A little red rocket roars along the county roads that cut through the sprawling farms outside this southwestern Ontario hamlet. It's kicking up quite a cloud of dust.
With his grey mane whipping wildly behind the tiny windshield and a sparkle in his eyes – obvious despite dark sunglasses – Rob Myers muscles his 1963 Shelby 289 Cobra into third as it rolls up the base of a highway overpass. The racer digs in and responds with gusto; the needle on its vintage speedometer makes a grin-inducing swing past the 80-mph mark.
"Don't worry," Myers shouts over the noise of rushing wind. "I know most of the cops around here."
Doubtless the reverse is also true. Born in Chatham, Ont., Myers, at 58, has built himself into one of the most successful businessmen in the history of the town, which markets itself as the "Classic Car Capital of Canada." Credit for providing that inspiration goes to Myers and the global car restoration and auction empire that bears his moniker.
Anchored by its nondescript headquarters just off the highway in rural Blenheim, RM Group of Companies has morphed into an international behemoth in the collectible car world. Led by prestige auction arm RM Auctions, the company posted record successes last year, generating a world-leading $442-million (U.S.) in global auction sales (RM's sales in 1994, as a point of contrast, were about $20-million).
Of the nearly 4,000 cars sold in 2013, 78 vehicles registered a hammer price of more than $1-million and three went for more than $10-million. One car, the rare 1967 Ferrari 275 GTB/4*S N.A.R.T. Spider sold at Monterey for $27.5-million, claiming title as the most valuable road-going car sold at auction to date.
This year, the company celebrates its 35th anniversary: eight marquee events are scheduled across four countries, including prestigious auctions in Monaco, Paris and Monterey, Calif. Buyers, able to participate via Internet streaming, will register from around the world; the RM Group will pocket 15 to 20 per cent cut of the spoils.
The company has come a long way since Myers, who calls himself "uneducated" for having left school after Grade 10, opened his one-man, single-car garage restoration business in 1976. Backed by partners, Dan Warrener and Mike Fairbairn, both of whom joined Myers in the late 1980s, the company broke into the auction world in 1992 and has been smashing records since.
But as the scion tells it, things are just now starting to heat up.
"Our niche in this business has just exploded. Everybody is saying: 'I better buy some of these cars, they're great investments.' And they are," Myers says, citing a competitor's recent sale of a Lamborghini Countach for $1.2-million. "Five years ago, that wouldn't have brought in $300,000.
"These things have become very fashionable. If you look at what modern art has done in the last 25 years and the value modern art has gained, these cars are the same way. And there are only a limited number."
"There are way more buyers than there are sellers," Myers said. "The biggest hurdle in our business is getting enough … great product. Undiscovered barn finds of something very valuable that you can do a restoration on … it's all been unearthed." For now, RM's supply has and will continue to be bolstered by estate auctions as elderly clients, many of whom have been assembling collections since RM opened its doors, look to unload. "We have a lot of those customers – an amazing number of them," Myers said.
A global scramble to snap up investment-grade collectibles, which range in class from exotic to antique, is under way. In addition to its expected audiences across North America and Europe, RM is attracting enthusiasts from Argentina, Brazil, India, China, Poland, Russia and the Ukraine. The spectacle of RM's events has also widened. Recently, RM has hosted record-breaking auctions inside the legendary Ferrari factory in Maranello, Italy, as well as the first major collector car auction held in New York in more than a decade. Ten storeys above the streets of Manhattan, last fall's two-hour Art of the Automobile sale generated $63-million.
"It was unbelievable – just sick. It almost brought a tear to my eye. Who woulda ever thought this dumb kid from Chatham could pull this off?"
On home turf, Myers is devoted to playing down his global success. He dresses plainly in oversized khakis and running shoes and while he's keen to talk about his tendency to binge on collectibles – the self-professed "deal junkie" hoards vintage circus posters, native teepees, antique chairs, statement light fixtures, illuminated road signs from Route 66, historic buildings, modern furniture, six figure pieces by the contemporary street artist Retna – he resists the high-roller image.
Hair wild and cheeks flushed, Myers pulls the Cobra to a neat stop outside the South Beach-inspired façade that colours the backside of Chatham's lone boutique hotel (which Myers built and owns). He unfolds his 6-foot-plus frame from the low-slung convertible and stalks across the street to light a cigarette, a fitting act after such an adrenalin spend. Locals, he says, often assume the rare Cobra, which he keeps dusty to play down its flash, is a replica. He's content to let that assumption ride rather than trumpet the million-dollar price tag the car, in its original condition, would likely fetch at auction.
Although he has been known to tool about in a 1911 Oldsmobile Autocrat during summer, Myers typically drives a generic black GMC Sierra Denali pickup. He invests generously with local charities – troubled youth and health care are his soft spots – although he isn't keen on being credited for his contributions. Most often, he insists on remaining anonymous; recipients who defy the request risk having their funding commitment revoked.
The purpose isn't to power trip, it's because at his essence: Myers remains a small town, family-minded guy (albeit one with the luxury of flying off in his private jet).
"I didn't do this for money," he says. "My parents were broke, I've been broke half my life. I never wanted to have a Rolls-Royce or a $10-million house. I don't need it. I wanted money so I could grow my company. It's a vision – like playing with Lego when you're a little kid. You want to build, you've got to finish. What's left?"
In Chatham, Myers' hotel is part of a city block of historic buildings he has invested heavily in restoring and repopulating with trendy stores including a café, chocolatier, wedding dress shop and, soon, a spa. Locally, it is the most glaring hint of the success that has deepened his pockets; it's also a clever distraction from the global landmark he anchored outside of town.
While the company has nearly 150 staffers in offices in California, Florida, Indiana, Britain, Germany and Chatham, it's here, in Myers' famed restoration shop, that the magic unfolds. Cars are shipped in from around the world for work-ups; on this day, a restoration of a 1932 Auburn 8100A Boattail Speedster is under way alongside Edsel Ford's custom-built 1930 Ford Model A Custom Sport Phaeton, both of which are scheduled for showing at the prestigious Pebble Beach Concours d'Elegance in August. Myers describes the event as the "Kentucky Derby" of car shows; RM's restorations have taken top honours five times. "We're like the No.1 horse breeder," he says with a grin.
Celebrity and high-net-worth clients regularly swing by Myers' stable to check the progress of their cars, some of which spend years in the world-renowned shop, where "we can make anything do anything," he says. They're in good company. Also on site is the RM Classic Car Exhibit, a holding pen of eclectic, eye-popping collectibles owned by or moving through RM Group, including a custom-built 1950 Flxible Motor Coach in mostly original condition, and the Austie Clark 1911 Mercer Type 35R Raceabout. Across from a row of Lamborghini Countaches is the mostly wooden car driven by Fred Flintstone in the franchise movie.
Despite all this, Myers is allergic to crediting his acumen with much beyond having a reliable gut.
"You build by natural growth, surround yourself with great people, dream," he says. "To do something really good you have to devote yourself to it. You've got to be sick for it.
"And a lot of it is just plain-assed hard work and having balls. You've got to lay it out there."
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