Rare Hemis, Bandit's Trans Am among the Wellborn treasures up for auction

Marco R. della Cava
·Automotive Contributor
Rare Hemis, Bandit's Trans Am among the Wellborn treasures up for auction

Tim Wellborn doesn’t go for foreign cars. Never has, not since the day his father rolled up to the family home with a 1971 Dodge Hemi Charger.

“I’d sit in that thing and dream as a little kid,” says Wellborn with a soft Southern drawl. “I turned 16 and wouldn’t you know, the keys just disappeared to that car.”

Wellborn laughs deeply. “That’s probably why I’m still alive. No 16-year-old kid should have the keys to a Hemi. But ever since then I’ve been a muscle car guy.”

Some might say he’s been the muscle car guy. Wellborn has over the decades amassed — thanks to a successful Alabama-based kitchen cabinet business, which he sold a few years back — one of the nation’s top collections of fast Detroit iron.

Since 2010, some of those 70 cars have been on rotating display at the Wellborn Muscle Car Museum in Alexander City, Ala. Now, 25 gems from that collection will hit the Mecum Auctions block Jan. 16-25 in Kissimmee, Fla. (the event will be broadcast on NBCSN).

“We picked out cars that I like to call ‘unobtainium,’” says Wellborn, adding that the sale will allow him to buy new cars for the museum, which he hopes will exist long after he’s gone.

“If you have some interesting cars, someone will come once, maybe twice, but after that they’re bored,” he says. “So it’s really important to have the resources to keep the collection interesting for many years to come.”

1969 Dodge Hemi Daytona
1969 Dodge Hemi Daytona

Topping the list of 25 is unquestionably the 1969 Dodge Hemi Daytona, a “pedigree” car that once did time in collector Otis Chandler’s stable and is among the fastest stock cars to ever rip up the roads. “It has a true NASCAR race motor from a brief age when you’d race that car on Sunday and sell the same one to the public on Monday,” says Wellborn. “That’ll never happen again.”

Wellborn thinks this car might hit seven figures, thanks in part to it being a 4-speed 425-hp 426 Hemi Daytona with only 6,000 original miles.

Another rare bird is Wellborn’s 1971 Dodge Hemi Charger R/T with a (then) wildly unheard of option: a sunroof. “We’ve literally never seen one at auction, and it’s likely only one of three that exist,” says Frank Mecum, who estimates the car could fetch $500,000.

That’s a far cry from the original sticker of $3,223, which actually doubled to a whopping $6,304 after a slew of options were added that include the aforementioned sunroof carved out of its white vinyl roof, its monstrous Hemi engine, a Slap Stick-shifted Torqueflight 3-speed automatic gearbox, a Super Track Pack rear end as well as power steering and brakes.

Also of note in the group are two celebrity cars. One is a black 1978 Pontiac Trans Am personally owned by actor Burt Reynolds (cue the lyrics from Bruce Springsteen’s “Cadillac Ranch” - “Even Burt Reynolds in that black Trans Am/All gonna meet down at the Cadillac Ranch”). Made infamous by motoring stints in Reynolds’ “Smokey and the Bandit” movies, this black Trans Am bore his personal plate, BANDT22. And the other car is a copper-colored 1978 Pontiac Firebird used for filming the hit ‘70s TV show “The Rockford Files,” starring James Garner.

“What’s cool is that Garner did a lot of his stunt driving himself, so you know he was behind the wheel of this very machine,” says Wellborn.

One fascinating lot isn’t really a muscle car, but is a must-have for someone owning one of the greatest American sports cars ever built, the Shelby Cobra. From across a crowded parking lot this 1966 Ford truck doesn’t look like much at all in its unrestored form, but walk closer and suddenly the white lettering on the cab’s blue doors comes into sharp relief: Cobra.

One of only six Ford trucks commissioned as transports for Carroll Shelby’s dominating Ferrari-killers, this particular example boasts a Cobra shift knob and dash-mounted tachometer, and no doubt would be the ultimate way to truck in a Cobra to that next historic race.

“I guess anyone at the auction could be it, but it really should be a Shelby owner who gets it,” says Wellborn.

Mecum Auctions has long been a destination for muscle car sellers and buyers alike, but the firm argues that it hasn’t quite seen a collection like this yet.

“It’s simply the best group of muscle cars we’ve ever sold, partly because many of them just haven’t been available to purchase for going on 30 years,” says Mecum. “We expect many of them to set significant benchmarks.”

As for Wellborn, he’s of two minds when it comes to seeing some of his children go.

On the one hand, he’s loathe to let any roll out the door, but on the other he’s always seen himself “as just a caretaker of these cars, not an owner, so maybe now it’s time for someone else to take care of them.”

Wellborn’s daily driver, not surprisingly, is a modern muscle car, a 2013 Dodge Challenger with 475 hp. Though that isn’t quite enough: he’s waiting on a SRT Hellcat variant of the same machine that will punch the horsepower up to 707.

“I’ve known plenty of friends and collectors who are big into foreign sports exotics, and they’re nice, but for me there’s nothing like American stuff,” says Wellborn. “Something about those big engines and the sound they make. Once that’s imprinted on you, that’s it.”