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Collector discovers America in a storage barn

1959 Talbot-Lago America .

Stephen Ross

Stephen Ross's 1959 Talbot-Lago America, one of the final dozen cars built by the storied French car maker, wasn't exactly a "barn find" but was close enough to count as such in car collecting's upper atmosphere.

Ross didn't at first recognize the rough example he spotted while touring the storage barns in 2006 of Victoria-based Mercedes-Benz Gullwing restoration expert Rudi Koniczek.

"What the hell is that," he'd asked. "That would be a Talbot-Lago," was Koniczek's reply.

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The America had arrived from Switzerland as part of a three-car deal, and prior to that had been rallied extensively and hard in European vintage events, says Ross. "And being of very weird construction - the frame is a combination of steel and ash, and the body made of riveted aluminum and fibreglass - needed a lot of work."

He was immediately intrigued by this battered survivor - one of just eight known to exist - but it wasn't for sale. About a year later, however, he got a call. "The owner's decided to sell. Here's the price. You've got five minutes to decide because there are nine people behind you."

What Ross purchased was one of the last-gasp efforts by France's Talbot-Lago before it was finally absorbed by Simca in 1959.

Talbot-Lago's convoluted history begins with French industrialist Adolphe Clement deciding to build cars at the turn of the century. To capitalize on the burgeoning British market, he teamed up with the Earl of Shrewsbury & Talbot and they began building Clement-Talbots in 1904 in London.

Following the First World War, the earl sold out to French auto maker Darracq, which joined forces with British Sunbeam to create Sunbeam-Talbot-Darracq, one of the car industry's first multinationals. It sold Talbots (pronounced with the T) and Sunbeams in England and Darracqs and Talbots (with the T silent) in France.

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This unwieldy enterprise staggered along for a while without notable success, until Rootes bought the British portion of the company in 1935 and ex-Italian army major Anthony Lago (who'd worked with British gearbox manufacturer Wilson, of pre-selector fame) took over the French part.

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A new six-cylinder engine and the Lago Special were among his first successful efforts and some of the most beautiful cars of the late 1930s were soon being built on Talbot-Lago chassis. One, a T150-C Lago Speciale Teardrop Coupe with bodywork body by Figoni et Falaschi sold a few years ago for $3.7-million.

Lago also took the company Grand Prix racing in 1936 with cars dubbed Talbot-Lagos. Initially competitive, they soon joined other marques in being overwhelmed by the Mercedes-Benz/Auto Union onslaught. A pair of Talbot-Lagos failed to qualify for the 1941 Indy 500.

Talbot-Lago GP cars were to emerge again after the Second World War and enjoy some success. And a two-seater version won Le Mans in 1950 and almost again two years later. Pierre Levegh, attempting the drive solo, missed a shift while in the 22nd hour and blew the engine.

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Talbot-Lago also returned to building exotic cars for the street, but never enough of them to ever be more than a step or two away from the brink.

The final attempt to save the company was the America of 1959, a handsome coupe powered by a 2.5-litre, 125-hp BMW V-8 and with BMW running gear aimed, not surprisingly, at the American market. But it was the final act, and only 12 were built before the curtain fell.

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What followed Ross's purchase was a restoration by Koniczek that doubled the America's not-inconsiderable price. "It wasn't supposed to be a full resto, but once we started digging into the car and added in the while-we're-at-its, it became a year-long project."

Ross, now 49, was born in Calgary and became interested in cars and racing early on, always watching "every minute" of the Indianapolis 500 on television. He recalls as a young teen handing his mother a list of 16 cars, informing her he planned to own all of them. He doesn't remember what was included but says, "it was likely scattered with Ferraris."

Ross got his learners permit at 14 and his licence at 16 - "both very important events for me" - and his first car was an "old beat-up Datsun 510" soon displaced by a new late '70s Renault R5. A family friend had a Renault dealership and "and everyone in our family owned them," Ross recalls of attempts to keep the dealership solvent. "The initial purchases, and then the service bills, must have helped."

He owned a 1979 Fiat Spider while at Western and the University of Alberta, graduating with a double major in political science and psychology, skill sets he naturally began employing in a career as an investment adviser, currently with CIBC Wood Gundy.

The '79 Spider remains a cherished part of a collection that now includes much more exotic machinery. "It's still the go-to car. It always works when nothing else does."

Although he has owned many interesting cars, "collecting" them began just a decade ago when a friend asked if he'd like to buy a 1956 Mercedes- Benz 300SL Gullwing, which he promptly did. Next up was a '74 Ferrari Dino. "Then it just kind of went crazy," he says.

Currently taking up just some of the space in his garage are the Gullwing and Dino, a Ferrari 365 GTC/4, a Ferrari 512, a Lamborghini 400 GT, a 1959 Mercedes-Benz 220 SE Cabriolet, a 1967 Alfa-Romeo Guillia GTB. Ross is also involved in vintage rallying and races a 2.0-litre Formula Continental open wheeler.

The Talbot-Lago America's restoration was completed late in 2008 and it ran in the prestigious Colorado Grand rally that fall, winning a rookie award, and in 2009 in the California Miglia winning a Chopard watch for Ross - fitting recompense for returning one of the world's rarer and more unusual French cars to its former "Gloire."

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