With the very survival of the United States' largest carmaker in question, General Motors Corp. is selling pieces of its history.
In the coming week, GM will auction about 100 of its prized antique and show cars to raise cash and trim warehousing costs. The company seeks to cut its specialty fleet by nearly half. It once numbered 1,000.
Admittedly, what GM has raised so far this year — more than $9 million — is a drop in the bucket compared with the $13.4 billion in emergency loans that the U.S. Treasury gave the company in December.
"Every little bit counts. It costs a lot to house that many vehicles," said Greg Wallace, manager of the General Motors Heritage Center in Sterling Heights, Mich., which documents the century-old company's history.
"Is it a good thing that we're doing this? Absolutely," Wallace said.
The vehicles will be sold in Palm Beach, starting Thursday. The listings include a 1920 Chevrolet Model T truck; a 1999 Camaro Z/28 used in the movie Runaway Bride; and a 1978 Corvette Indy 500 pace car, one of four made — and one of two that GM owns. (It's keeping the first one that rolled off the production line.)
The news that GM was willing to sell pieces of its past sent groans through the world of car enthusiasts. It has also sent serious collectors scrambling for their checkbooks.
"The buzz is huge over this, especially given what's happening with General Motors these days," said Steve Davis, president of the collector car auction company Barrett-Jackson, which is handling the sales. "Even in this economy, people are looking for a tangible asset that doesn't shrink every time someone sneezes on Wall Street. Owning a piece of American history transcends owning a stock certificate or a lump of gold."
It will be the second time this year that GM has cleaned out a bit of its archives: In January, Barrett-Jackson sold more than 230 of the troubled automaker's vehicles.
Some, such as the millionth Saturn to roll off the production line, seemed yawn-worthy.
But others had bidders in a frenzy, including Indy pace cars and a "Popemobile" convertible built for John Paul II (complete with throne-like seat; Barrett-Jackson's Web site describes it as a 1998 Cadillac Brougham that sold for $57,200). A 1996 Buick Blackhawk Custom, a convertible whose design the company ultimately nixed, sold for $522,500.
Few of these collectible cars can be driven legally on public roads: Most of GM's offerings will be sold with a scrapped title (meaning the car is not road-worthy) or as a bill of sale (meaning it essentially is a work of art and is not to be driven on the road — ever).
Figuring out which cars to sell has been hard, Wallace said.
Before the mid 1990s, each division of General Motors was responsible for housing its own history, including design schematics, automotive memorabilia and, in some cases, hundreds of vehicles.
When the company opened the Heritage Center in 2004, the collections were combined. Staff found hidden treasures crated — and sometimes forgotten — in warehouses across the country.
"It was like an archaeological dig," Wallace said. They even found medical equipment, including a GM-developed heart-and-lung machine built in the 1950s.
The center now manages the Heritage Collection, an elite group of 350 vehicles that are "critical to telling the story of GM and are too valuable to sell," Wallace said.
Yet there were still hundreds of others — vehicles built for trade shows, for example, or used by movie crews — that rounded out a corporate specialty fleet.