“Don’t let them sell my cars.”
It was sadly apparent that my dear friend was dying. He lay on a couch at his mother’s house overlooking Newport Harbor, to be close to his doctor. I just nodded, not knowing what to say. Fortunately, he did say this to others and make appropriations for the collection to remain intact and perpetual. It can be said that money can buy anything — except happiness and health.
Doug Magnon and his father, Raymond, had amassed an amazing collection of racing and road cars. They put them all on display and housed them lovingly at the Riverside International Automotive Museum (RIAM). For those who were fortunate enough to have seen the collection, or spent time with Doug or Ray at a racing track — you could feel the passion. It was contagious!
But Doug had about a week to live. At just 55 years old, he had ignored chronic pain that began during to a trip to Europe in the summer of 2014. By the time he went to a doctor in late December, at the urging of several close friends, including myself, it was too late. Cancer had begun ‘somewhere’ and had spread so badly that doctors couldn’t even speculate the source. Less than two weeks after that late January 2015 conversation, in the company of the Magnon family and a few close friends, we watched him take his last breath.
Fast forward to Monterey Car Week 2016: Almost like attending a second funeral, I watched as the 15 most premium cars in Doug and Raymond’s cherished collection crossed the block with ‘no reserve’ at the RM Sotheby’s auction in Monterey. While loving the auctions, this might have been the most difficult one to watch. The rest of the collection had been sold at Auctions America (another RM Sotheby’s company) the month before, in July, at the Santa Monica Airport.
After Doug passed and his father, Raymond, had taken a turn for the worse with his own health, the remaining family that had essentially taken over the Magnon Companies made it clear that they really had “no knowledge of cars or the motorsports community” and felt the museum space was a waste of one of the company’s many “income” properties.
They alienated long-serving RIAM board members, sealing the fate of the museum and — ultimately against Doug’s final wishes — sold the cars and permanently closed the museum. Beyond robbing the world of the most complete Maserati roadcar collection. They destroyed a top-tier motorsports museum that regularly partnered with the Indianapolis Motor Speedway Museum, the International Motor Racing Research Center at Watkins Glen and the Petersen Automotive Museum in Los Angeles.
Doug’s father grew up pals with Skip Hudson and Dan Gurney. As Hudson and Gurney’s racing careers took off, so did Raymond Magnon’s career as an electrician and entrepreneur. Gurney won a Grand Prix in a car of his own manufacture — and remains the only American to accomplish that feat. Magnon moved into commercial real estate and built an empire. Both of these guys could be found at the now defunct Riverside International Raceway, on the other side of town in Riverside, California. Their bond was cars and their close friendship was always there. Doug Magnon tailed his dad to the track and caught the bug at a very young age. Beyond his lifelong love of cooking, there were always cars and racing.
In 1990, Riverside International ran its last race and the wrecking ball came calling to develop housing and the Moreno Valley Mall at Towngate. Sadly, despite the legendary status of the track, having hosted the greatest drivers and cars — including the 1960 US Formula One Grand Prix — like so many before and after, the land’s value had grown far larger than any possible income promoting motorsports. Doug, who had grown up going to Riverside was heartbroken — as were many of the locals who raced, volunteered, worked and spectated at the track.
By 2005, Doug and Raymond had amassed a growing collection of Eagle racecars and Maserati road cars. Inspired by clubs that had met for local “Riverside reunions” the Magnons decided to move their corporate offices into a large building in one of their commercial developments and use the warehouse space to open a museum. By 2006, cars, memorabilia and a vast collection of media was housed in the large space. They hired local mechanic Bill Losee, who previously was the chief IndyCar engine builder at Toyota Racing Development (TRD), to look after the collection and race-prep several of the cars for exhibitions.
Many of the fans and friends of the long gone Riverside International now had a place to gather and regale glories of days gone by. The annual Legends of Riverside gala attracted hundreds of people and dozens of drivers for amazing presentations with honored greats including Dan Gurney, Carroll Shelby, Bobby Unser and Bob Bondurant.
There were minions of people who gave money, time and material to the museum. Many who are now very disillusioned by the actions of the family and the Board of Directors. Much of the memorabilia was collected through donations by drivers, workers and other involved entities. There were a great deal of loose items that were specifically designated for display and the RIAM archives.
During 2007, Doug had acquired the #7 Marvin Davidson Eagle that won the 1969 Formula 5000 Championship in the hands of Tony “a2z” Adamowicz. The car had been parked after the 1969 season and had not seen the light of day until Doug found it and bought it. At that point the only driver who ever had raced it was Adamowicz. Fortunately, the driver still resided in Costa Mesa. Doug decided to reunite Adamowicz with the car, under the care of expert mechanic Losee.
It panned out well as in the next eight years, Adamowicz would pilot the Eagle to four Historic F5000 Championships. Considering Adamowicz’ driving career was essentially over when he retired years before, to raise his son as a single parent, working as a car salesman, this became a “resurrection” story of pure success. Sadly, just four months after Doug Magnon’s passing, Tony Adamowicz, 75, was diagnosed with stage-four brain cancer and died October 10, 2016. So came the end of a vintage racing dynasty. The Eagle was sold for just under $190,000 at the RM Sotheby’s Monterey auction.
It Is Said That Sharks Can Smell Blood From Miles Away
Doug’s memorial service at the museum was a huge event — more than 500 people showed up. The line to get in stretched out well into the parking lot and beyond. There were car people, real estate people, recipients of Doug’s philanthropy — and a few people, as we would later discover, hell-bent on breaking up the museum. I was honored, though sad, to be the emcee.
Once the smoke had cleared and the immediate grief of the situation had subsided, it was time to get back to business. People still wanted to come to the museum, and those who were previously involved, as participants and volunteers, looked to RIAM’s continuation. Doug had made sure of it. On his deathbed, he bequeathed a trust with enough money to indefinitely sustain the collection and museum.
According to a long standing board member, Paul Merrigan, “The museum could have sustained itself on the interest from the trust.” In the stipend of the operating budget, it was provided that “duplicate and unrestored” cars could be sold to bolster the kitty in the operating fund.
The Board of Directors who were appointed by “trustees” Deanna Magnon and nephew-in-law David Stapley were board Chairman, Jim Bruner, a local insurance salesman; Bill Losee, the RIAM Chief Mechanic who had begun a new venture with his own shop; Paul Merrigan, a close friend of Doug’s and former Fortune 500 executive; Philippe de Lespinay, a long-time friend of Doug’s and an automotive entrepreneur; James Peacock another friend of Doug’s and former General Manager of Symbolic Motors; and Philip Yanni, a software executive and Southern California Maserati Club President.
During the first meetings of the new board, there seemed to be a genuine interest in getting things organized and rolling again. Proposals were made for a new Museum Director, and eventually the board hired Earl Rubenstein, an L.A.-based architect and former curator of The Automobile Driving Museum in El Segundo.
The Business Of A Museum
The board continued to meet and Rubenstein went about the typical Curator’s job of trying to market the museum — with no support whatsoever. He spent less than six months as RIAM’s director before being fired. He was very disappointed in the loss of the collection: “I was really hoping this would be a long term deal. We had an offer to move the entire collection to the Coachella Valley intact, but that was turned down. I always had my hands tied, and every proposal I made was rejected.”
“I am not a car person, I don’t want to be a car person and I have extremely limited knowledge (if any) of the motorsport community,” stated Deanna Magnon shortly after the board met for the second time and was preparing for a new award, in Doug’s name to be presented at Concorso Italiano in Monterey.
At the Rolex Monterey Motorsports Reunion, Losee brought the #7 Eagle for its’ final RIAM outing. Adamowicz joined the car, but could not drive it due to his seizures and brain tumors. However, Seb Coppola and the world-wide F5000 group threw Adamowicz a wonderful party and honored his accomplishments.
It was getting pretty obvious to the other board members that RIAM was being set-up for failure. Yanni, Bruner and Stapley were beginning to meet immediately after board meetings behind closed doors. They were then informed that Yanni, Bruner and Stapley had formed an “Executive Committee.” This raised several questions by the remaining members about the direction this would take.
According to Merrigan, at a particular board meeting, Deanna Magnon stated: “This is just such a distraction. We just need to get the building back and deal with what we know. We have no interest in cars — or in Doug’s wishes.”
Philippe de Lespinay observed, “We were told we had a small operating fund of $150,000-$200,000. However it would be well in excess of $1 Million had we sold the secondary cars — that money was supposed to go back into the operating budget. It would have come close to paying for itself.”
Yet now the museum was open only one day a week (Fridays) and no proposals for funding the needs from the Trust were being made. De Lespinay would resign at the beginning of 2016, citing “Gross incompetence by the Chairman of the board, Bruner.”
By May of 2016 Bruner and Yanni proposed giving the cars to RM Sotheby’s and its’ subsidiary Auctions America for no-reserve sale. In light of this, there were a number of other offers made. CNC Motors in Coachella Valley offered to buy the collection outright, promising to keep it together. Supposedly the offer made was higher than all the cars got at auction. Then Dana Mecum of the famous racing and auction family flew to California and gave a presentation — offering a “guarantee on the sale.” Again, this number was reputedly higher than the cars garnered at both Auctions America and RM Sotheby’s.
Merrigan said, “They said they had to do it that way and asked for a vote. I replied, you have ignored us, then I resigned.” Merrigan really felt terrible that the 62-car collection would now be a memory. “They forced it down our throats.”
The lingering question remains … Why did they sell Doug and Raymond Magnon’s cars?
Stapley told Riverside’s The Press Enterprise, “The museum’s not closing. This is opening a new door for us.” The article goes on to say, “Operators say they intend to open a virtual museum so visitors can explore photos, documents and other items online. And they are trying to cut a deal with a city-operated museum in downtown Riverside to physically display iconic memorabilia.”
So they sell all the cars and start a website? What a clever bunch! It should be noted, that Doug Magnon was never mentioned in the entire article, featuring Stapley and Losee.
An anonymous source revealed that just prior to the museum closing to the public, a “group of people came into the museum and told staff there, ‘We were told by Philip Yanni that we could take whatever memorabilia we want.’ We told them ‘no’ and escorted them out.” Philip Yanni would not answer multiple emails seeking comment on a myriad of topics.
According to an email response received from Deanna Magnon’s email address, but more likely written by a third party, “Closing the museum was a difficult choice but, given that Doug was no longer here to spearhead and promote the museum, our choice became obvious. The fact that the vehicles can be ‘perishable assets’ only solidified this choice. No one from the RIAM board was compensated by RM Sotheby’s [this was a specific question in the inquiry]. It was a board decision to go with RM feeling that they provided the best fit for the collection, had the most potential upside and, that if Doug had to pick one of the options, he would most approve of his collection being auctioned by RM Sotheby’s.”
Funny, I think if Doug had to pick, he probably would have picked different board members who wouldn’t double-cross him and wanted to fulfill his dying wishes.