A modest 1976 Ford Escort, with worn interior, no hubcaps and a storied history, could bring up to $300,000 as Auburn's annual fall auto auction gets underway Thursday.
Once sold for much more, the car's redemption is that it was owned by Cardinal Karol Wojtyla, archbishop of Krakow, until his election as Pope John Paul II in 1978. First auctioned in 1996 in Auburn, the Ford Escort 1100 GL Sedan became entangled in litigation and sold again in 2005. It hits the block this year after its Texas owner died, leaving others to liquidate his massive auto collection.
As they search out the holy grail of papal wheels, auction visitors might also notice a new name for the Labor Day weekend staple. RM Sotheby's Group, owner of the Auburn Auction Park since 2010, announced in October it would retire subsidiary Auctions America, which has operated the park since the purchase. RM Auctions will run the event.
While about 750 classic cars, including purring Duesenbergs and growling muscle cars, will be auctioned, the main attraction for some might be the humble car of a modern saint.
The “Holy Roller,” as online auto magazine thedrive.com calls it, is in the condition Pope John Paul II left it, according to the RM Auctions catalog. Built at the Ford Saarlouis assembly plant in West Germany, the light blue Escort has power brakes, a driver's side mirror and a clock but no radio or air conditioning.
After John Paul II's elevation to the papacy, the Escort was stored at the Vatican until 1996, when it was auctioned under much fanfare at what was then Kruse International Auction Park in Auburn.
With a plane ticket to Rome, a tour of the Vatican and an audience with the pope to sweeten the deal, three hopefuls began a 20-minute bidding war as the audience goaded them on. Monsignor Ronald Sciera, of Buffalo, New York, told the bidders if they went as high as $100,000, he would throw in a second round-trip air ticket to Rome. Proceeds would go to charity.
With the bid at $76,000, Jim Rich, of Chicago, upped the ante to $100,000 and bought it for $102,000 in what he called an impulse buy. Rich planned to display the car in his Chicago-area restaurant.
In 2005, with Rich facing bankruptcy debt and in a heated legal dispute with his father over the car's ownership, the Escort was sold at auction for $690,000 to Houston multimillionaire John O'Quinn. The lawyer had made his fortune in a multibillion-dollar Texas tobacco settlement.
Between 2003 and 2009, O'Quinn amassed more than 1,000 classic cars – one of the largest collections in the world – with the idea of starting a museum. O'Quinn, 68, died in 2009 when he lost control of his SUV and crashed into a tree, killing himself and his passenger.
RM Southeby's began selling O'Quinn's collection, which included 23 Duesenbergs, in 2010. The company still lists 191 O'Quinn cars for sale on its website. The pope's Escort is one of the last, company spokeswoman Meghan McGrail said.
Cars have been allocated to various auction venues “where they made the most sense, depending on the car,” she said. The Auburn auction marks the first time the Escort has been up for sale since O'Quinn died.
“It's just taken awhile,” McGrail said. “Mr. O'Quinn had a rather large quantity of cars.”
The Escort joins a classy lineup.
With a nod to the Auburn Cord Duesenberg Festival running concurrently, the auction will include a 1929 Auburn 120 eight speedster, valued between $150,000 and $200,000; a 1930 Cord L-29 cabriolet worth $130,000 to $160,000; and a 1929 Duesenberg Model J sedan worth $750,000 to $950,000.
Also to be auctioned is a 1958 Buick “Wells Fargo” convertible, a one-off factory show car built for actor Dale Robertson, star of the 1950s TV western, “Tales of Wells Fargo.” Estimated value is $275,000 to $350,000.
And of course, there will be flashy Corvettes, luxurious Lincoln Continentals and about a dozen Edsels, Ford's lovable failure.
If you go
What: Auburn Cord Duesenberg Festival
When: Now through Sept. 2
Where: Various Auburn locations
More information: www.acdfestival.org/events
What: RM Auctions Auburn Fall sale,
When: Thursday through Sept. 2
Where: Auburn Auction Park, 5536 County Road 11A
More information: rmsothebys.com/en/auctions/AF18