Gables Philanthropist Bill Bonn is on to his 40th Vintage Car, Mementos from His Youth in the ’50s and ’60s
The first vintage car that Bill Bonn collected was a 1981 Rolls Royce Convertible, a classic cognac-colored beauty that he acquired in 2002, the same year that he settled in Coral Gables. A corporate general counsel who had worked and lived in the northeast, mostly in Boston, Bonn had purchased and restored the historic home of Claude Pepper, the former senator, congressman and ally of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, who passed away in 1989.
That 1920s manse on Alhambra Circle, where Eleanor Roosevelt visited each winter after FDR died, was the first place Bonn kept his collectible cars. Flash forward to today, when Bonn’s expanded collection of 40 vehicles is kept mostly on two floors of a Gables high-rise parking garage. They span from the 1930s to the 1970s, but most are focused on the 1950s and 1960s, when Bonn was growing up.
“I was born in ’51, so I remember a lot of them. They were all bought because I remember a family member having one, or a neighbor having one,” says Bonn. “As a boy I spent my money on car magazines instead of girlie magazines. I wasn’t interested in vintage cars, but the car du jour.”
Among his favorites are the 1955 Hudson that belonged to the legendary Hollywood gossip columnist Hedda Hopper. It has 21,000 original miles. “She used to cruise around gathering gossip in this car,” says Bonn. “She ordered the car and George Romney [the CEO of AMC, which bought Hudson, and father of Utah Sen. Mitt Romney] named it the Hollywood Hornet.” With a powerful V-8 engine, its tan original colors are vibrant, and the white wall tires are, well, really white walls.
Hudson has since gone out of business, as have several of the car makers whose models Bonn collects, like Packard and Studebaker. He calls them “orphan cars” and they are particularly prized possessions; unlike his old Fords and Chevrolets, the orphan autos are harder to keep pristine because their parts are no longer made. “I have a Packard and three Hudsons and five Studebakers, and so to me, preserving these is more challenging than preserving the Lincolns and Fords. It’s easy to get parts for those.”
Bonn takes his role as a curator of antique autos seriously, seeing himself as a kind of historical caretaker. “It’s all about history,” he says. “They are rolling works of art.” But, he says, “They are also machinery. And if you don’t use them, they could have problems with the fuel lines and the transmissions and so forth…”
And there comes the fun part, that his collection of cars has to be driven a few miles here and a few miles there, with some regularity, in order to stay in good shape. “I like to drive two or three of them a day, maybe over to the Riviera Country Club. But they need to be driven more often than that,” he says. Which is why Bonn has a full-time assistant, Kanen Moffett, a car enthusiast he hired seven years ago when the collection became more than Bonn could handle on his own. “He gasses them up and drives them around town,” says Bonn. He also tracks down rare parts and repairs them when the cars break down, as they often do. “I was a small engine guy to start, very mechanical,” says Moffett, who lives in the Gables to be near the collection. “I work a regular 40-hour week, maintaining the cars and kind of helping Bill with everything, as far as his car habit is concerned.”
That habit is to collect cars at the rate of about two a year, in a process that is far from random. Bonn has a strict set of criteria, beyond the years and models that he focuses on. “I like low mileage, original cars, because these are the ones where you are really preserving history.” And that means the original paint and the original interiors. He especially likes brightly colored cars, as distinct from the monotones that have come to dominate the auto palette today.
“It’s only been the last couple of years that we have stopped seeing just white, grey, black, and beige. Now we are seeing orange, green, and red coming back,” says Bonn. “But take my ’56 Chevy Bel Air. It’s chartreuse and pea green, and those are the original colors on that puppy.”
Because Bonn’s criteria for collecting is so precise his acquisitions are not frequent; each comes with a story that Bonn relishes, along with a history of the vehicle, and his personal connection to it. “By and large I’ve never bought anything at an auction,” says Bonn. “I tend to buy from other friends that I’ve made over the years collecting, or friend of friends, or I will see something by chance.”
The result is a collection that includes a 1936 Hudson Terraplane, a 1950 Nash Statesman Airflyte, a 1956 Cadillac Fleetwood, a 1956 Oldsmobile 88, a 1964 Studebaker Avanti, a 1970 AMC Javelin, and a 1974 AMC Matador – a bright yellow dagger-shaped car that he bought for his husband, Ruben – along with another three dozen collectibles.
His favorite procurement story is that of his 1949 Willys Jeepster, a car he first rode in with a “drinking buddy” of his dad, who drove Bonn and his siblings to the beach in it. He found it on eBay and bought it from a man who had purchased it from a plumbing contractor in Philadelphia – who turned out to be his dad’s old friend. Some of Bonn’s best acquisitions “have truly been from word of mouth, even though that sounds weird in this day of the internet.” A perfect example, he says was his purchase of a 1957 Nash Ambassador, in its original pink. “I have friends of my mine across the country who are fans of orphan cars. I have a good friend, who was at an enormous car show in Hershey, Pennsylvania. I asked if he had seen anything. He happened to have taken a picture of that Nash.” In the picture you could see a phone number on the windshield. “I called the owner, who lived eight to 10 miles outside of Hershey. I ended up buying it for $18,000.” Today it’s worth somewhere between $50,000 and $100,000.
But value is not Bonn’s focus. He says that a lot of vintage American cars can be purchased for between $10,000 and $30,000, though when it comes to the really rare models, prices can spike into the hundreds of thousands. He himself rarely sells any vehicles from his collection, and only if he is “not as impressed with the car” as he thought he would be. “I should sell more, but I can’t. I just love them.”
Part of that love is shared with the community. Bonn is the go-to guy when a vintage car is needed for a charitable event (he was an active board member of the Coral Gables Community Foundation, and supports the Coral Gables Museum and other local organizations). His 1936 Hudson Terraplane and his 1937 Cord Cabriolet were both on display at the Museum’s “Party Like It’s 1939” gala last year, for example. He is also recognized when he drives his vintage cars around town. When he parked his 1964 futuristic-looking Studebaker Avanti at the Riviera Country Club a few months ago, it drew a crowd. “There were a whole bunch of young people out there taking pictures, saying, ‘Is this the new BMW or what?’ They thought it was a new design.”
When Bonn’s cars were photographed in the middle swale of Alhambra Circle for this feature, it caused a minor traffic jam, with people slowing down to look at the cars and to shout out a hello to Bonn. “They are rolling works of art, and a part of history,” says collector Bonn. “It’s not an inexpensive hobby, but it’s a lot of fun.”