It would be easy to think that the success of RM Auctions boils down to the same simple ingredients that define the man behind the company. Rob Myers is a self-admitted workaholic. He worked 15-hour days when he dropped out of high school to become a welder, and he still puts in those long hours at age 50. He also possesses a management philosophy that reflects the straightforward values of his country upbringing in Chatham, Ontario: "Pay your staff well and treat them like you'd want to be treated." This explains why the employee who drove Myers's 1965 AC Cobra (a very fast, very beautiful, very expensive sports car) into a ditch while taking it out for a spin is still an employee.
It seems unlikely, however, that RM's growth can be credited merely to the hard work, honesty and just plain niceness of its founder. The classic-car business, after all, is a tough one. Like the world of customized golf clubs and fine yacht-building, it is populated by wealthy enthusiasts who dream of turning their passion into a business. No, the mystery ingredient behind Myers's success can more likely be summed up in a phrase he mentions to me one day in his office. He calls it "the wants."
According to Myers, his bodywork man, Dave Svehla-the first employee he hired, back in 1975-has the wants. "The key is that he's fanatical," says Myers, who stands at more than six feet, has bearish proportions and, with his grey beard, looks a little like Ernest Hemingway. "He's so passionate, it's all he does. He has no desire to ever do anything else."
Myers also has a bad case of the wants. It's why, when he was 16-while most guys his age were thinking about baseball or girls-Myers was teaching himself how to upholster the interior of a car. And it's why Myers can find a German relic in a garage in Florida and sell it for more than $3 million (U.S. currency except where noted) to a New Jersey collector who calls the car the "crown jewel" of his collection.
RM's business-and Myers's obsession-is classic cars. The company, based near Chatham, has a finger in every aspect of the industry-buying, restoring and selling.
RM's auction division holds 14 or so events each year across North America, and is the largest and best-known part of Myers's company. At its mainstream auctions, which attract tens of thousands of fans, cars sell for about $30,000 (RM takes a 16% commission on each sale). The more prestigious "catalogue" auctions attract only the most discerning collectors, and cars routinely sell for hundreds of thousands of dollars-and sometimes even millions-with a 20% commission going to RM. The company's premier event is the Monterey Sports and Classic Car Auction in California, an annual pilgrimage for serious collectors. At last year's auction, $31 million worth of historically significant automobiles changed hands-among them, a 1938 Talbot-Lago T150-C Lago Teardrop coupe (an extremely rare French sports car), which sold for $3.7 million. The buyer: a Texas lawyer whose collection includes Jackie Kennedy's bubble-topped Lincoln Continental and a Bat-mobile. At the 2006 event, in August, sales hit $43 million, including the $5.6 million a West Coast collector shelled out for a Ferrari 412 S.
The heart and soul of the company is down the hall from the main office, in the 25-bay garage, where a team of 32 mechanics, upholsterers, painters, woodworkers and metal fabricators take beat-up cars from another era and make them beautiful again. It's a painstaking process that can last more than a year, and often involves reconstructing a car's ancient components from scratch. RM's clients include car-buff celebrities like Nicolas Cage and Jay Leno, along with wealthy collectors from as far away as France, Argentina and Japan, who period-ically land their private jets at a nearby airport to check in on their babies.
Between Myers's office and the garage sits RM's Classic Car Exhibit. It's less a museum than a holding tank for classic inventory that RM has yet to sell or restore. A stroll among the cars gives some idea of the unlikely magnitude of Myers's business. On the day I visited, the exhibit numbered 43 vehicles, with a total dollar value in the tens of millions. The collection included the original prototype Ferrari F40; a 1937 Cord 812 SC, a prewar muscle car notable for its front-wheel drive; and a 1940 Ford Deluxe station wagon in exquisite condition, with original-wood body panels made out of bird's eye maple.
To drivers speeding along the 401, RM's facility-an old flea market Myers bought in 1997-looks like any other building. But for collectors of classic cars, that chunk of land near Chatham has the same looming omnipresence of a Microsoft. Since starting RM in 1975, at the age of 19, Myers has built his company into the largest auctioneer of classic cars in the world. This year, RM will gross between $150 million and $200 million.
The story begins, appropriately enough, at a classic-car auction. The year was 1974; the place, San Bernardino, California. Myers was three months into a motorcycle tour of North America on his brand-new Harley when he stopped at a motel for the night. He was awakened the next morning by the sound of roaring engines coming from the parking lot next door. "There were all these T-Birds," he recalls, as though still astonished by the sight. "I saw Lauren Bacall's T-Bird sell for something like eight thousand bucks, and I thought, If I only had eight thousand bucks, I'd buy it."
Myers was no greenhorn when it came to classic cars. He'd been working on cars with his dad, Arsene, since he was little. The year Myers started high school, his dad gave him his very own beat-up Ford Edsel. He couldn't legally drive it, but it served as the first vehicle into which Myers could invest his manic automotive energies. "I became one of those freaks who went out on weekends looking for parts for Edsels," he says. "I ended up filling my basement with them."
His next car was a 1940 Plymouth that hadn't touched asphalt since its owner was killed in the Second World War. "It ran like a watch," Myers remembers. "Low mileage, but it needed work." He painted it, redid the upholstery and scoured junkyards for better chrome parts. One day, a member of the local antique-car club offered to buy the Plymouth from Myers. He sold it for $10,000 (Canadian).
By Grade 11, Myers was painting and fixing up cars and motorcycles for his buddies. It was a hobby-something he did for fun that happened to bring in a few extra bucks. The auction in San Bernardino changed all that. For the first time, Myers realized that fixing up cars could make him money. "It opened my eyes," he says. "I got all revved up about getting into the classic-car business."
From there, Myers's career followed the at times precipitous curve of every self-made small-business owner. When he got back to Chatham, he quit his job as a welder and started doing restora-tion work for two guys who imported rust-free cars from the U.S. After a few years of lean living, Myers bought a building in downtown Chatham, built a 15-bay garage and hired Svehla, who'd spent 14 years doing bodywork and collision repair at a GM dealership and was considered the best body man in the county.
By the mid-'80s, Myers was grossing $6 million a year. "We did anything that came in the door and made money-vinyl roofs on Lincolns, the odd colli-sion job," he says. "But our main focus was antique cars." In 1987, Myers partnered with Dan Warrener, another classic-car enthusiast then working for a pipeline company in Alberta, and together they formed a new business division, RM Classic Cars, focused exclusively on buying and selling rare antique auto-mobiles. Two years later, Myers brought in a second partner-retired software executive Mike Fairbairn, who was heading west to open a car dealership-to run the restoration business. RM was soon generating $13 million a year. "Sales kept doubling," Myers says. "But it's not hard to do $13 million if you're selling cars for $100,000."
Over the next five years, RM became a major player in classic-car restoration. Every year the company delivered upward of 100 cars to auctions-and watched the auctioneers drive away with the commissions. Big houses like Christie's and Sotheby's could sell a car for $200,000 and pocket $40,000 on a single transaction. Myers and his partners started thinking: Why shouldn't RM get in on the action?
Rather than start a brand-new auction house in an already crowded market, Myers bought an existing one in Toronto, in 1991. As luck would have it, an exotic-car dealership in Toronto went bankrupt around the same time, and Myers persuaded the trustees to sell their distressed inventory of new Lamborghinis and Ferraris at his auction. At their first-ever RM auction, Myers and his partners moved $4 million worth of cars.
Six years later, RM bought the hallowed Monterey classic-car auction in California. Suddenly, a company based in the middle of Canadian farm country was taking business away from Sotheby's and Christie's.
Earlier this year, RM expanded into the world of pop culture. Its first pop-culture auction, in Los Angeles, showcased one of the world's largest collections of "Kustom Kulture"-meaning anything and everything to do with American hot-rod and low-rider culture). The auction lasted a single day, drew more than a thousand people and moved $3.3 million worth of pop nostalgia-from limited-edition prints of freaky dudes on motorcycles to antique tools and old motor-oil ads.
Next year, RM will make its first foray into Europe, through a joint venture with Sotheby's; the first RM-Sotheby's auction will be held in May, 2007, at Ferrari's Maranello complex in Italy.
One day in 1998, Myers got a phone call from a friend with an incredible story: The man had been contacted by someone whose father had recently died, leaving behind what he claimed was a 1934 Packard Custom Dietrich. Packard had built just four of the V-12 cars, and only three of them were known to have survived. For years, rumours had floated around classic-car circles that the fourth one was out there somewhere, just waiting to be discovered. But, as Myers says, "They were just rumours."
Nevertheless, he arranged to visit the family in New Jersey, where he was led into a secret room hidden behind a false wall in the garage. Inside, he was shown a car in hundreds of pieces-a home restoration job stalled for decades. It was undeniably a 1934 Packard Custom Dietrich. "Holy shit," Myers thought. "Here it is." The car had been hidden behind the fake wall to fool would-be thieves. "He had this little opening to get himself in," Myers says. "A thief would have no idea there was a car in there."
Myers bought the Dietrich on the spot "for a few hundred thousand," and shipped it to Chatham. After a nearly year-long restoration, RM sold it in a private deal for roughly $750,000.
Myers has collected dozens of "great find" stories-like the 1954 Rolls-Royce with an 18-karat-gold toilet seat in the back, hidden under a leather cushion. But nothing yet has trumped the 1938 Horch Sport Cabriolet. Horch was a prewar luxury carmaker in Germany, and the Sport Cabriolet was, in its day, one of the most expensive cars around. Only five of them were ever built. One was owned by Hermann Göring, Hitler's second-in-command, though he ultimately sent it back to the factory to be dismantled (he preferred his more bulletproof Mercedes). Two Horch Cabriolets were known to exist, both in Europe; the other two had been lost to history.
In 2001, Myers got a tip from a collector friend. A German man in Florida, the collector told Myers, had bought an extremely rare car from a U.S. serviceman, who had shipped it home from Europe after the Second World War. Myers hopped on a plane and headed south. Sure enough, rotting on the floor of a garage was a 1938 Horch Sport Cabriolet. The car was in terrible shape, lying on its axles, its wheels gone, and badly infected with rust. Myers paid the man $1 million and hired a tow truck to drag the Horch onto a flatbed trailer bound for Chatham. Before Myers's team had so much as loosened a bolt, the car was bought by New Jersey judge Joseph Cassini III. It spent the next two years at RM Restorations.
As with all jobs, the RM team started by dismantling the Horch into its constituent parts, which numbered in the hundreds. Amazingly, the frame was in excellent condition, and didn't need much more than a cleaning and some paint. The rest of the car required considerably more attention: Parts of the original wooden framework had rotted and needed to be replaced. The restoration team dismantled the drivetrain and rebuilt it according to the original specs. All the interior woodwork was re-veneered, and every light, instrument and lens was rebuilt and installed anew. RM replaced the body panels, crafted using an English wheel-a tool that's used to form sheets of flat metal. The restorers even discovered Göring's name written on the inside of a door panel; the door had once been part of the Luftwaffe chief's Horch.
The car's upholstery was replaced with fabric identical to the original. That isn't always the case, as it turns out. On the afternoon I visited the resto-ration garage, where 13 cars were in various stages of disassembly-including a 1949 Chrysler Town and Country woody convertible and a burgundy 1969 Iso Grifo (a rare Italian muscle car with a grumbling Chevy engine)-the final touches were being put on a 1936 Delahaye 135 M coupe. Instead of the original leather, RM was using upholstery made of ostrich skin. "People say, That's not original. And I say, Why isn't it?" Myers says somewhat defensively. "If you had the money to buy a $20,000 car in the 1930s and you told them you wanted ostrich interior, you're damn right you could have got it."
For the Horch, though, RM stuck strictly to spec, right down to the paint: silver accented with grey, then sanded and buffed to a shine. The restored Horch, says Judge Cassini, was "in better condition than when it rolled off the line in Germany." (The judge has bought a total of 20 cars through RM. "You notice a difference with Myers's cars," he says. "The gaps in the doors, the hoods, the seats-they're perfect. The engines run perfectly.") In 2004, the Horch was entered in the Pebble Beach Concours d'Elegance, the most prestigious beauty pageant in the car world. It took the Best of Show prize-the equivalent of winning the Kentucky Derby-beating out, among others, a 1916 Crane-Simplex Model 5 owned by Jay Leno.
A few months later, Myers got a call from a woman in Toronto. Her uncle in Latvia owned a car just like the one that had won top honours at Pebble Beach, she told him. Myers flew to Riga, where he found the fourth and last 1938 Horch Sport Cabriolet in a tiny museum. Myers made the man an offer-he won't say how much-but the owner said it was too low. Myers left Latvia with nothing. Six months later, the man phoned Myers in Chatham to accept the deal. Today, the as-yet-unrestored Horch is part of the RM Classic Car Exhibit, a grey-blue bruiser with an endless hood that strikes a dignified, regal pose-despite its age and the fact that it's sitting there just waiting to be sold.
Halls 3 and 4 at Toronto's International Centre comprise 180,000 square feet of floor space, but very little of it is visible at the Toronto International Spring Classic Car Auction on this Saturday afternoon in April. On day two of RM's most popular mainstream auction, almost every square inch is covered by some striking example of automotive history. There is a red 1980 Ferrari 308 GTS, just like the one Magnum PI borrowed from Robin Masters. There's a souped-up Caprice Classic station wagon from the early '90s-one of the last of a species made extinct by the SUV. And there are two DeLorean DMC 12s, their silvery steel exteriors looking as fresh as they did in 1983-the year John DeLorean was busted for cocaine trafficking, turning his peculiar sports cars into instant collectibles.
Front and centre, an auctioneer sits on stage behind a microphone, surrounded by three men who do nothing but spot bids among the sea of potential buyers. His mouth churns out words at such an incredible clip that his jaw is in danger of overheating. Every few minutes, a new car rolls into position, and the bidding begins. "I-have-five-thousand-do-I-hear-fifty-one-hundred…"
Late that afternoon, a 1965 Ford Mustang fastback sells for $36,380 (Canadian). It's followed by a 1970 Chevrolet El Camino at $28,890 and a 1992 Cadillac Allanté convertible that fetches $21,400. Their moment in the spotlight over, the cars are pushed to the back of the hall, where sun pours through a bay door. Then, their engines rev, and Hall 4 fills with exhaust fumes from times past. One by one, these rolling metal sculptures are driven away.
On the rare stretches of floor space not covered by cars, there are gawkers-almost 30,000 of them. They come from as far away as Scotland, Florida, Ohio and British Columbia. Like Myers, they are grey-haired. Unlike Myers, they appear as though they're hoping one of these cars will help them recapture their youth.
Myers, by comparison, lives very much in the grip of the present. On the day we meet at his office in Chatham, he's wearing a North Face short-sleeved shirt made from synthetic wicking fabric. We spend more than an hour talking about classic cars, while the rest of RM's employees wait to celebrate the boss's 50th birthday.
Myers may deal in nostalgia, but the object of his wants isn't some vicarious experience of a bygone era. Ultimately, he is moved by beauty. History just happens to be the place he finds it. That is why Myers doesn't drive a classic car. He doesn't even drive a sports car. Rob Myers, the classic-car king, drives a brand-new white Chevy Yukon pickup. A man who lives in a world where the rare is commonplace has a tough time finding the right car.
But it's obvious that classic cars are where Myers's heart lies. Even his boutique RetroSuites Hotel-part of a Victorian block Myers bought and restored in downtown Chatham-has a "Gentlemen Start Your Engines" room, sporting a bed supported by car jacks, a headboard in the shape of a Ford symbol and a mirror with a windshield wiper. "I like brass cars from the early teens," he tells me late one April afternoon. His speech slows. "They had huge cylinders, bigger than your hand. Some of these cars had 11.2-litre engines. The torque and power is unbelievable. There are four or five in the world today."
Moved by the thought of those giant engines, Myers quickens his pace. "There's an Olds from 1908 called the Model 66 that could go down the 401 today at 80 miles an hour. I'd like to have one of those." He pauses. "I'd also like a '59 Cadillac DeVille convertible." He pauses again, then moves from the specific to the general, as though to underline the categorical problem he faces. "I like '30s cars. I like '50s sports cars," he says, sounding almost exasperated. Then he sits up, looks somewhere off into the distance and says, "How do you pick just one?"