Auction of the Estate of Dr. Ralph W. E. Cox, Jr.

by Bill McKelvey

Dr. Ralph Waldo Emerson Cox, 1915-2012, of Rio Grande, NJ, graduated as a dentist, but instead pursued his passion for aviation.  During WW II he joined the US Navy Air Force where he flew anti-submarine missions along the US east coast and in Europe.  When the war ended he and a friend purchased a government surplus Douglas DC-3 and began flying the Eastern Seaboard.  In 1949 they founded US Overseas Airlines (USOA) specializing in transporting military personnel around the world.  They were based at the then vacant former Naval Air Station at Cape May County Airport and occupied the big hangar, which in 1997 became the Naval Air Station Wildwood Aviation Museum.  In the next decade the USOA business developed into a major passenger and commercial aviation business which flew all over the US, Europe, and South America.  They participated in the Berlin Airlift, Korean Airlift, and with flights from Guantanamo Bay during the Cuban Missile Crisis.  They pioneered low cost coach passenger air service in the US transcontinental market to the islands of Hawaii and operated scheduled services to the Philippines, Okinawa, the Far East, San Juan, and the Caribbean.  At their peak they had 18 planes and employed 1,000 persons, but by 1964 USOA was forced into bankruptcy when their military air transport contracts were suddenly cancelled and given to a smaller airline.

Dr. Cox began collecting old cars in the early 1950s and was soon joined by Ray Bassett who helped him build a wide ranging collection of all things wheeled or self-propelled.  One of their earliest acquisitions was a 1936 Mercedes-Benz 500K which Cox had found on a Munich car lot in 1951 while on his honeymoon.  That same car was sold earlier in 2014 by Bonhams for $1.43 million.  Cox and Bassett combed the country for interesting vehicles.  Many of the smaller items were transported back to Rio Grand / Wildwood in Cox’s own cargo planes.  They acquired a 1930 former Fifth Avenue Coach Co. (NYC) model Z-BH double deck, open top, Yellow Coach bus, #1207, in CA which they then attempted to drive home to NJ.  They got only as far as the Mojave Desert before breaking down, but did eventually get it home.  Interestingly, this bus was one of two which were acquired by a Hollywood movie studio, the other was #1215.  Jeff Marinoff has a publicity photo of #1215 taken on 17 January 1946, at the center of the George Washington bridge, when it was en-route to CA.

Frontier Village History Museum evolved after years of Cox and Bassett collecting and restoring vehicles and was opened in 1961 in the big WW II hangar (Naval Air Station Wildwood) at Cape May County Airport.  History was portrayed there with automobilia; coin operated amusements and mechanical music instruments; Victorian transportation (horse-drawn carriages, wagons, a steam fire pumper, and an omnibus); a San Francisco cable car; a Brill two-axle trolley from Kyoto, Japan; Aviation items (including models, early engines, a Buzz-Bomb, and small airplanes); many vintage automobiles; etc.  With the Airline’s closure, so did the doors of the Museum in 1964.  The contents were removed from the hangar and taken the short distance east to be stored in a large barn on the Cox property in Rio Grande where they have remained ever since.  It was obvious that many additional items which ended up in the auction were collected later by Cox.  

Dr. Cox died in 2012 at 97.  Many of us who knew of his collection speculated that it might be sold off by his family in one huge auction.  The spectacle did not disappoint...  The sale attracted 280 bidders from sixteen different countries and produced a combined total of $3,000,000 for the collection.

The Cox Auction was scheduled for Saturday, 10 May (coincidentally also National Train Day and the weekend of the air show and open house at the giant Joint Base Maguire-Dix-Lakehurst where 300,000 attended).  The auction was managed by Bonhams - one of the world’s largest auctioneers of fine art and antiques and appraisers, established in 1793 and specializing in motorcars.  An 8.5" x 10.5" color auction catalog of 112 glossy pages was produced and each of the estimated 300 potential bidders were required to purchase one @ $35 for admission.  A photo which spanned the front and back covers of the catalog showed what Cox’s Frontier Village History Museum looked like when it was set up in the hangar.  The auction was fittingly held in the very same hangar which housed Dr. Cox’s USOA and the majority of items were moved by Bonhams from the Cox barn to the hangar where the aviation museum displays were pushed aside to make room.   A portable stage was set up for the auctioneers; three staff handled internet bidders; three more for phone bidders, plus registrars, cashiers, and laborers for a total of over 15 staff.     

The bidding began at 11 am after a two hour preview session.  Our small group of friends included Gary Mahan of Basking Ridge; J. R. May of Wall Township; Bill Wall of Shore Line Trolley Museum, Branford, CT (with an interest in the cable car and the trolley); and myself.  General announcements were made and it was stated that the 1920 Baldwin 2-6-2 steam locomotive No.26 was withdrawn from the auction.  Apparently a deal was made between the family and Pine Creek Railroad to leave the locomotive where it was.  The auctioneers were quite skilled at extracting every final $10, $100, $1,000 or $5,000 for the benefit of the Cox family as well as Bonhams, which got a premium of from 10 to 25% added on to each item, plus 7% NJ sales tax.  A lot of small batches and the lesser items were sold at first.  A J. P. Seeburg Style G Orchestrian sold for near $37,000.

My first item of interest for the future NJ Transportation Heritage Park was #201, a ca. 1900 Omnibus built by Brewster & Co. of NYC with an estimated value of $15,000 to $20,000.  It was hammered down for over $40,000 well beyond my limit.  The 1873 Silsby steam fire pumper went for $100,000*.  A telephone bidder took the Savoia Marchetti S-56 airplane at $100,000*.  The 1906 SF Cable Car with an estimated value of $25,000 to $40,000 opened at $40,000 and quickly rose to $87,500* - far beyond my limit of $35,000.  Item #207, a ca. 1918 Brill two axle, 42" gauge, trolley, from Kyoto, Japan had an estimate of from $10,000 to $15,000.  I dropped out of the bidding at $26,000.  It was bid up to $52,500*.  Next was a lunch break at which Gary Mahan and each I got a delicious sausage sandwich - Gary treated.

The Motorcars (and Motor Vehicles) were the final 34 items to be auctioned.  A 1904 Ford Model “AC”, four seater, rear entrance, Tonneau went to a NJ member of the Horseless Carriage Club of America for $88,000*.  The top lot of the day, a 1909 Premier Model 45 45/55hp 6-cylinder Raceabout was sold to a telephone bidder for $143,000*.   Item #319 was the Yellow Coach bus.  Estimated price was from $20,000 to $30,000.  Gary Mahan got it for $37,400*.  A 1917 International Auto Wagon Model EX 1,500lb truck went for $29,000.  Item #328 was a 1918 chain-drive Mack AC “Bull Dog” 3.5 ton city service fire ladder truck which had suffered from exposure to the weather, but had possibilities...  It could be re-purposed as an open bench people carrier for parades - we have lots of wooden bench seats...  Estimate: $3-4,000.  It sold for $1,000...  I should have bid!  But then again where would I put it?  The last item I was interested in was #330, a 1927 Yellow Coach 16 to 20 passenger Parlor Coach with an estimated value of from $8,000 to $12,000.  I GOT IT FOR $1,530.10!*   ...End of sale...

* Price includes auctioneer’s premium.

PS   I stayed at the Tangiers Motel at Wildwood Crest - a family friendly, affordable, “Doo Wop” era motel.  The proprietors, Arlene and Bruce Smith, own a post WW II Atlantic City Jitney built on a Jeep chassis with a Brill body.


A 1927 Yellow Coach 16-20 Passenger Parlor Coach for the New Jersey Transportation Heritage Park...

The Bonhams Auction of the Estate of Dr. Ralph Cox on 10 May 2014 had four items of interest to the author.  However, three of the four items were hammered down for well above my price limits.  Near the very end of the auction my final item of interest came up for bid.  The estimated value was from $8,000 to $12,000.  I couldn’t believe it when the bidding peaked at $1,000!  So, I stuck up my paddle for $1,100 and the other bidder upped me to $1,200.  I went for $1,300 ($1,530.10 with premium and sales tax) and the other bidder dropped out!  How about that - I got an item I wanted for far less than I expected...

Specifications: Designed and built by Yellow Truck and Coach Manufacturing Co. of Chicago in 1927; Type X; Coach #12,564; Continental 6-cylinder gasoline engine; stick shift; six 20 x 6.00 tires, plus one spare (Ford Model AA truck tires are the same and are still available - original tires were Sieberling Special Service with diamond tread); shows 24,128 miles on the odometer.  The chassis is a steel truck type with dual rear tires.  The body is wood frame with screwed on aluminum panels, except fenders, hood, and front of coach which are all steel.  Roof is heavy wood construction to withstand weight of luggage and trunks of passengers, plus the luggage handler himself, with a narrow ladder at rear for access.  Roof cover is painted canvass, similar to that of early trolley cars.  Luggage area (about 2/3s of roof) has hardwood strips to protect the canvass and is surrounded by a low steel double rail.  Coach is built low to the ground and with less than 6 foot ceiling height - which made it easier for driver to get luggage up and down from roof.

History: This coach was purchased new by the Seaview Country Club in Galloway, NJ (on Rt. 9, above Atlantic City) which was founded in 1914 by public utility magnate Clarence H. Geist and a 300 room hotel was built.  The Yellow Coach X was used to transfer guests between the Absecon railroad station and the hotel - just a few miles for each round trip.  We don’t know how long the coach was used by Seaview, but they apparently did not put on a lot of mileage on it.  An anchor for a telephone line on the side of the coach, telephone interface hardware, and removal of some of the seats indicates that it was apparently used as a construction or yard office for a time.  It probably never left the state of NJ nor Cape May County.  We do know for sure that it had been in Dr. Cox’s barn for the last 50 years...  Seaview is famous for its golf courses and tournaments.  In 1984 Marriott bought the club and turned it into a resort open to the public.  Marriott sold the property to LaSalle Hotel Properties in 1998 and in 2010 it was sold to Richard Stockton College of NJ for $20,000,000.  Many years ago the Atlantic City Transportation Co. operated Twin Coaches and GM model TDH-4512 buses to Seaview.  Today NJT’s Rt. 508 bus still goes to Seaview and continues onward.

Moving the Yellow Coach was done on Sunday, 11 May as Bonhams required all items to be removed by noon on Monday the 12th.  Fortunately, I did the advance preparation and had lined up Shadyside Trucking (friend Capt. Phil Francis) to do the hauling.  And, I spoke to Rand Urmston in advance for permission to move the coach to his shop for mechanical (motor and brake) work and replacement of all seven tires.  Phil arrived about noon and Bonhams dragged the Yellow Coach X out of the NAS Wildwood hangar and onto the concrete apron.  He backed up his Landall trailer, winched the coach up onto the deck, and chained it down securely.  Phil’s preplanned route was Rts. 47 & 55 to Camden; I 295, Rts. 31, 202 and I 287 north to the Boonton area.  We stopped en-route at a WaWa for lunch and arrived at our destination late in the afternoon.  We only had to stop one other time - when the rear door flew open...  Phil tilted the trailer up on an angle and released the chains but the coach wouldn’t budge whatever he did.  Finally it lurched forward and to the right, with front tire dropping off the trailer about 5 feet from the end.  We were in deep s___t trouble...  Phil worked with a jack and binders for over an hour, but we could not correct the problem.  If we pulled the coach off the trailer at that angle the right rear wheel would have gone off the edge, toppling the vehicle onto the street.  Knowing that the repair shop owner was out with his family celebrating Mother’s day we hesitated calling for help.  Finally we made the call and he agreed to get to us in an hour.  He did, and his fork lift picked up the front of the bus and guided it into his yard.

The restoration plan for the “X” is as follows:  1. Remove all seven tires and get the 4 piece rims sandblasted, primed, painted, and install new tires;  2. Get the seized engine freed and operating (the preliminary step of giving each cylinder a good drink of Kroil has been completed);  3. Repair vacuum assisted brake system;  4. Remove rectangular steel luggage rack railings to simplify temporarily tarping the coach;  5. Railings to be sandblasted, primed, painted, and replaced following roof covering replacement;  6. Remove wood luggage slats and old canvass roof covering; apply high linseed oil based paint to exposed wood roof and replace canvass roof covering with a more modern, reduced maintenance membrane;  7. Remove seats from interior and have them re-upholstered;  8. Repair irregularities in floor and paint black;  9. Remove and weld cracked spare tire casting at rear of coach;  10. Repair/rebuild running boards on driver’s side and rear;  11. Remove, re-chrome, and replace bumpers;  12. Repair/replace wiring as needed;  13. Fabricate new battery box for left front running board;  14. Impregnate leaf springs with light oil;  15.  Weld cracked rod which holds left headlight and fender;  16. Replace glass on right front door with laminated safety glass;  17. Remove access panels for all windows to access, lubricate and repair operating mechanism & replace rubber weather stripping;  18. Replace/repair all vandalized window woodwork;  19. Replace all woven wall coverings;  20. Find and install appropriate chairs to replace missing ones (move all restored originals forward and add new to rear);  21. Install trolley-type bell under floor;  22. Wire wheel rust and paint from steel fenders and hood, prime and paint former black and latter yellow;  23. Remove both horizontal molding bands, strip and paint black;  24. Sand and prepare all exterior body surfaces for prime and paint;  25. Restore and install headlights and turn signals;  26. Polish radiator frame;  27.  Replace radiator and gas tank caps;  28. Replace missing/broken dash board items;  29. Replace front door operating mechanism;  30. Adjust all doors for proper closing and latching;  31. Strip old varnish from ceiling and re-coat;  32. Road test operation; Inspect; Register; Get insurance;  33. Other...

The future for the Yellow Coach X demands that it be housed in a building!  Temporarily it can be cocooned with shrink film - like a yacht and stored at Boonton.  It would be a prime exhibit for the future NJ Transportation Heritage Park.  It would also be an excellent promotional - parade vehicle.  And, it could be used to give visitors an historic ride experience on an off-street roadway within the Park confines.  The “X” would lead the Friends motor coach collection in age and take it’s rightful place immediately ahead of one of our two Yellow Coach Model 733s which could and should be restored to operation as a PSCT vehicle...  PS  Does anyone know of a garage or a barn which could house the little YC - X at a reasonable rent?  It is only 24' 6" long; 7' 6" wide; and 8' high.