The Legend of Don Williams
Images: Souvik Ghose Chaudhuri, Kimball Studios/Pebble Beach Concours d’Elegance, Hugues Vanhoolandt
The first car to ever cross the million-dollar sales threshold was a 1931 Figoni body boattail Duesenberg, this car was sold by a man named Don Williams, way back in 1981. Don was a well-known expert and historic vehicle aficionado for fifty years.
He along with partner and benefactor American real estate tycoon Kenneth Eugene Behring, founded the reputed Blackhawk Collection, Inc., a business that specializes in buying and selling unique vintage cars, sports cars, and race cars, in California. Don passed away in early 2023 at the age of 78.
However, his legend lives on. Tucked away in the quiet town of Danville, 30 miles east of San Francisco, you will find The Don Williams Automobile Gallery at The Blackhawk Museum. First opened to the public in 1988, this prestigious museum doubles up as an automotive dealership.
A small collection of 90* vehicles boast of everything, from Horseless carriages, steam engine cars, special interest cars to modern sports cars.
The weekend after Pebble Beach is commonly referred to as ‘car week’ in the San Francisco Bay area.
Having missed attending the concours d’elegance, as a consolation I found myself driving up from my Silicon Valley home to Danville to catch a glimpse at this fabled collection. I arrived a little after lunch and stayed on till the gates were closed at 5pm.
As I entered the hallway of the museum, I was greeted with an elusive spectacle of what I imagine a visitor of The New York Auto show at Grand central palace would have seen in the earlier part of the 20th century. Seductively flanked on either side, a silver 1932 Auburn V12 Boat tail Speedster and an extravagant purple French built Cadillac Series 62 ‘Saoutchik’ from 1948.
The wonderment one experiences from the very first instance at the Blackhawk Museum, is by design. While the museum was being conceptualized, Don, Ken and architect Dough Dalin drew inspiration from opulent jewellery establishments in France.
They believed each one of the exhibits were no less than the finely crafted ornaments that are on display at coveted Parisienne bijoutiers’ showcases. The trio travelled to Paris, intent on studying the lighting, merchandising techniques and the French art of display, and subsequently replicated the same drama & staging back home in America, but with fine vintage automobiles!
Except for those who’ve seen firsthand, a living Himalayan Yeti, a rare sight for everyone else may as well be an English coach built, right-hand-drive, Mercedes-Benz 540K Special Roadster from 1937… or this car, better known as the ‘Mayfair 540K’!
Rumoured to have been commissioned by either a British expatriate residing in Paris or an Indian Maharajah; sadly, there is no compelling evidence to substantiate either claim. I’m not sure whether it was the thrill of uncovering the clouded history, the right-hand drive configuration, mother of pearl dashboard inlay, the chrome supercharger plumbing, the louvered spats, or $4.5 million valuation that impressed me the most. However, this ‘automotive apparition’ was for private viewing only and is currently offered for sale.
Taking a moment to collect myself, I made my way through the exhibits. All that stood between me and Vintage Bugatti racers, Isotta Fraschinis’ and Delahayes, was a velvet rope barrier.
My attention was intuitively requested to the back of the hall where perched high on a podium was ‘The Bahia Emerald of cars’, a stunning green Duesenberg J. This rare beauty was one of 60 short wheelbase (142.5inch) convertible coupes built by Walter M Murphy Coachbuilders in the year of the great depression. My predilection to this specific exhibit is evidenced in the photo gallery of my phone.
Coming a close second ‘Best in show - Pre-war American’ (well at least, if anyone ever asked me), was the 1930 Duesenberg SJ Rollston Convertible Victoria followed by the 1931 Duesenberg Model J Convertible.
Ettore Bugatti's son Jean designed and built the Bugatti Type 57 and its subsequent iterations, such as the well-known Atlantic and Atalante, were grand tourers. Seven hundred and ten Type 57s were made between 1934 and 1940.
This collection boasts of a 1936 Bugatti Type 57s Surbaisse or ‘Lowered chassis roadster’ and although a replica, it was built in the 1950s on a 57 frame and modelled after Jean Bugatti’s prototype which was unfortunately destroyed during his lifetime itself.
The two other Bugattis on display were both 135 bhp, 3,257 cc DOHC inline eight-cylinder engine, four-speed, 4 seaters, namely, the 1935 Bugatti Type 57 Stelvio and the 1938 Bugatti Type 57 Ventoux.
In 1934, Hispano-Suiza unveiled the K6. The Hispano-Suiza J12 served as a model for the K6, which was more of a successor for the smaller H6 than the J12. The cars had many of the same improvements. The coach-built bodywork from brands including Brandone, Franay, and Fernandez et Darrin and was driven by a 140 horsepower six-cylinder engine.
It is estimated that by the time production ended in 1937, only 204 K6 chassis had been built. Two K6 specimens are a part of the Blackhawk collection 1935 Sedanca de Ville and the 1935 Cabriolet (with a one-off coachwork by Fernandez et Darrin).
Introduced in 1935, the Delahaye 135 marked the company's decision to produce sportier automobiles than its previous models. It was also dubbed the ‘Coupe des Alpes’ because of its success in the Alpine Rally. This French sports car was designed around Delahaye’s ‘truck’ engine by Jean François.
A 1946 Delahaye Type 135 Cabriolet dazzling in Silver and Red now calls the museum its home. Paired with the 135 is its more powerful successor, the 1951 Delahaye Type 135M Cabriolet, also in silver but accented in blue.
One marque that was new to me was the Cunningham, built by James Cunningham & Son of Rochester NY. This 1929 example was immaculate, and I was not surprised to learn that it won the ‘Best of Show’ at the 1984 Pebble Beach Concours d’Elegance. This all-weather cabriolet had an unusual model name, The V-7. Interestingly the V stood for V8 and the 7 was the model number!
Don Williams was often heard saying that his dream was to ‘touch every great car in the world’, I’m not sure if he was ever able to realize his dream, but one thing for certain, is that he came very close. Over his lifetime, it is estimated that the total value of the cars he sold was over a whopping billion dollars!
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