CENTRE HALL — Finally, the moment everyone had been waiting for arrived.
Auctioneer Ron Gilligan swept his gaze across the crowd, calling for any last bids in machine-gun fashion before declaring a winner.
“Sold,” his voice rang out, and just like that, an exotic 1969 Ford Mustang Shelby GT500 428 Cobra Jet that had locals and the vintage car world buzzing had found a new home.
George Cowfer, of Decatur Township in Clearfield County, near Philipsburg, became the toast of the Centre Hall auction Friday, drawing cheers, applause and congratulatory handshakes for his winning bid of $280,000.
“Ladies and gentlemen, the car is going to be staying on the Centre County-Clearfield County line,” Gilligan said.
One of 1,534 made, the Shelby with its monster 428-cubic-inch engine was owned by Larry Brown, a steelworker and car enthusiast from Centre Hall who died from an illness last year without heirs.
But Brown, who bought the car new from the Miller-McVeigh Ford dealership near State College, made the car more distinctive.
After only about 8,500 miles, he mysteriously stashed the Shelby in his garage for 40 years. It emerged for Brown’s estate auction pretty much in factory condition, with original belts, hoses, spark plugs, wires and steering wheel cover — so pristine that its chassis and parts still bore marks from assembly line inspectors.
A 1972 state inspection sticker, the car’s last, adorned the windshield. Like the license plate, the eight-track player with the cassette poking out was original.
Leading up to the sale, Gilligan billed the car as possibly the best-preserved, lowest-mileage survivor of its kind. Its discovery sparked intense interest among serious collectors, and inquiries from California, Missouri, South Dakota, Montana, Texas and several other states.
Some bidders flew in for the auction at Brown’s modest brick ranch home on West Ridge Street, but in the end, the Shelby won’t travel far.
‘That was his love’
Cowfer, who’s in the coal mining business, dueled with a California couple during the final bidding. He already owns five vintage Shelby Mustangs, including his first, bought in 1980 with a winning lottery ticket.
Chatting with friends after Friday’s sale, he declined to talk about his latest acquisition.
Brown’s sister, Connie Mell, of La Crosse, Wis., said he would “have been thrilled beyond words” that his beloved Shelby went to another local car buff.
“That was his love affair,” said Mell, who didn’t know why her brother parked the Shelby for decades but noted that when he was home in between long construction jobs in distant states, he had other cars to drive.
The Shelby reflected Brown’s lifelong passion for cars, Mell said: “Not that he didn’t love his other cars, but (the Shelby) was special.”
She said Brown also would have been “astounded” at the packed auction, which included his unusual 1971 Ford Ranchero GT, a 1974 Ford Econoline Custom 100 van with 554 miles and other vehicles in a small but notable fleet.
“He would be overwhelmed,” Mell said. “I’m sure he’s watching upstairs saying, ‘Oh my goodness, this is happening at my house.’ ”
All the hype about the Shelby fueled speculation that the sale would attract celebrity collectors such as Jay Leno and TV car show hosts.
Though no famous faces popped up in the crowd, a normally quiet side street turned into a circus nonetheless.
“This town has never seen anything like this, huh?” said Glenn Royals, a garage owner and car collector who drove from Torrington, Conn., for the sale but didn’t take any vehicles.
‘Not many like this’
About 1,200 people registered to bid, and the crowd filling Brown’s lawn shoulder to shoulder and spilling out on the blocked-off street appeared at least double in size.
“There are not many like this,” said Barbara Smith, the cashier for Ron Gilligan Auctioneering. “I mean, it’s amazing. It’s fun, but oh my.”
From the start, the Shelby dazzled like a rock star. So many admirers pressed close to it, checking under the hood, peering inside and taking photos, that auction workers eventually cordoned off the car to appease nervous bidders.
Jerry Stover, of State College, was curious enough about who would land the Shelby to drive over for the day with his 17-year-old son.
Stover owns two vintage Mustangs, a 1966 fastback and a 1970 Mach 1, but the time capsule Shelby, while too rich for his blood, impressed him.
“It’ll be hard to find another car with that originality,” he said. “You don’t often see that.”
Anticipation grew throughout the morning as Brown’s antique guns, other collectibles, spare auto parts and tools were sold. A Thursday auction dispersed his household goods, furniture and clothes.
At noon Friday, the house went for $155,000.
Then, at 12:30 p.m., it was time for the vehicles.
Up for sale were such treasures as a 1966 Ford F100 Fleetline pickup, a 2003 Harley-Davidson Sportster motorcycle with seven miles of wear, a 1960 Harley-Davidson and several lightly used Kubota lawn tractors.
But though the Shelby went first, everything else filled out the undercard.
People thronged to the Ranchero with the shaker hood and the 351 Cleveland engine and the custom van with the decorative exterior artwork and gray shag carpet interior. But neither prompted more wondering about final bids than the Shelby.
“I’ll go to 60 grand and not a penny more,” joked Tom Stubler, who came from Trout Run, near Williamsport, for the auction.
He would have been out of the running quickly.
‘Nobody else drove it’
Before Gilligan started the Shelby bidding, he introduced a special guest.
Edgar Treaster was the salesman who sold the Shelby to Brown. Standing before the auction crowd, Treaster recalled that Brown wanted a new Shelby badly but couldn’t find one calling around to dealers.
Miller-McVeigh Ford managed to locate one, but it was sitting in the lobby of the Ford Motor Co. building in Pittsburgh.
No problem: Treaster and Brown hit the road. As Treaster remembers, he first drove the Shelby to the nearest gas station to fill up, then Brown took the wheel embossed with a cobra.
“As far as I know, he stayed there,” Treaster told the crowd. “Nobody else drove it.”
The bidding opened at $500,000, dropped to $50,000 and then quickly rocketed into the stratosphere.
Gasps and murmurs rippled through the crowd as bids topped $200,000. Toward the end, it became a tennis match, with heads swiveling back and forth from Cowfer to the California couple.
“I knew it was going to go north of ($200,000), but I didn’t know how far,” said Dane Hooper, a local car collector who helped manage the auction. “I thought ($300,000) was the ceiling, and it came pretty damn close.”
By comparison, the Ranchero and van were relative bargains.
The Ranchero sold for $42,000 to Cale Henricks, of Mountain Top, and the van went for $22,000 to Steve Fisher, of Mechanicsburg.
Fisher took a trip down memory lane buying the van.
“It just looks great,” he said. “It’s like being a teenager again. It looks cool.”
The Fleetline pickup brought $10,000 — practically a steal next to the others.
Even sold, the Shelby still lured fans, a brawny but sleek people magnet. As the crowd thinned and the sale wound down, a few dreamers couldn’t resist more photos and longing glances.
Meanwhile, across an emptying street, neighbors tended to gardens full of daffodils, and Centre Hall began returning to normal.
Chris Rosenblum can be reached at 231-4620. Follow him on Twitter@CRosenblumNews.