By KYLE CHEROMCHA
California is aflame. In the north, the massively destructive Camp Fire has already incinerated an entire town, charred over 100,000 acres, and killed at least 44 people. In the south, the unstoppable Woolsey Fire is still laying siege to the Malibu coast after climbing out of the San Fernando Valley and crossing the adjacent Santa Monica Mountains. It’s claimed two lives so far, burning an unsparing mix of trailer parks and multimillion-dollar estates—and at least one beautiful car collection that included the 1-of-1, Concours-winning 1948 Norman Timbs Special.
The loss of life and property tops all concerns as thousands of firefighters continue to battle both blazes, along with others sprinkled up and down the state in a hellish archipelago. Yet it’s always a tragedy to see history destroyed. You’ve probably never heard of Gary Cerveny, a private collector in Southern California who amassed a fascinating stable over the years. But chances are you’ve heard of his thirty-odd cars, all of which reportedly burned in the Woolsey Fire over the weekend.
The news of his collection’s cremation was flagged by Autoweek on Monday. The vehicles in Cerveny’s Malibu garage ranged from a 1997 Dodge Viper to a 1950 Chrysler Woodie Wagon to a crop of postwar IndyCar racers and experimental drag cars. This 2013 feature in Hot Rod shows its staggering breadth: a 1-of-26 1953 Hudson Italia here, a 1965 Pontiac GTO gasser there. The Norman Timbs Special, a one-off, homebuilt streamliner dreamed up by one of the minds behind the famous Tucker 48, proved a fitting centerpiece for such an eclectic group.
In the late 1940’s, Norman Timbs was looking to really make his mark on the world. The talented automotive engineer had designed an Indy 500-winning race car in the Blue Crown Special and worked on the famed Tucker 48, but the collapse of Preston Tucker’s dream left Timbs with the time to craft something he’d always wanted—a rear-engined, streamlined speed machine.
Timbs dumped the equivalent of over $100,000 into his vision, hiring master builder Emil Diedt to shape the curvaceous, all-aluminum body over a custom tube chassis and Ford suspension parts. A Buick Straight-8 engine in an unconventional mid-rear setup provided enough power to push the car above 120 mph—not quite a land speed record like those set by the German streamliners of the 1930s that inspired Timbs, but a good showing nonetheless. The Norman Timbs Special was at once achingly beautiful and stunningly weird, which makes it our kind of car.
It was almost lost to history once before. The most unusual hot rod fell into uncaring hands over the years before winding up abandoned in a windswept desert junkyard for decades. It was rescued in 2002 and rolled across the Barrett-Jackson auction block in its sorry bare-metal state, where Cerveny saw its potential and snatched it up for under $20,000 when few others bid.
A years-long restoration saw the Norman Timbs Special transformed from a forgotten relic to a celebrity among midcentury customs, one worthy of the awards it’s since won at shows like Amelia Island and Pebble Beach. Its doorless body mixes art deco class with postwar futurism to great effect. Its maroon, gold-flecked paint shines with a deep richness. The social and temporal milieus that gave birth to something that earnestly looks like this are long gone, making it all the more special.
“I’m really excited about this car,” Cerveny told Old Cars Weekly in a 2010 feature on its restoration. “I like European art-deco designs, and now that the car is completed, I’m even more interested in it, and I have no plans to sell it. My wife Diane is unbelievably excited about it, too. It’s going to be the centerpiece of our collection.”
Cerveny is no simple hobbyist—the rest of that article dives into the work he personally performed on the car, including disassembling and rebuilding the Buick engine, and the obsessive steps he and master mechanic Dave Crouse took to ensure the car received as accurate a restoration as possible. His passion is as clear as a smoke-free day; every single one of Cerveny’s 30-plus cars was kept in perfect driving condition, including the Timbs Special. And now they’re all gone. Thankfully, Cerveny and his family were reportedly out of state when the flames swept through.
But the fires are still burning. With evacuation orders still in place, the full extent of the damage in Malibu is unknown. You have to imagine that more than a few expensive cars went up with those burning mansions. An already-iconic photo from Friday shows firefighters pushing a six-figure 1966 Ford Mustang Shelby GT350 out of a ritzy garage as flames began to claim the hillside house. A tweet from actor Gerard Butler showed the fire nabbed his vintage Ford Bronco and at least part of his home.
Malibu Cars and Coffee, long one of the most stacked in the country thanks to its wealthy attendees, won’t be returning for a while; chances are that when it does, there will be more than a few notable empty parking spaces. None of this is to suggest that losing a car is the same as losing a house or a life. Yet there’s still a sense of incalculable loss in the case of Gary Cerveny’s collection. That his prized possession nearly outran fate once before adds to the tragedy.
They say history doesn’t repeat itself, but it does rhyme—if only we knew it was finishing the final verse for the Norman Timbs Special.