Collecting Cars, Telling Stories & Preserving History

John Mozart's collection breathes new life into the past

by | Aug 15, 2019 | Journals

Photo Credit: Kristine Bryant

Collecting Cars, Telling Stories & Preserving History

John Mozart's collection breathes new life into the past

by | Aug 15, 2019 | Journals

Photo Credit: Kristine Bryant

It has been 35 years since John Mozart bought his first collector car. It was a Duesenberg Boattail Speedster, one of two he had an opportunity to purchase that day. He passed on the second one — a Model JN that once belonged to Clark Gable — perhaps because he was new to collecting, or because he was already thinking about diversity and history.

Today, his collection of somewhere around 175 cars is one of the most diverse in the world. Usually, approximately 65 of them are on display at any given time, and Mozart is intentional about maintaining a wide range of models, styles and eras. He pays especially close attention to the provenance of each piece in the collection.

“People look at it and sometimes don’t know what it is like to build something like a collection of stories captured in the essence of the automobiles,” he said. “It’s not easy.”

And it has become increasingly difficult over the years, because while tremendous wealth has been created around the world over the last half-decade, money does not automatically provide opportunities to purchase the highly sought-after pieces many collectors covet.

“The number of objects has not grown in quantity. The hobby has grown, but the number of great cars has not and will not grow. The pool of things you can get is continually dwindling and now it doesn’t make any difference how much money you have to spend; the objects are not available.”

It’s the history — not the money — that has driven him to curate the finest quality collection of American Classics in the world, and to fall in love with cars from a wide range of eras. Mozart is particularly fascinated with cars from the turn of the 20th century and pre-war European sports cars like the one-off custom Bugatti and the 1938 Alfa Romeo 2900B he bought from a collector in Bar Harbor, ME 30 years ago.

1938 Alfa Romeo

1938 Alfa Romeo

1938 Alfa Romeo

1938 Alfa Romeo

He knew only a little about the Alfa Romeo at the time, but a few years later, he learned much more of its history. In London, he was reminded of some advice from a good friend to start an automobile-related library. So when he came across a bound collection of Motor Sport magazines from the 1920s and ‘30s, he bought them and made it his mission to read each one in search of interesting stories. And he certainly found one. While reading an old copy of Motor Sport, he came across a letter to the editor in which one McClure Halley from Brooklyn, NY wrote to tell the story of purchasing that Alfa Romeo 2900B new from the Touring assembly facility in Bologna, Italy.

“This particular 2900B was the first one delivered, built on a racing chassis,” Mozart said. “And McCllure Halley writes about how he went to the assembly facility every day to make decisions about the construction of the car.”

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Generally, Mozart prefers working with private sellers rather than bidding at auctions, but as he puts it, “Bucket list things come up when you least expect them.” Perhaps that is what led him to jump into the bidding for a 1930 Duesenberg SSJ last year. Gooding presented the piece, which was owned by Miles Collier at the time.

1930 Duesenberg

1930 Duesenberg

“Let me just say this — it was an emotional thing at the moment,” he said. “The bidding started way higher than I thought it would, and the economics got a little bit out of control. That’s sometimes what happens at auctions.”

The bidding increment was $500,000 — a figure that shocked Mozart — but he decided to stay the course, bidding via telephone with David Brynan. He had an idea of who the other bidders would be, but most of the people he knew dropped out early. Mozart found himself in a bidding war with an unknown buyer who was emotionally attached to the car and had the money to spend.

“When David said he thought we were going to get it, my first thought was, ‘How did it get to this point? The auction opened at $8M and got to $12 and then $14M very quickly.’”

In the end, Mozart paid $22M for the bucket list item he knew he wanted.

1930 Duesenberg

1930 Duesenberg

“You only live once. I’ll be 77 in November, I’ve taken care of everyone I need to take care of and I’ve made charitable donations,” he said. “I felt the freedom to buy an extraordinary car that I really wanted.”

Mozart spent more on the Duesenberg than any car he has ever purchased, but a year later he has still not yet had a chance to drive it. When the auction ended, he had his new treasure shipped out of California for servicing and testing. He expects the SSJ to return to California in September of this year, but don’t expect it to sit idly in the showroom. Mozart prefers driving his cars over merely showing them. He loves touring, and he especially loves driving with friends and family who are enthusiastic about sharing the driving experience.

When it comes to his collection, he receives occasional inquiries about the values of this car or that, but he isn’t interested in selling for any price. “It’s not about the money,” he said. “I didn’t buy them solely in hopes of value appreciation. I mainly wanted to preserve these historic objects without too much depreciation.”

1938 Alfa Romeo

Like so many collectors, Mozart is drawn to more than just cars. At an auction in Paris, he purchased a seven-foot bronze statue of a cavalry soldier, one of two that were created in New York during the 1800s. The second statue currently stands in a town square in Connecticut.

He also purchased a Native American war shirt worn by Slow Bull at the Treaty of Fort Laramie in 1868. Slow Bull would later become chief of the Minneconzi Sioux and marry the daughter of Chief Red Cloud, one of the most important Lakota leaders of the 19th century. Like with his cars, Mozart was drawn to the rich stories behind the statue and the Native American artifact.

Money doesn’t bring everything within grasp, though. Even Mozart admits there are some collectors items he will likely never own — like a 1930s Mercedes SSK.

“I love the really early Mercedes Grand Prix cars from the turn of the century and pre-War,” he said. “It’s hard to find one that is good-looking and has pure provenance. I probably won’t get one in my lifetime.”

Yet he has no complaints. Whether he is collecting automobilia, Native American artifacts, magazines or Californian paintings, he gets the most satisfaction out of the stories behind the pieces. He is most energized by learning the specific documented moments in history that have been preserved and that he can be part of sharing with future generations. The ability to preserve and share these stories’ passage through time is what drives his passion for collecting.

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