2017-01-23 06:11:10
Wheels: A Whiff of a New-Car Smell, Just a Page Flip Away

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 the summer of 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,” Mr. Hayes, who will soon turn 80, recalled recently. “One for them and one for me.”

That diversion evolved into a casual childhood hobby, and then a grown-up obsession, with Mr. 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 — Mr. 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.)

Mr. Hayes is keeping that original cache of postwar handouts along with a few others he can’t let go.

A retired travel agent, Mr. 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.

Mr. Hayes kept his archive of consumerism — thousands of handouts promising, for most of a century, new and improved automotive wonders — 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 the 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,” Mr. Lettieri said.

Another collector, Bill Schwartzberg of Flushing, described Mr. Hayes’s hoard as extensive, but added: “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, Mr. Lettieri estimated that the total number of auto brochures “is easily into the millions.” Consider, for example, that a checklist circulated among collectors lists 17 distinct promotional items for a single model in a single year, the 1926 Nash.

Through the 1950s, Mr. 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 ’30s. 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.

When he moved on to foreign cars, he traded with collectors overseas. “I would send them a packet from an auto show,” he said, “and I would get back a packet from them.”

With an eye to the rare and unusual, he started gathering literature for cars from the Soviet Union, Eastern Europe and China. He bought a collector’s entire inventory of Eastern European brochures and added to it. Mr. Hayes estimated that he has at least 1,000 such items, rattling off some of the brands: Chaika, Lada, Volga, ZiL and ZiS from the Soviet Union; Warszawa and Syrena from Poland; Tatra and Skoda from Czechoslovakia; and Trabant and Wartburg from East Germany. He even has brochures for the EMW, a little-known car briefly produced in a BMW factory marooned behind the Iron Curtain in Eisenach, East Germany.

One oddity is an English-language brochure for the 1973 Skoda that includes either an unfortunate typo or a disgruntled copywriter’s small act of insurrection: “The Skoda does not change much,” it reads. “It’s a tired design that needs an annual facelift.”

At Automobilia’s last big auction, in April 2016, bidders paid as much as $2,000 a lot, with the highest prices for brochures promoting Italian models, Soviet bloc cars and vehicles sold in Asian countries, including China, Iran, Korea and the Philippines.

Mr. Lettieri expects far-flung interest in Mr. Hayes’s collection. “We’ll be getting bids from around the world,” he said. “The internet has opened it up.”

Bidding can be done online and over the phone. Mr. Lettieri said an online catalog would be posted in late February at automobiliaauctions.com; items can be previewed in person at the gallery two days before the sale.

Mr. Lettieri estimated that the collection would bring more than $100,000, but whatever the proceeds, Mr. Hayes is sanguine. “I never acquired something with the intention of trading it or selling it,” he said. “I never saw this as a business proposition.”

He stopped adding brochures for new cars in 1997: “I just said, ‘This is it.’ ”

Since then he bought only vintage items he found intriguing. His last purchase was for $5 (two postcards featuring the Henry J economy car). The most he ever paid was $1,500 for a rare 1933 portfolio of custom-body Chrysler Imperials; it is expected to be a highlight of the auction.

For 30 years, Mr. Hayes hosted an annual open house where members of the Lambda Car Club, a group for gay car collectors, could pore over promotional material for their favorite models. Longtime readers of The New York Times have probably seen images from Mr. Hayes’s brochures without realizing it: For much of the last 20 years his collection was a primary source of illustrations of vintage cars.

Mr. Hayes says he used to see a car in an old movie, go to his files to find a brochure about it, then refresh his memory about its features. He won’t be able to do that anymore, but he can occupy himself with another hobby: A collection of American Flyer model trains. (He’s not sure how many, motioning around the apartment and noting, “This cabinet is full of trains; the walk-in closet in the bedroom is full of trains.”) During the Christmas holidays he runs two trains simultaneously on tables in his dining area.

That collection is still growing. “Why grow up?” the almost-octogenarian asked. “And with the brochures gone, I have a lot more room for trains.”