2010-05-18 20:08:19 UTC
HARRY WOODNORTH | 1922-2010: Traveled the globe in search of classic
autos to fill wish lists of the rich and famous
May 18, 2010
BY MAUREEN O'DONNELL Staff Reporter
Muhammad Ali shakes hands with Harry Woodnorth, who sold him a
Rolls-Royce for his then-wife, Khalilah Ali.
Harry Woodnorth dealt in stardust-spangled names.
The Rolls-Royce Silver Cloud. The Aston Martin Lagonda. The Ferrari coupe.
In half a century of doing business across the globe, the Chicago auto
dealer "sold Rolls-Royces to Muhammad Ali and some Saudi Arabian
sheiks," said his daughter, Ann Flanders Woodnorth.
He died in March at 87, though it was announced last week, in time for a
ceremony Friday that family called a celebration of his life.
The ownership of classic Ferraris is followed as closely as
thoroughbred-horse bloodlines. Ferrari websites show that, in 1960, Mr.
Woodnorth was in possession of a sharklike and legendarily influential
375MM coupe that was once owned by Italian director Roberto Rossellini,
whose affair with film goddess Ingrid Bergman caused a scandal. The
one-of-a-kind road monster had a special color that became known as
"grigio Ingrid" -- Ingrid gray.
"He saw that car when it was in Paris," Mr. Woodnorth's daughter said.
"He wanted that car."
The rich would give him their shopping lists, and Mr. Woodnorth would
hunt. In the late 1960s, he searched for the Model T Ford from "It
Happened One Night" and the Model J Duesenberg once owned by Clark
Gable. He circled the world to track down the car he needed.
During the Cold War, he eased past scowling guards who stopped him at
Berlin's Checkpoint Charlie as he drove a Mercedes-Benz limo, his
"They were not pleased about seeing this auto leave the country with an
American," she said, but he had all the proper papers and was eventually
allowed to pass from East to West Berlin.
In 1968, a story in the Chicago Sun-Times dubbed him a "global auto
sleuth." At that time, he was hunting for John Dillinger's Hudson
Terraplane, and "the dusty Ford V-8 getaway car driven by Baby Face Nelson."
In those pre-Internet days, he assembled files on classic cars, their
owners and locations. To verify history, he studied records from auto
and insurance companies and motor-vehicle offices. He even enlisted an
old Hollywood mechanic to trace their provenance.
"He had a number of cars that were raced at Le Mans in France and sold
them here," said Ralph Loucks, who bought a Silver Cloud from Mr.
Woodnorth, then had antique Oriental rugs cut to serve as floor mats.
Mr. Woodnorth's parents were English, and he was passionate about
English cars. Bentleys and Rolls-Royces, of course. But his favorite was
the Aston Martin -- the choice of suave-but-fictional spy James Bond. He
thought it a "beautiful, beautiful automobile," according to his daughter.
After World War II's privations, some Europeans were eager to unload
fleets gathering dust on their estates. Mr. Woodnorth bought and
imported them and sold them for 40 years from his North Avenue showroom.
You couldn't just gape at the cars there through the windows. The
showroom was closed, and meetings were by appointment. Mr. Woodnorth
didn't advertise -- everything was by word of mouth. People who came to
browse included the likes of Jay Leno.
Before he opened his own business in 1970, Mr. Woodnorth sold for other
dealers. For one deal, he helped arrange for a Mercedes to be painted
Cherokee Red, the signature color of the car's buyer, Frank Lloyd
Wright, said Ron Roush, who worked with Mr. Woodnorth for 25 years.
He sold a gullwing Mercedes to Hugh Hefner. That was when Hef was still
at Esquire magazine, before he started Playboy magazine.
Mr. Woodnorth's gregarious nature engendered loyalty. Beth and Mark
Keller bought several Ferraris from him -- and named their dog Bentley
Woodnorth in his honor.
"He was somebody that you always felt enriched by knowing," Beth Keller
Mr. Woodnorth was adept at the art of the deal, once taking payment in
diamonds, said Ken Glassman, formerly of the Robb Report, a magazine on
His love of cars began in his native Massachusetts, where he bought
Model A Fords for as little as $5, repaired and sold them. He served in
the Navy in World War II, and worked at IBM in its early days, where he
fell in love with a boss' 1949 Jaguar XK120 -- and bought it.
In the 1950s, Mr. Woodnorth raced cars at Le Mans in France; Road
America in Elkhart Lake, Wis., and Florida's Sebring Raceway. He moved
in an American racing fraternity that included "Gentleman Jim" Kimberly
of Kimberly-Clark fame. Mr. Woodnorth sold Kimberly a Maserati.
Other survivors include his wife, Mary, and two grandchildren.
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