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‘The Allure of the Automobile’ at the High Museum of Art

Gallery preview
“The Allure of the Automobile.”

Exhibit features 18 rare custom-built cars from the 1930s to ’60s.
Models by Bugatti, Duesenberg, Jaguar, Mercedes-Benz, Porsche and Ferrari are featured, including a 1935 Duesenberg SJ Roadster formerly owned by Clark Gable and a 1957 Jaguar XKSS Roadster once owned by Steve McQueen.

The first exhibition to consider the stylistic development of automobiles in the context of prominent design movements, “Allure” traces the evolution of cars, covers the influence of decorative arts and design, and charts changes in styling and engineering before and after World War II.

March 21-June 20. $18; $15, students and seniors; $11, children 6-17; free for children 5 and under and members. 10 a.m.-5 p.m., Tuesdays-Saturdays; until 8 p.m. Thursdays (half-price 4-8 p.m.); noon-5 p.m., Sundays. High Museum of Art, 1280 Peachtree St. 404-733-4444. www.high.org.

Cecil D McCall, Jr., Nita Cofer, Chip Cofer. Photo: Brant Sanderlin

Cecil D McCall, Jr., Nita Cofer, Chip Cofer. Photo: Brant Sanderlin

By Catherine Fox

The way his son Chip tells it, Gene Cofer was, well, a bit of a hot-rodder. He liked to work on cars — you know, put a Cadillac engine into a Buick — and drive them, fast. In fact, his widow Nita claims he married her for the Ford convertible she was driving when they met in 1946.

But when she became pregnant with the first of five children in 1951, she decided he should find a safer hobby. That’s when he started what grew into the Cofer Collection, 41 prize-winning American automobiles dating from 1915 to 1987. The Cofers’ 1948 Tucker will be included in “The Allure of the Automobile,” opening Sunday at the High Museum.

Car-collecting became a fact of family life. The Cofers built vacations around auctions.

“My friends used to ask how I put up with it,” Mrs. Cofer says. “I would tell them, ‘It’s better than another woman.’”

Truth be told, she was, and remains, an avid participant in this adventure. Standing in a room full of gleaming roadsters, she recalls the time they got separated at a Pennsylvania car show.

“By the time Gene found me, I had bought a 1928 Packard and a Ford Bronco and trailer so that we could drive it back.”

The youngest child, Chip grew up with the collection. He was practically born in the black 1957 Thunderbird as his parents sped to Georgia Baptist Hospital in 1961. He remembers hanging around the garage while his father, who died in 2000, worked on the cars. It wasn’t long before he was sliding under potential purchases to check out their condition.

Chip succeeded his father as president of family business — Cofer Brothers, a building supply company in Tucker — and keeper of the collection, along with long-time curator Cecil McCall.

Rare autos can cost a few million dollars, and some collectors treat their vehicles like precious artworks, showcasing them in humidity-controlled, museum-like surroundings. Not the Cofers. They keep theirs in bright, clean but unpretentious quarters. And they use them.

“Gene would drive them to work,” Mrs. Cofer says. “He would go down to the garage and see what would crank.”

Chip drove a 1932 Ford V8 from Anaheim, Calif., to Indianapolis in the first Great American Race in 1983.
But that doesn’t mean the family is cavalier about the collection. True to its moniker, “Stable of Thoroughbreds,” they treat the autos like prize racehorses.

McCall, who also scouts for cars and researches their history, follows a strict maintenance regimen. He “exercises” them by driving each one 50 miles once a quarter, to keep parts lubricated and to spot problems, and follows his quarterly test drives with thorough cleanings.

A mechanic visits the collection once a week to make routine repairs. Specialists in North Carolina handle major fixes and restorations. Every effort is made to hew to an auto’s original state; two of them have been completely disassembled and put back together.

“We’re sticklers for authenticity,” McCall says. “Some collectors update the engines, etc., but we want to feel the [original] experience.”

Readying cars for competitions might mean 40 hours of waxing, polishing and varnishing them to a state of spotlessness. That would seem to be the condition of an elegant maroon 1935 Duesenberg, but McCall, who says his parents were worried he would wash the paint off his car when he was a teenager, points to a microscopic smudge behind the spokes of the virginal white-wall tires that only a car fanatic on his knees would notice.

Or a judge at the Amelia Island Concours D’Elegance, an invitation-only competition in which the Duesenberg was entered. As with the canines in the Westminster Dog Show, every detail counts, and Cofer, who is a hands-on collector, and McCall try not to miss a one in preparing cars.

“We’re down to nuts and bolts and radiator clamps,” Cofer says. “We even want the direction [of the grooves in a row of] screws to line up.”

Each vehicle has a story, which he, McCall and his mother all relate with relish. A cream-colored 1939 Packard belonged to Jock Whitney, who had it made for the premiere of “Gone with the Wind.”

The 1935 dark green Duesenberg parked next to it belonged to Annie Purcell, a New York opera singer, or so the elder Cofer was told when he bought it. Come to find out, Purcell was a Scarsdale madam, a discovery that so tickled Mrs. Cofer than she fitted out a vanity kit that rests on the back seat with a fire-engine-red nightie.

The Tucker is rare: It’s one of 51 drivable prototypes that the flamboyant entrepreneur Preston Tucker — visionary, salesman and perhaps con man — had made to rev up interest in his “car of the future,” which never went into production.

The vehicle has had cameo appearances in two films: Francis Ford Coppola 1988 biopic “Tucker, The Man and his Dreams” and the 2004 “Bobby Jones, Stroke of Genius.” When it returns to the Cofer Collection after its stint as “rolling sculpture” at the High Museum, the Cofers and McCall will have another story to tell.

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