Photos courtesy Mecum Auctions.
The original taillamps? Too Seventies. The original marble interior pieces? Didn’t fit with the new paint scheme. But the original Reno Bell rotary dial in-car telephone? That stayed put when one of George Barris’s ultra-pimp Lincoln-based Bugazzis went through a recent restomodding, and now the twice-customized car – rotary phone included – will head to auction.
In 1973, Joe Conforte was just about on top of the world. His Mustang Ranch outside Reno had recently obtained legal status, and he even got to appear as himself in a Walter Matthau flick, Charley Varrick, that year. With the money from the former, and perhaps the influence of Hollywood executives stemming from the latter, Conforte found himself in Barris’s shop buying one of the handful of 1973 Lincoln Continental Mark IV’s that Barris modified in a vague neoclassical vein.
Mark IV’s, of course, came at a luxury price – about $9,000 – but Barris aimed for a much more affluent buyer, with prices ranging from $30,000 to $40,000. For that price, a Bugazzi owner got essentially a Mark IV with a fiberglass cap covering the original opera windows, fiberglass extensions to the front and rear fenders, standalone headlamps, and interiors adorned with Persian rugs, marble panels and brass fittings. The stock 20-8hp Lincoln 460-cu.in. V-8 wheezed under the extra weight.
The idea for such an ostentatious car, surprisingly, came not from Barris, though sources differ on from whom the idea did come. According to an RM Sotheby’s account, Harry Bentley Bradley originally designed the Bugazzi for custom car show promoter Paul Rimmer, who bought custom car shop in Long Beach specifically to have it build the Bugazzi for him and then turned the concept over to Barris. Custom car builder David Pygeorge of Danville, California, however, said the idea originated with candy paint creator Joe Bailon, who built three Bugazzis before Barris took over construction.
(Barris’s site makes no mention of the Bugazzi’s origins, simply stating “This uniquely styled motor car was created for the person who has everything and can afford the luxuries it has to offer.”)
Also uncertain: exactly how many Bugazzis Barris built. He reportedly set up a coachbuilding firm, Hollywood Coach Builders, and boasted he’d build 25 or so per year. Estimates of how many he actually turned out range from six to 12. Pygeorge claims eight, all of them slightly different from one another, most of them sold to Hollywood executives and actors (and not including a similarly styled Continental Barris built for George Foreman).
Pygeorge first saw a Bugazzi in about 1973 or 1974 when Conforte, his uncle, stopped by his parents’ house with it. Over the next several years, Conforte put somewhere around 50,000 miles on the car before first fleeing the country ahead of charges on tax evasion in the Eighties, returning to the United States to serve out his prison time, and then fleeing for Brazil in 1991 to avoid charges of bankruptcy fraud.
Obtaining the Bugazzi took considerably more paperwork and legal wrangling than buying any regular old car, Pygeorge said. On top of that, Conforte had left his Bugazzi outside, atop a hill near Sparks, for years, “just rotting away.”
Once Pygeorge had clear title to the car, he took little time deciding to customize the already-customized Lincoln. “For the Seventies, it was okay; for the 2000s, no,” he said. “I was going to redo it anyway, so I took it upon myself to take a big gamble.”
With Barris’s blessing, Pygeorge went through the entire car, reworking the front end with a more prominent grille, extending the quarter panels, lowering it six inches, replacing the taillamps with 1939 Buick directional lamps fitted with LEDs, and sending it to Art Himsl for paint. Instead of marble interior panels, he went with granite. About all that remained from the original Bugazzi were the headlamps, the above-mentioned phone, and the 460 drivetrain.
After about a year’s worth of work, Pygeorge debuted the Bugazzi in 2010 at the Fresno Autorama and proceeded to display it at shows for years afterward. He said his decision to list the Bugazzi with Mecum for its Monterey auction was spurred by his age and the eight cars currently in his garage. “I just want to put all my ducks in a row, you know?”
According to a Mecum spokesperson, the pre-auction estimate for the Bugazzi ranges from $75,000 to $95,000. The last Bugazzi to appear at public auction sold in 2009 for $19,800 against a pre-auction estimate of $30,000 to $60,000.
The Mecum Monterey auction will take place August 16-19. For more information, visit Mecum.com.