Where Caddies Rub Noses With Spiders

Neatly arrayed in rows on a field outside Bennington, Vt., sit three dozen antique and collectible cars with an accumulated age of 1,500 years. A 1946 Ford woody wagon is flanked by a two-tone blue 1917 Detroit Electric and a 1933 Franklin Olympic sedan. A few running boards away are a 1963 Corvair Monza convertible and a 1947 Cadillac Fleetwood limousine.

Resplendently stationed at either end are a 1940 Buick Century convertible sedan and a bright yellow 1972 Corvette. The occasion is press day at the headquarters of Hemmings Motor News (HMN), a monthly produced in a converted rural schoolhouse in the rolling hills of Vermont.

BENNINGTON GUSHER. HMN, which owns 80% of the cars displayed, promotes its magazine as "the bible" of the antique-car buff, but it's known locally as "the only oil well in Vermont." HMN began gushing in the mid-1980s when the collector-car craze boomed--and circulation topped out at 298,000. Terry Ehrich, publisher, editor-in-chief, and one of nine stockholders, won't divulge profits, but he says they have held steady since 1989, despite a drop in circulation, to 265,000, due to the recession. "Our advertisers want response, not numbers," says Ehrich. "Advertising has held up well, and we just print and mail fewer copies." One of those copies goes to me.

Hemmings was founded in 1954 in Quincy, Ill., by Ernest R. Hemmings, who sold Model T and Model A Ford parts by mailing mimeographed sales sheets to customers nationwide. That was about the time I bought my first car, a 1924 Model T coupe, for $60. I gussied it up with a handmade orange-and-blue awning.

Ehrich, now 55, also spent his youth smitten by old cars. At 13, he bought a Model A for $35, repairing it at the Shell station in Arlington, Vt., where he pumped gas. That experience, along with selling ads for The New York Review of Books after graduating from Harvard University, convinced his wife's father that Ehrich should run Hemmings, then for sale. He and his now-ex-wife's family bought it in 1969, and a year later they were in Bennington, an 18th century town known for pristine white architecture and a large blue-collar labor pool.

The source of Hemmings' wealth is a homely, phone-book-size compendium of some 27,000 classified ads costing an average of $15 each, crammed inside a mustard-colored wrapper and spread over 900 tissue-thin pages. HMN is more a catalog than a magazine, each issue weighing in at around two pounds.

There is no editorial content, and Hemmings accepts only checks, money orders, and credit cards for its ads. The company payroll of 135 people is 70% female, and all but two of seven department heads are women. Another contrast with Corporate America: Only two HMN managers have MBAs. "For many years, I forbade hiring MBAs because of their focus on the bottom line and emphasis on short-range planning," says Ehrich. He doesn't want car buffs either. "This way, no one is tempted to tell a friend when an ad comes in for a rare car at a bargain-basement price," says Dave Brownell, editor of HMN and Special Interest Autos, a bimonthly.

SKELETON SALE. Employees enjoy a bevy of perks, including time off for voting and marching in the Bennington Battle Day parade, commemorating a Revolutionary War battle. They also get to pick five bushels of apples from a nearby orchard Ehrich bought to save from development.

Quaint is the best description of the editorial process, which includes traditional proofreading: one woman reading a classified ad aloud to another while she checks the copy. "We do it the old-fashioned way," says Ehrich, whose employees' starting wage is $7.58 per hour.

While most of the ads are routine, Ehrich recalls one for a World War I Renault tank (sold) and a nonauto-related ad offering a skeleton in a coffin (ran once, sale undetermined).

Along with HMN and Special Interest Autos, Hemmings publishes Vintage Auto Almanac, a biennial directory of 2,700 car dealers, parts suppliers, restoration shops, junkyards, museums, and publications. And there's an annual calendar called an "assemblage of aesthetically abandoned ancient automobiles," featuring photos from readers of cars and trucks jettisoned in out-of-the-way places all over the world. Hemmings pays readers $50 plus "bragging rights" for pictures that make the calendar, which sells for $9.95, says Brownell. This year's model includes a shot of a 1960 Simca Elysee in New Zealand--with a tree growing from where the engine block was. Another captures a 1935 Hupmobile vanquished by a weed patch in central Ohio.

WINDOW DRESSING. The monthly HMN also features Hemmings "automobilia" such as truck banks (scale models of a dozen company-owned Ford and Dodge panel trucks), T-shirts, caps, and tote bags emblazoned with the Hemmings logo. But caps and calendars are almost window dressing: 93% of the company's revenue comes from HMN's classified ads--from people like me.

My precious Ford is long gone. These days I peruse HMN's 39 categories of ads, delighted to see how my 1964 Morgan Plus 4 four-seater, bought for $4,000 in 1976, has appreciated. The ads include cars for sale and cars wanted, parts for sale and parts wanted, and the same for trucks, not to mention racing and high-performance vehicles, street rods and custom cars, motorcycles and motorbikes, tractors and farm equipment, supplies, tools, books, and literature. Readers can learn who will sell them a left-rear phaeton door ($400) for a 1930 or 1931 Model T and where they can buy original fender skirts to fit a 1958-60 Thunderbird, at $125 a pair.

Old-car buffs know nothing is too obscure for Hemmings. Jim Wirth, who owns an advertising agency in Xenia, Ohio, found parts for his 1933 Adler, a front-wheel-drive German car, in New Zealand. He even located an English-language Adler manual in Germany.

Collectors also advertise for items they want: Hudson, Terraplane, Essex, and Dover badges, pins, model cars, signs, dealer displays, banners, watch fobs, factory items. Also in the "wanted" column: someone to do a "complete restoration for 1959 Edsel four-door sedan, bumper to bumper, ground to roof, inside and out, prefer one-stop service." One recent ad, placed by David in North Carolina, seeks a 1939 Ford 11/2- ton truck or World War II German army truck in solid running condition.

Car buff Ivan Freeberg, a welder in Princeton, Ill., sent $5 to an advertiser in Knoxville, Tenn., for pictures of a 1950 Ford convertible. "Man, that car really looked nice," says Freeberg, who left for Knoxville the following weekend with a trailer. He paid $5,400 for the car and recently turned down an offer of $17,000 for it.

Unfortunately, that kind of easy money has already been made, Brownell tells reporters, as he moves among the vintage automobiles. Brownell is Hemmings' self-described resident car freak. He says the market peaked in May of 1990 and has been flat ever since. He gushingly cites a 1933 Alfa Romeo supercharged roadster, which sold at auction last August in Pebble Beach, Calif., for $1.6 million: "It had a gorgeous red custom body and was original, which is increasingly important these days." But the rest of the market--Hemmings' meat and potatoes--is very slow.

Brownell now includes the 1966 Oldsmobile Toronado and the 1968-85 Fiat Spider/Sports 2000 on his list of cars most likely to appreciate. "The Toronado is an engineering tour de force and one of the most overlooked cars of the '60s," he says, adding that "you'll work hard spending more than $6,000 for an excellent Toro." The Fiat (and later Pininfarina) Spiders are the cheapest two-seat open sports cars available. Car buffs say Fiat stands for "Fix It Again, Tony," but Brownell cites its "great handling and performance." The Spiders sell for $5,000 down to as little as $500 for "tired examples," he says.

Like the old cars here, Hemmings seems rooted in the past. Until four years ago, it didn't take orders by fax. Now, half its ads come that way--on closing day at the rate of 600 per hour. Another leap into the 1990s is a Web site (http://maple.sover.net/hemmings/hmn.html).

Along with the other reporters in Bennington, I'm reluctant to leave this splendid display of old cars, but at last, the time comes for the 235-mile drive back to Connecticut. I climb into my Morgan and head past the gas station that Hemmings owns in downtown Bennington. As I hit the open road, I decide I just might keep an eye out for an excellent Toro, or maybe one of those tired Fiat Spiders.

Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.