Don Coffman broke the news to his wife by telling her he had bought a German convertible.
Technically, it was not a lie: The vehicle was German, and it did have a folding top, but it was not the sporty ride she probably had in mind. Instead, it was a 1941 Volkswagen Kubelwagen Type 82, the first acquisition in a collection of war materiel begun 10 years ago by Coffman, a refrigeration service technician from Marengo, Ill.
A predecessor of sorts to the rustic Volkswagen Thing sold briefly in the United States in the 1970s, the Type 82 served as Nazi Germany's version of the military jeep. Today, such war machines have become highly collectible.
"I bought it for $16,000," said Coffman, 40, as he scouted for potential purchases at a recent auction of World War II-era vehicles from the collection of the National Military History Center in Auburn, Ind. "If I went to sell it today, it would be about $60,000."
The draw of military machines cuts across a surprisingly wide spectrum of auto enthusiasts.
"I'm geared differently," explained Coffman, who owns German vehicles, equipment, weapons and other Axis memorabilia that he uses for battle re-enactments. "If it's not camouflaged, I don't want it."
More than 350 spectators and registered bidders from 19 countries turned out in person, on the telephone and by the Internet for the no-reserve auction conducted at the museum by Auctions America. In addition to 82 World War II-era vehicles — still in their museum displays and many fitted with guns that had been made inoperable — the auction also included 100 lots of uniforms, mess kits, tools and other items.
"This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity," Coffman said.
Just before the sale started, auctioneers reminded bidders that they would need to pass a background check and possibly obtain special permits from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives before they would be allowed to remove some of the items. Spirited bidding erupted. Richard D. Waistell, an engineer from Berkshire, England, came looking for good examples of British vehicles to add to his collection, which includes a 1919 steam-traction engine, a 1957 Land Rover ambulance and a 1954 Bedford fire engine.
"It's a good way of investing money because these vehicles always go up in value," said Waistell, 69. "But it's not done for the money, it's done for the enjoyment."
After carefully inspecting several lots, Waistell made winning bids on six lots: a 1940 Ariel W/NG motorcycle, 1944 GMC CCKW air-compressor truck, 1944 Standard utility car, 1940 Loyd full-track carrier, 1940 Morris truck and 1942 Velocette MAF motorcycle.
"The idea is, my sons and I will restore them, get them up and running again and exhibit them in rallies in the U.K.," Waistell said.
The sale offered enthusiasts vehicles ranging in price from a few thousand to hundreds of thousands of dollars. For example, Waistell picked up the Ariel motorcycle for $7,130, including a 15 percent buyer's premium, while another bidder bought a rare Daimler-Benz DB10 12-ton halftrack prime mover for $230,000. The sale included trucks and tracked machinery bearing such marques as Citroen, Diamond T, Fiat, Hotchkiss, Humber, Indian, Opel, Steyr and Zundapp.
Previewing the auction lots, Frank Depoutot, 55, a mechanic in St. Louis, paused to marvel at a 1942 Harley-Davidson 42XA, a motorcycle that was reverse-engineered from German BMWs. It was built with a horizontally opposed two-cylinder engine rather than Harley's typical V-twin.
"I've never touched one," he said. "I'd love to get my grubby little mechanic hands on it." Harley made only about 1,000 examples of the bike, which was available only to the military. This one sold for $46,000.
Eric Kauffmann, 45, who operates a private war museum near Strasbourg, France, came to bid on pieces for his collection of 150 war vehicles.
"The difficult ones to find are the German and the French — even in Europe," he said.
Finding parts for such machines can be equally challenging, hobbyists said. Randy and Shane Harnish, a father-and-son team from Bluffton, Ind., restore vintage Army jeeps and fabricate replica guns for vintage military vehicles. They spent a good deal of time inspecting a 1944 White M16 halftrack to gauge its completeness.
Still equipped with two of its original four .50 caliber M2 Browning machine guns mounted on an M45 Maxson turret, the Meat Chopper, as the anti-aircraft truck was commonly called, sold for $109,250; the price handily exceeded the pre-auction estimate. Similarly, a GMC DUKW, an amphibious machine equipped with both six-wheel drive and a propeller, soared past its estimate, selling for $111,550.
"My biggest mistake 15 years ago was not buying everything I could get my hands on," said Randy Harnish, 64. "A nice restored World War II Jeep 15 years ago was $7,000, and today that same one would bring $20,000."
Some collectors said they use their vehicles for educational purposes — to help veterans open up.
"We're into historical preservation," said Fred N. Ropkey, a charter member of the Military Vehicle Preservation Association who owns a tank museum in Crawfordsville, Ind. Veterans, he explained, "need to have an outlet for the emotions that they were not able to release for so long." Though Axis equipment, flags and other items are important artifacts of World War II history, displaying swastikas and similar symbols can be touchy.
"We just can't put them up," said Ropkey, 83, speaking of some German flags in his collection. "The ones that we will put up are signed by the crews that captured them. Then, it becomes a thing of pride."
Officials with the Auburn museum, which opened in 2003, said they planned to apply the event's proceeds toward a $2.9 million debt left from the construction of a museum building that never opened.
"The other building was foreclosed, and it left us with a very large mortgage," said Tamara Hantz, the operations manager of the military museum. "That is what inspired the auction."
The military museum's collection was originally bought by Dean Kruse in Messancy, Belgium, in 1999 and brought to Auburn. Kruse, the former classic-car auctioneer whose annual Labor Day sale was once billed as the largest collector-car auction in the world, established a foundation, donating the collection and building a 200,000 square-foot building to display it and other vintage vehicles.
While Kruse continues as a member of the foundation's board of directors, he no longer operates an auction business. In 2010, the Indiana Auctioneer Commission stripped him of his auction license after complaints that he had not paid consignors for sales; at the time, Kruse countered that buyers had not paid him.
He subsequently sold his 235-acre Auburn, Ind., auction park, located near the military museum, to RM Auctions, based in Canada. RM used the new location to establish its U.S. subsidiary, Auctions America.
This sale, which raised $2.9 million, will help make room for new exhibits for the museum. Plans include eventually expanding the facility to cover other U.S. wars, Hantz said.
"We literally have storage rooms with thousands and thousands of pieces of memorabilia and artifacts," she said, adding that more vehicles, including a Korean War personnel carrier, were waiting in the wings. "Unfortunately I can't go get it because I have nowhere to put it."
Still, the thought of letting go of so many vehicles was not easy, Hantz said. The museum gave winning bidders the option to keep vehicles here on loan or to donate them back to the facility. According to Hantz, the museum would continue to display at least 31 pieces in its collection.
"It's kind of a bittersweet day today," Hantz said at the auction. "I think the reality will hit when they start leaving out the back door."
For a certain breed of collectors, a brass-era classic or a booming muscle car just doesn't match the appeal of owning a machine that wears authentic battle scars.
Restoring tanks, trucks, motorcycles and other war machines to their former glory provides special challenges for hobbyists as well as sentimental journeys for war veterans and history lessons for the public who get to see them.