Collector never saw them as an investment, but today they're expected to fetch more than $100,000.
Steve Hayes was 9 when, after a death in the family, his parents sent him to Maine to visit a cousin. To keep their charge occupied, the relatives took him to the local auto dealerships to see the new models.
It was summer 1946, and America had gone car-crazy as vehicle production resumed after World War II. Pent-up demand for new cars far exceeded supplies, so many models were not available, but prospective customers could at least drop by a dealership for a whiff of new-car smell and a sales brochure to stoke their dreams.
“We visited half a dozen dealerships in and around York, and picked up brochures,” says Hayes, who will soon turn 80.
That diversion evolved into a casual childhood hobby, and then a grown-up obsession, with Hayes amassing some 13,500 marketing brochures.
Now, about 71 years after starting his collection — which chronicles the evolution of motorcars through the 20th century and includes lush illustrations worthy of an art gallery — Hayes will sell “99.9 percent of it” at an April 1 auction at the Nest Egg Gallery in Berlin, Conn.
He still remembers which promotional items he gathered on that first trip: “Ford, Chevrolet, Pontiac, Olds, Buick, Cadillac, Plymouth, Dodge, Chrysler — but no De Soto — Kaiser-Frazer, and I got the Studebaker folders from the family doctor.” There was even a brochure for Oldsmobile’s Hydra-Matic Drive, one of the first automatic transmissions. (“Nothing for your left foot to do!” it promised.)
Hayes is keeping that original cache of postwar handouts along with a few others he can’t let go.
A retired travel agent, Hayes has lived in Manhattan since 1963. Although he has a driver’s license and occasionally rents cars on his travels, he has owned only one — quite briefly.
In 1960, when he was a soldier learning Russian at the Army Language School in California, he bought a 10-year-old Studebaker Champion Starlight Coupe. He had it three months.
Hayes kept his archive of consumerism inside discreet file cabinets and storage drawers in his meticulous four-room high-rise apartment near Madison Square Park. Packed into 70 boxes, the collection arrived last fall at Automobilia Auctions in Connecticut, where owner Jerry Lettieri has spent months taking inventory and dividing the archive into auction lots with a common theme.
“It is a very significant collection, starting in the early 1900s and covering the 20th century,” Lettieri says.
Another collector, Bill Schwartzberg of Flushing, N.Y., describes Hayes’ hoard as extensive, but adds: “It’s a hobby you can’t complete. There are always items out there that you don’t have.”
Indeed, given the global sweep of the auto industry, the 120-plus years of production and the thousands of companies that have made cars, Lettieri estimates that the total number of auto brochures “is easily into the millions.”
Through the 1950s, Hayes picked up each new-car brochure every year. By the end of that decade he had begun looking backward, buying vintage brochures from collectors.
His earliest item is from 1899, promoting electric vehicles, and he has some of the first Oldsmobile catalogs, circa 1901. Over time he came to especially treasure the elegant marketing materials for luxury automobiles of the 1920s and 1930s. He is keeping a boxed portfolio for coach-built models of the 1932 Packard V12: It includes black and white photographic plates on heavy stock depicting each of the 30 available custom body styles.
Lettieri expects far-flung interest in Hayes’ collection. “We’ll be getting bids from around the world,” he says. “The internet has opened it up.”
Bidding can be done online and over the phone. Lettieri says an online catalog will be posted in late February at automobiliaauctions.com.
Lettieri estimated that the collection would bring more than $100,000, but whatever the proceeds, Hayes is sanguine.
“I never acquired something with the intention of trading it or selling it,” he says. “I never saw this as a business proposition.”