Wheel$ of Fortune

Three million dollars for an Oldsmobile? No wonder car collectors can’t stop talking about Penn Valley’s Alan Lewenthal

A$ his celebrity sprouted this spring, Penn Valley’s Alan Lewenthal latched onto a characterization of him by a newspaper writer in Colorado. “I’ve got ‘ice in my veins and the conscience of a burglar,’” Lewenthal quotes. That might sound a little Walter Mitty-ish for a 40-year-old Temple grad whose day job is VP and general manager of the kitchen-and-bath-supply company started by his father. But during 10 wild minutes of an auction that was captured on live television early this year, Lewenthal burst into prominence in the rich and surprisingly sharp-elbowed world of classic car collectors when he ran up the bidding on a shiny gold 1954 Oldsmobile to an unprecedented $3 million. Since no one knew his name, he became known for his outfit: Mr. Red Ferrari Hat. And when the gavel banged and he won the car, the burglar with ice in his veins burst into tears.

“That got everybody’s attention — everyone is talking about it,” says Richard Lentinello, editor of Hemmings Motor News, one of the bibles in the world of classic car collecting, which he estimates is a $12 billion-a-year industry.

Car collecting is a “bad drug,” Lewenthal says, and it hooked him when he was still a teenager. He and his father, Herb, were driving on the Atlantic City Expressway when a flatbed truck bearing a red 1957 Cadillac Coupe de Ville passed them. Herb Lewenthal started a shouted negotiation while traveling 60 miles an hour. He got the truck to pull over, and bought the Cadillac there on the shoulder of the road.

 That started a fixation for father and son — “It kept us together when I was a teenager,” Alan says — that led to a collection of dozens of cars, including a 1963 Rolls-Royce Silver Cloud, a 1971 Corvette convertible with 4,600 miles on the odometer, and a passel of Ferraris.

Still, Lewenthal might have remained an obscure hobbyist if he hadn’t encountered John Hendricks in 2004. Hendricks, the founder of the Discovery Channel and its many offshoots, recently started to develop a resort on some land he owns in Colorado, and got the idea of attracting guests with an auto museum. Hendricks was trying to purchase the cars himself, but after talking to Lewenthal, whom he had met through a couple of eBay sales, he hired him on for acquisitions for the Gateway, Colorado, Auto Museum. It’s scheduled to open next spring with more than 40 cars outlining the history of American auto design. The ’54 Oldsmobile for which Mr. Red Ferrari Hat bid so high is, Hendricks says, “our Mona Lisa.”

Lewenthal spent much of this year traveling to auto auctions, knowing he had the deep pockets of Hendricks behind him. It’s not a bad second job. Auctions like these tend to be in posh resort spots like Palm Beach, Florida. Lewenthal had to retire his red Ferrari hat; after his star turn on the car-obsessed Fox SPEED Channel (at one point during the battle for the Oldsmobile, he had to be restrained from taunting his rival bidder), he wanted to be more low-key, he says. Car collecting was already populated by such celebrities as Jay Leno, Tim Allen and Nicolas Cage, but Lewenthal’s intense auction style has propelled him to a fame all his own.

Now, with the collection at the Gateway Museum nearly ready for public exhibition, Lewenthal has switched gears slightly and opened a new 15,000-square-foot car restoration facility in Northeast Philly. Called Marquis Auto Restorations, it will spruce up the museum collection as well as handle remakes for other collectors. Lewenthal doesn’t plan to give up the family business, but he recognizes that this is his opportunity to move well beyond shower stalls and range hoods. “I know I’ve got the best skill there is for a car collector,” he says. “Cash.”