This car appeared on the grid at the 1952 Eifelrennen at the famous Nürburgring complex in Germany. It finished 5th, in the middle of a collection of BMW-powered race cars. This is a unique opportunity to own a contemporary racer to the Veritas racer — and at a comparably bargain price.
This example is a “one-off,” totally unique, hand-built race car; the only example extant. The bodywork on the “Wagner Special” was fashioned from surplus U.S. aircraft wing-tanks; the car was built at Honoré Wagner’s uncle’s workshop in Luxembourg. With a clear history, this is a great opportunity for a vintage race collector or enthusiast.
|Original List Price:
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|Boss on side of block
This car, Lot 2299, sold for $177,100, including buyer’s premium, at the Auctions America by RM Bennett Collection Auction in Rollinsford, NH, on September 21, 2012.
A couple of issues back, I suggested that it would be useful to think of a pre-war Maserati in terms of a real estate analogy. I wrote that the car was a little-understood — and thus inexpensive and undervalued — property in a very expensive neighborhood.
Today, I would like to go back to a somewhat different real estate analogy: Think of Europe in the early post-war years as a single city — the entire place had been traumatized, but some blocks had fared better than others.
The racing cars they produced reflected it. Although Britain was virtually bankrupted during World War II, the country’s industrial base was largely intact, so they were able to start building a few cars, with Allard, Jaguar, and Aston Martin at the forefront. Italy and France were the best off of the continental European countries, and they got back into the racing business with enthusiasm in the late 1940s, but their stuff was expensive. Talbot Lago got going again, Maserati was building its A6 by 1947, Alfa Romeo dusted off its pre-war 158 “Alfetta” racers, and a guy named Enzo somebody started a small company with high expectations.
Racing from scratch
Central Europe — particularly Germany — was absolutely devastated, and the Marshall Plan money that eventually spurred the economic recovery was just starting to arrive. They had no factories left, no foundries, no machine tools, little fuel, and no money, but the desire to go racing was as strong as ever. The challenge was how to fulfill it. Where there is a will, there is a way, and the immediate mechanism in that area was to create racers from what was available to scrounge.
The late pre-war years had pretty much put the final nails in the coffin of big, heavy cars trying to be racers, with 8C Alfas leading the way toward light-and-nimble as the new paradigm, but this created a problem for would-be racers trying to find a suitable engine to use. Most everything left around was heavy, clumsy, and slow.
Enter the BMW 328
The exception was the BMW 328. In 1936, BMW introduced their model 328, which has been called the only true pre-war German sports car. It was a revolutionary design utilizing a tubular frame, relatively sophisticated suspension, and a light, 2-liter, 6-cylinder engine that managed to incorporate hemispherical combustion chambers into a pushrod design. The 328 was an immediate success both in racing and as a light, sporting road car, but fewer than 500 had been produced when the war stopped things. An ironic detail managed to save many of the cars through the years of World War II. While the 328 would have been a highly desirable car to be requisitioned for the war effort, the engine required high-octane fuel that simply wasn’t available, so most 328s sat out the war on blocks.
With the peace and reconstruction, good fuel was still hard to find, roads were a mess, and money was tight, so sporting cars like 328s were relatively easy to find as cores for those few interested in building racers. Several unemployed ex-BMW racing engineers created the Veritas company, and they kept busy into the early 1950s refurbishing old 328s and putting aerodynamically modern bodywork on them to feed the developing (although still tiny) market for racing cars. They were still expensive and rare (Veritas built about 75 cars between 1948 and 1952), so many would-be racers went to the fall-back option: They built their own.
A one-off, garage-built racer
Honoré Wagner was a Luxembourg native who came out of the war in his mid-20s with a taste for adventure and apparently an adequate pocketbook to indulge it. He got his pilot’s license in 1947 and promptly set the Luxembourg single-engine altitude record in 1948. That same year, he started auto racing, placing 3rd in class and 6th overall at Monthléry in a BMW 328.
Apparently forsaking aviation for the joys of motor racing and either tiring of — or possibly destroying — his 328, he constructed a racing special using a 328 engine and transmission at his family’s garage business in Luxembourg. It appears to have been completed in 1950, and he raced it at least through the 1952 Eifelrennen race (a support race for the German Grand Prix held at the Nürburgring). Wagner appears to have continued on as an amateur racer until he died in an accident racing an Alfa TZ at Nürburgring in 1965.
At this point, I have told you pretty much everything that I can say with confidence about the subject car. It was sold by Auctions America, which is sort of the budget-level subsidiary of RM, and the catalog description printed at the top of this profile is literally everything that was published in support of the sale, so there are a number of important issues left open. That the body was built using an aircraft wing tank as a starting point is probably credible — they were certainly available then and the shape is about right — but what is really underneath it? Is it a BMW 328 with a special body or is it a homebuilt with a 328 engine and transmission? This has a lot to do with who might want it and why — not to mention what it might be worth.
A little home cooking
The Internet and a little perseverance can be a wonderful thing when it comes to pursuing things like this, and I managed to find photographs of the car with its body off. It is immediately evident that it is a homebuilt chassis: It is a large-diameter tubular ladder chassis, and the front suspension is unknown but definitely not the transverse leaf system that BMW used (one blogger mentioned Fiat). The rear is a live axle shackled to leaf springs on either side, which doesn’t suggest factory-level design or sophistication, and there isn’t much else to work from.
My brief as a writer for SCM is generally to discuss what makes my subject car du jour interesting and to try to approach the underlying issues of value in the current market. The Wagner Special is particularly challenging in this regard.
It was clearly never represented as anything more than a “totally hand-built” race car with a 328 engine, but it was also suggested that it was comparable to a Veritas. A good Veritas is worth well over $750k these days, so if true, this car should carry substantial value. There is little reason to question the history or authenticity of the car, even though the “clear history” includes a roughly 30-year gap — it’s not the kind of thing that anyone is likely to invent — but the question remains whether racing against a Veritas in 1952 makes it comparable. The BMW 328 and the Veritas adaptations were legendary and carry substantial collector value because they were fantastic cars in their time. Their engineering, design, and construction set the standards that racing cars following them had to meet or exceed. They are historically and technically significant steps in the evolution of the modern racing automobile.
I have to admit that I have my doubts about the Wagner Special. It is a pretty little thing, and is a “real” old racing car from Europe in the early ’50s. As such, it is likely to be welcome virtually anywhere its new owner wants to take it. It is most likely tractable to drive (in an early 1950s kind of way) and Bristol built the engine well into the 1960s, so parts aren’t a problem — nor is horsepower if you want to hot-rod things — so it has its attributes. The problem has to do with value: it is a one-off 1950 homebuilt — not an icon — so it’s a tool to use, not a collectible, and $177k seems to me to be an awful lot for that. I suggest that it was better sold than bought. ?
(Introductory description courtesy of Auctions America by RM).