“Dream about it, work hard, and some day you, too, can own the car of your dreams,” she says. “You’ll make it happen.” She speaks from the heart – and from experience.
Ele Chesney, now known as the foremost female collector of antique automobiles and automotive fine art, had lofty dreams as a child growing up in a Lithuanian neighborhood in Elizabeth, New Jersey. “We were poor, but we didn’t know we were poor,” she says. She recalls going to the park on Sundays with her family, gazing longingly at the fine ladies having a tea party and playing cards in a tent as she sat on a blanket, ate a sandwich and played catch with her sister. Ele would ask her mother, “How come we can’t go over there?” She was told, “Honey, we’re not that kind of people.”
From that moment Ele was determined to be “that kind of people,” and worked hard to get there. Her first job at the age of 14 was cleaning a neighbor’s house after school. The pay was the grand sum of 25 cents. She went on to become an accountant, started her own accounting business and went back to college at the age of 50, earning degrees in accounting and science. In 1986 she started a company with two business associates called OMC that made a device for the telecommunication world. She was unquestionably in the right place at the right time, and the business flourished.
And then there were the cars.
Despite the fact that her father never drove, Ele was fascinated with cars, and even confesses she first drove when she was 14 years old – hot-wiring some service vehicles near her house with a bobby pin and taking them for a spin around the parking lot with her friends. Ele’s first car was a 1941 Buick limousine, purchased for her by her father from his cousin, who was an undertaker. Despite her father’s admonishments not to drive the car to school, she of course did – remembering how she loaded kids into the car to go to football games.
Ele recalls going with her dad and a family friend to the 1954 New York Motorama Show, seeing a concept car called the Plymouth Belmont spinning around on a pedestal. “I said, ‘Hey, dad – I’m going to own that car someday,’ she recalls, “And he said, ‘I don’t think so, honey. They don’t sell concept cars.’” It took her many, many years, but Ele did end up owning that car, which had been discovered and restored by Don Williams (of Barrett-Jackson and Blackhawk Collection fame).
She estimates her collection contained as many as 32 vehicles at one time, including many one-of-a-kind cars, to which Ele was particularly attracted. Touring cars specifically have been among her favorites, like a 1917 seven-passenger REO, a 1931 Peerless limousine and a Belgian-made 1928 Minerva. What really “changed her life,” however, was the first “big car” she purchased: a 1934 Victoria V12 Packard. “That car led to me being invited to all the grand concours shows all over the country,” she says.
Amazingly, though, the car closest to her heart is a humble 1941 Plymouth named “Harry,” named after the fire commissioner in her hometown, who was also her mechanic. Once owned by a neighbor of Ele’s, she often told the man she wanted to buy the car from him – and, in 1975, did just that. She restored the vehicle at a cost far more than what the car was worth, but she takes pride in the fact that it has won the celebrated Mayflower Award from the Chrysler Corporation four times in a row and is said to be one of the most perfectly restored 1941 4-door Plymouths in the world. “I could never get rid of my Harry,” she says fondly. “The guys in the Classic Car Club say ‘of all the big cars she has, who restores a ’41 Plymouth?!’”
Ele didn’t just collect cars. She was captivated by the crown jewels adorning a select number of high-end classic cars over the last century: the exquisite glass automotive mascots of jewelry designer, sculptor, glassmaker and master artist René Lalique. Before she sold the collection at auction, Ele had the only 30-piece automotive Lalique collection in the United States.
In the mid-1970s, Ele discovered the Barrett-Jackson auctions after running into Brian and Craig Jackson at the Elegance at Hershey. Since that time, she has been a regular fixture at the auctions, frequently seen in the front row – always with a smile on her face, and often bidding on charity cars to benefit organizations like Johns Hopkins and TGen. Ele became particularly close to Barrett-Jackson matriarch Nellie Jackson, a kindred spirit. “Nellie was my idol,” she says. “I adored her; she was so good to me. She used to tell me, ‘Whatever these guys tell you that you can’t do, just tell them: WATCH!’”
Ele took Nellie’s words to heart and became a much-respected member of the male-dominated collector car hobby. Perhaps Ele’s most poignant moment, however, was after she had shown her 1934 Victoria V12 Packard at the prestigious Meadow Brook Concours d’Elegance and won best in her class. She was invited to an “after-glow” party, held in a huge tent, where there were “swans made out of ice and roses the size of your fist,” Ele recalls. “I looked up to the sky and said, ‘Mom – I finally made that tea party!’”
Editor’s note: This article was made available to TASTE News Service by Barrett-Jackson, which produces collector car auctions, including the upcoming one in Scottsdale, Arizona later this month. More information on that event can be found at www.barrett-jackson.com. For Taste California Travel’s coverage of a Barrett-Jackson auction held in Reno at the time of that city’s Hot August Nights, see Barrett-Jackson Announces More Than $14.2 Million in Sales, Finally Realizing an Objective and Good Times Rolling in Reno.