Collector Greg Whitten's first car was a Dodge Dart. Now he's a major collector of vintage sports cars.
Maybe you saw Greg Whitten driving around Redmond in a red sports car, headed to lunch or running errands, or standing beside it at a Saturday morning car show.
It probably wasn’t that much of a surprise. Red sports cars driving the streets that Microsoft paved with gold aren’t that unusual a sight.
But this one. This 1962 Ferrari 250 GTO, Chassis 3413, is a sports car like no other.
It was the third of just 36 built. It has never been wrecked. It won the 1962 Italian Hillclimb. Legendary drivers like Phil Hill and Edoardo Lualdi-Gabardi have warmed the soft blue cloth seat while racing on roads and tracks around the world. The engine, gearbox and drivetrain are original, along with 95 percent of the bodywork.
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So when, after 18 years, Whitten, 66, decided to sell the car, he put it in the white-gloved hands of the people at the RM Sotheby’s auction house, who offered it for sale during the annual Pebble Beach Concours d’Elegance on the Monterey Peninsula last August. Starting bid: $35 million.
“People kept asking me about selling the car,” he said, “and I eventually thought it was not a bad idea.”
It was the most valuable automobile ever offered for public sale. RM Sotheby’s published an 88-page hardcover, coffee-table-style book about the car, complete with glossy photos and breathless prose (“For one collector, then, there is no higher honor, there is no greater custodianship of history, and there is no greater achievement in the search of the world’s most important car.”)
The night of the auction, Whitten — the chairman of Numerix, a financial-software company — sat beside his wife in the front row and watched and listened as three collectors fought for the car through telephone bids.
When the gavel came down, the GTO had sold for $48.4 million — a world record for a public sale.
“It’s very hard to fathom,” he told CNBC. “But you’re in a space where you have car collectors and Ferraris are the most collectible car and the GTO is the pinnacle Ferrari.”
Sitting in his spacious garage one recent afternoon, Whitten was understated about the record-setting sale. “I was happy with the way it happened,” he said.
You would expect the sale of a car like that to leave a gaping hole in Whitten’s collection, stored in a building along the back end of a nondescript industrial park off I-405, where his next-door neighbor is fellow Microsoft alum Jon Shirley, who owns a world-class collection of his own.
“It’s a serious collection,” said Peter Hageman, a Kirkland-based car collector, dealer and concours judge specializing in Bentleys. “(Whitten) was a big Ferrari guy, but his collection has changed somewhat. I think he’s changing the focus.”
Indeed, Whitten — hired by the late Paul Allen in 1979 as Microsoft’s first director of new products — has plenty of other cars to tend to.
On the very night he sold the GTO, he spent more than $2 million on a Ferrari and three vintage Jaguars — including a 1967 Jaguar E-Type Series 1 Roadster as a 55th birthday present to his wife, Michelle.
It requires a certain suspension of disbelief when you talk to Whitten about this sale, of the stunning amounts of money swirling around it. One car, worth $48 million? The mind reels. But then you think of the miles the GTO has covered, the drivers and dreams it carried over the finish line — often first. The crowds of spectators it blew past long ago and far away. And it makes a little more sense.
It’s an expensive hobby, Whitten acknowledged, but it has also been a good investment.
“I didn’t pay near that much 18 years ago and I got a lot for it,” he said of the GTO. “They went up a lot.”
It also helps that Whitten is still the guy who grew up playing with slot cars and watching Formula One races on ABC’s “Wide World of Sports.” He remembers vividly his parents’ first car — a 1953 Chevy sedan — and the ones that came after. A 1956 New Yorker with a hemi engine in it. A 1965 Chrysler New Yorker Town & Country with a 413-cubic-inch V-8 wedge.
“My mother wanted a car with enough horsepower to get over the mountains of Shaker Heights, Ohio,” he said.
That same year, Studebaker had a contest where you could win an Avanti. Whitten begged his parents to drive down to the dealership and enter. They did — but they didn’t win.
Whitten first got behind the wheel at 11, when he took his parents’ 1963 station wagon to help his brother deliver newspapers. (“It had a touchy gas pedal,” he said.) They never found out.
And then there was the local Jaguar dealer who lived in the apartment building down the street. When the XKE first came out, the salesman parked one in the garage below the building along with his Jaguar C-Type racing. Somehow, Whitten learned that the C-Type didn’t need a key to start. He wouldn’t elaborate.
Whitten got his B.A. in mathematics at the University of Virginia, and his Ph.D. in applied mathematics at Harvard University.
For a while, he was broke. His first car was a Dodge Dart.
But when Microsoft took off and the money started coming in around 1991, so did the sports cars.
Whitten had a Ferrari 348 on order when Allen was having renovations done at his home and asked Whitten to store his Ferrari F40. While waiting for his 348, he bought an F40 of his own — and still has it tucked into the corner of his garage. He once reached 174 mph on an airport runway. He wouldn’t elaborate about that, either.
There are others that are special to him: A 1935 English Racing Automobiles, or ERA 1.5L Grand Prix car known as “Romulus,” which Whitten bought in 2007 from Princess Narisa Chakrabongse of Thailand. It was given to Prince Bira of Siam on his 21st birthday. He went on to be the best driver in England in the late 1930s; the plaques that cover the dashboard were made by him.
“I had been looking for an ERA for seven years,” Whitten said. “When you get one chance to buy a car like that, you buy it.”
His garage isn’t so much a chilly, oil-stained cement bunker as a sleek showroom, complete with kitchen, an adjacent office and a wall of TV monitors, where Whitten played me a highlight film of the most recent GTO owners rally, symphonic music playing underneath images of Champagne, cars and the Italian countryside. He followed that with the video for Sir Mix-a-Lot’s ode to the Lamborghini, “Carz,” filmed on a South King County airstrip.
You watch the Lamborghinis, the color of Skittles candies, all flash and rev, and think about the GTO that was 50 years older and had them all beat. It was a sports car, a Ferrari. But it didn’t make a fuss about it.
“Very few people would recognize it,” Whitten said. “They would see it and think it was a Ferrari, but they didn’t know what it was. It was small. Good brakes. Never really a problem.”
Doesn’t he miss it? He owned it for 18 years and drove it in 30 races, and four GTO reunion rallies, where every five years, he mixed with fellow owners like designer Ralph Lauren and Walmart’s Rob Walton.
“I miss it a little bit,” Whitten said. “But I like having cars that I can use more often. I’m interested in racing other cars. Vintage racing is changing. To keep racing, you have to drive other cars to be more competitive in the groups.”
But there is also a passion that started when he was a kid, and that you can still hear in the way he talks about his cars, past and present; the races he’s driven; and the history they had on their own, and together.
“I have always liked cars. I have always liked sports cars and I like watching racing,” Whitten said. “And I like driving the cars. You can’t really appreciate how good these cars are unless you put them on the race track. The heat in the engine. There are things you can’t believe you can do in a car.”
“And now the GTO,” he said, “is somebody else’s.”