The saying “timing is everything” has a new meaning for Bob Russell.
During a sleepless night last month, Russell hopped out of bed, fired up his computer and began surfing the Web.
Browsing eBay that night led to the recovery of his 1967 Austin Healey, a sports car that was stolen more than 40 years ago.
“I used to always look at Austin Healeys parked on the side of the road,” Russell said. “Every once in a while, I’d search the Internet. I knew finding it would be impossible.”
During his May 11 search, Russell said, he could not believe it when he saw his car listed for auction. He said he knew it was his because he had memorized the vehicle identification number.
“At first I wondered if my eyes were functioning,” he said. “I’m still trying to come down from the adrenaline rush.”
Russell said the car listed for auction was missing the VIN plate, had a broken lock on the glove box and was missing the trunk lock, obvious signs of a stolen car.
Because eBay requires the seller to list contact information, Russell was able to call the car dealer in Beverly Hills, Calif.
Russell also went to the dealer’s website, where he saw the car listed for sale.
“You are trying to sell a stolen car,” he said he told the dealer.
In response, he was told the dealer had bought the car from a man who said he had owned it since 1970.
The official said the man presented official documents when he offered the car for sale.
Russell called the local police but says he was told they couldn’t help so he continued talking with the dealer, mostly haggling over the buy-back price.
After six weeks of phone calls, faxing documents, buy-back discussions and conversations with the car dealer’s attorney, Russell’s Austin Healey was delivered to his home Saturday.
“Our first date was in that car,” said Cynthia Russell, Russell’s wife. “I liked him; he was cute. But I loved the car!”
The Russells were graduate students attending Temple University in Philadelphia and living in the same apartment complex when the car was stolen. It was after their second date.
“We got home late, his usual spot was taken, so he parked somewhere else,” Cynthia Russell said.
When he went to get the car the next morning, it was gone.
“I got a sick feeling in my stomach,” he said. “We called the police and filed a report. … For whatever reason during the past 40 years, I kept the original title and the keys, but had thrown the police report away.”
Getting a copy of the report was difficult because in 1975 all reports were purged, Russell said. He eventually obtained an archived copy of the report through the National Crime Information Center, then called the Philadelphia Police Department for help.
Detectives in Philadelphia reactivated the stolen car report and contacted the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department. The car was impounded June 14.
The Russells went to California and took ownership June 18.
Bob Russell said he is very excited to have the car back, but he has mixed feelings about it.
“When it was stolen it was pristine; now it’s going to need a lot of work.” he said.
“On the other hand, it’s been more than 40 years. It’s very gratifying to get it back.”
Russell said he originally paid $2,000 for the car, which had about 33,000 miles on it when it was stolen.
Now the odometer reads 42,000 miles, and in its current condition it is worth between $20,000 and $30,000.
“When it’s fixed up, it will be worth $50,000,” he said.
Despite needing work, he said, the car is in relatively good shape, and he is thrilled he didn’t have to buy it back.
Cynthia Russell said costs to get the car home were around $2,000 for towing, impound and shipping charges.
“That’s what the car was worth when we lost it, so actually, we did buy it back,” she said.