The ringmen worked this sale hard, and at its dramatic conclusion, several of the owners were seen high-fiving on the platform as though they’d just won the lottery. And perhaps they did.

The closest comparable to this car is arguably its inspiration, Scrape, which was purchased by the Petersen Automotive Museum for $275,000 at the 2000 RM Auction in Monterey, CA. At the time, we reasoned that Scrape had benefited from extensive publicity, that it was one of the definitive custom cars of the 1990s, and that it would make a unique, attention-getting display for the Petersen.

Another similar custom was “Sniper,” a Viper V10-powered ’54 Plymouth created by Troy Trepanier for George Poteet, which sold for $162,000 two years ago. That car also won the Goodguys National title. Poteet undoubtedly spent a great deal more than that to have the car built, though he wasn’t disappointed. “When was the last time anybody got that much money for a ’54 Plymouth?” he joked after the sale.

True, when extensively customized cars like this one are sold, especially if they are only a few years old, it’s uncommon for builders to receive sums equal to or even close to the construction cost. We estimate the cost to build the Shiflett Zephyr in the $200,000-plus range. The owners thought the car might sell for more than $300k, but were surprised (and delighted) to see it go so high. The promotion and television influence was certainly a huge factor in the price, but many high-roller collectors I’ve talked with felt this custom Zephyr was actually worth the money, including one bidder who dropped out at $395,000. Remember, several others chased the buyer right up the scale.

Still, this price is an abnormally high figure. While this Zephyr did win a few significant show titles, it did not win the Detroit Autorama Riddler Award, generally considered the most significant prize in hot rodding. Billing as “one of the most famous street rods ever created” is hyperbole of the first order. The car does represent a fine Pacific Northwest effort, and while its builders are certainly talented, they are not as well known as customizers like Chip Foose, Steve Moal, Boyd Coddington or Troy Trepanier.

So if I were you, I wouldn’t be planning on searching out a Lincoln Zephyr to customize and expecting to rake in a multiple six-figure sum. This result is one that won’t soon be repeated.-Ken Gross

(Photos and historical information courtesy of the auction company, Goodguys Rod & Custom Association, and the Lincoln-Zephyr Owners’ Club, along with references from the author’s collection of books and magazines, with thanks to Rick Cooper and Dennis LeKander.)

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