The world of car collecting has morphed into a high-pressure battle among wealthy investors and their hired scouts scouring barns and old garages for overlooked classic cars, preferably owned by diminutive elderly women. One such classic sold last Saturday not only hit those marks, but offered a history so compelling it spurred death threats and a bidding war that nearly topped a quarter million dollars.
While all the details can't be uncovered, here’s what we know for certain: It all began with a gift.
A month after his 21st birthday in 1968, Bill Hughbanks of Plainfield, Ind. got the keys to a present from his parents Ruth and Gerald Hughbanks — a red 1968 Shelby Cobra GT500KR, with a sticker price of $4,472. The Hughbanks were mechanically minded; Ruth spent two decades working as a punch-press operator, Gerald owned a 1929 Ford Model A, and Bill had dozens of antique toy cars as a kid. Built by famed racer Carroll Shelby from Ford Mustangs, the GT500KR was the top of the line at the time, with a 429-cubic-inch Cobra Jet V8 churning at least 335 hp.
The next documentation is a letter from Bill Hughbanks to his mother describing life in Army basic training, running a mile a day and how loud his drill instructors were, and asking her to keep the insurance paid on the Shelby. This would have been during the later years of the Vietnam War. Bill was Ruth and Gerald's only child.
By 1970, Hughbanks was out of the service — or at least, enjoying civilian life enough for the Indianapolis police to ticket him for reckless driving on New Year’s Day. While Ruth would later claim to friends that the Shelby was rarely raced, patrons of the local drag strip knew what the Cobra Jet could do. Bill Hughbanks had made some power and cosmetic upgrades to the GT500KR, even having a little brass nameplate etched for the interior door.
A decade later, Bill Hughbanks would die from bone cancer. He was 32.
For the next three decades, whenever the occasional car collector would knock on the door, trying to run down a rumor about an old couple with an increasingly valuable Shelby in the garage, the Hughbanks — first Gerald, then after his death Ruth — would politely but firmly inform them that the car was not for sale. After Ruth Hughbanks died in 2010, it took several months for her estate to move to an auction. And when the first word landed last month about a one-owner '68 Shelby up for sale with only 9,159 miles on the odometer, the world of Shelby fans were amazed — and instantly suspicious.
Over the past 15 years, the auction values of collectible antique cars has gone through a few cycles of boom and bust but maintained a steady upward curve — especially American muscle cars that reconnect Baby Boomers with their youth. Shelby Mustangs from the late-'60s with less than 100,000 miles often command $150,000 or more. Shelby built 1,051 GT500KR fastbacks in 1968; only a handful remain with less than 10,000 miles on the odometer.
Those numbers have also spurred scammers to hit the market as well. You can't build a Jasper Johns from spare parts, but it's easy enough to remake a muscle car from the plethora of replacement pieces. After news of the auction was posted in several forums for Shelby collectors online, many began to question claims of “almost 100% original” condition from the auction house:
“Hoods did not have black vents from the factory. The valve covers have had the black paint cleaned off. The water pump and brakes have been worked on as well. The Cobra snake emblems are missing on the fenders. There are extra decals on the decklid. The emergency flasher knob is broken off. The vacuum lines have been re-routed. The vacuum tree is missing. The oil pressure wiring has been repaired. The ignition coil is missing. The air cleaner breather hose has been replaced. The car is missing the smog, the starter delay, the washer bottle, the original battery. The shift knob is not original. The gold keys are copies. Original steering wheels were plastic with a wood grain with a Shelby Cobra snake in the center. The shock absorbers are incorrect. That’s just a start....other than that, it looks good."
Others speculated that the mileage was low by 100,000 or so miles, and wondered what condition the car had been left in by drag racing. One poster kept challenging the skeptics, and the argument over the car grew so onerous on one Shelby site that a forum member reported getting death threats from an anonymous caller, leading the forum to delete the entire debate.
Many of those questions faded at the sale. Ruth Hughbanks’ record keeping proved that the mileage was as low as advertised, and Bill Hughbanks had held onto many of the original parts, wheels and badges when he customized the car in the ‘60s.
All of the years and shouting over the Shelby ended in 75 seconds last Saturday, the amount of time it took for the GT500KR to sell for $230,000 (not including the usual auction fees). Auctioneer Earl Cornwell Jr. declined to name the successful bidder — the crowd believed it was Jay Leno, whose passion for old vehicles has made him the Great Pumpkin of American classic car auctions. Whoever it was paid a near-record price for that Shelby model, and only because Ruth and Gerald Hughbanks were no longer there to tell them money would not part them from what they valued most.