LAS VEGAS – A light-blue 1975 Ford Escort GL (search) once owned by Pope John Paul II (search) sold at auction here Saturday for $690,000 to a Houston multimillionaire who said he plans to put it in a museum he wants to build in his hometown.
"To me, it's a piece of history," said John O'Quinn, 62, a personal injury lawyer who made a fortune in a multibillion dollar settlement between Texas and tobacco companies in 1998. "What a great human being Pope John Paul was."
O'Quinn, who said he has a collection of about 600 vehicles, acknowledged it was the story behind the car, and not the vehicle itself, that prompted him to outbid least seven other would-be buyers.
Built 30 years ago at a Ford (search) plant in Cologne, Germany, the car sold Saturday in what auctioneer Dean Kruse said was original papal condition — no hubcaps, no air conditioning, no radio, but with several nicks and dents.
"The car will never be driven," said O'Quinn, who said that at least temporarily it will be warehoused with his other cars. "But hopefully, in my life, I'll be able to go back and touch this car and feel the pope's spirit."
"I'm so glad it will be preserved and be in a major city in the U.S." he added.
The seller, Jim Rich, 41, of Sugar Grove, Ill., became emotional about giving up the car to pay bankruptcy debts to his father, Jerome Rich.
"I've been smothered by greed and courts," he said.
Jim Rich bought the car for $102,000 at an auction in the United States in 1996, and said he promised the pope when he received the keys at the Vatican that he would display the vehicle proudly at his Chicago West restaurant and never part with it.
Standing with holes in his shoes and holding a buttonless blue blazer together at the front with his left hand, he pulled a food stamp card from his wallet and said he been using it for about nine months to buy groceries.
"The pope would think this is something I should do under extraordinary circumstances," he said.
Bidding was as labored as an uphill climb for the modest car's little 1.1 liter engine.
It began at $150,000 after Kruse failed repeatedly to get any of the 350 people at the Las Vegas Hilton auto auction to offer $1 million. It stalled several times while Kruse exhorted bidders to be generous.
The car came with what Kruse said were several papal possessions: carved wooden rosary beads, a box of wooden matches, a candy tin and a dashboard medallion bearing the likeness of St. Maria Goretti, patron of youth, young women, purity and victims of rape.
Baseball Hall of Famer Reggie Jackson (search), who has about 70 cars in his own collection, didn't bid on the pope's car but watched with a smile as Kruse touted the blessings of a car that might have fetched $1,200 on a used car lot.
"He's selling the story," Jackson said.