Seventeen years have passed since Ray Lambrecht closed his Chevrolet dealership, a small-town operation with a big and valuable secret.
For decades, the owner of the Lambrecht Chevrolet Co. in Pierce, Neb., held on to new cars and trucks that didn't sell right away. He stashed them in warehouses, at his farm and in other spots around the town he worked in for 50 years.
Now, his automotive nest egg — about 500 vintage cars and trucks — will go on the auction block. This month, visitors from at least a dozen countries and throughout the U.S. will converge on the 1,800-resident town, or bid online.
To view or bid on the approximately 500 classic cars in the Sept. 28-29 auction, visit proxibid.com/vanderbrink.
The two-day auction will feature mostly unsold Chevrolets that have sat untouched for decades. They'll go on the block in as-is condition. About 50 have fewer than 20 miles on the odometer, and some are so rare that no one has established a price. The most valuable, including a rare Chevy Cameo pickup, could fetch six-figure bids from collectors who view them as works of art to display or as restoration projects.
"To find this many new, old vehicles is unheard of," says Yvette VanDerBrink, the auctioneer coordinating the event. "It's like a white buffalo."
Preparations for the auction began in June, and VanDerBrink has taken calls from as far as Iceland, Singapore and Brazil. The two least-driven cars, a 1959 Bel Air and a 1960 Corvair Monza, each have 1 mile on their odometer. The oldest vehicle with fewer than 20 miles dates to 1958; the newest is a 1980 Monza with nine miles.
On a recent afternoon, VanDerBrink stepped over hubcaps and engine parts in the cramped, dust-caked dealership that closed in 1996. In the corner sat the sky-blue 1958 Cameo with 1.3 miles, a cracked windshield and a dented roof — but its interior is unblemished.
Nearby, a red-and-white 1963 Impala waits with 11.4 miles logged. Manufacturer's plastic covers the seats. The car was never titled. A yellowed, typewritten window sticker touts its original price: $3,254.70.
Lambrecht opened the downtown dealership with his uncle in 1946. He rarely sold cars or pickups that were more than a year old, and he used holdover models as a kind of rainy-day fund. Unlike most dealers, who lowered prices to move out-of-date inventory, he assumed the older cars would appreciate over time.
"I believe that Dad's sales approach reflected his personal style," says Lambrecht's daughter, Jeannie Stillwell. "He is a very honest, straightforward man who was focused on giving his customers the best price right from the start. Negotiating over price was a waste of time, and so that element of the sale was eliminated."
The most valuable vehicles were stored for decades at a nearby warehouse, until a heavy snow collapsed the roof. Some were damaged, but many were saved and moved elsewhere. And the models at the dealership are among the best preserved, even as the building gave way to bats and holes in the roof.
The rest of the cars sat under trees at a nearby farm the Lambrechts owned, in the company of trade-in vehicles he didn't want to resell. Years passed, and trees started to poke through fenders and rusted pickup beds. The dealership's longtime mechanic lived on the farm, but when he died, his family moved away. Vandals and thieves pounced.
Lambrecht and his wife, Mildred, retired in 1996. Ray, 95, and Mildred, 92, live in town, but their health has declined. They decided to sell the collection so others could enjoy the cars and pickups.
News of the auction enthralled the vintage car community, where rumors have swirled for years about a quirky Nebraska dealer who held on to his old vehicles. Nowadays, most classic cars have new paint jobs, interiors and engines. A true "survivor" has most, if not all, of its original material.
"This kind of stuff is absolutely the rarest of the rare," says Mark Gessler, president of the Historic Vehicle Association in Gaithersburg, Md. "You can see plenty of cars that have been restored. We want to ensure that we're celebrating the original craftsmanship, the original technique. It's a touchstone of our past."