The 1962 Ferrari 250 GTO Berlinetta (© Bonhams)Click to enlarge picture

This Ferrari 250 GTO Berlinetta, which was produced for the 1962 racing season, set a record as the most expensive car sold at auction when it fetched $38,115,000 at the Bonhams’ Quail Lodge Auction in Carmel, California.

It was one of only 39 ever made, and it was involved in a crash that took the life of one of its drivers, but that apparently only added to the mystique of a 1962 Ferrari 250 GTO Berlinetta that commanded a record $38,115,000 during an auction last night marking the start of the festivities surrounding the annual Pebble Beach Concours d'Elegance.

When the gavel went down, it smashed through the previous record -- also set at a Bonhams auction -- the $29.65 million paid last year for a Mercedes-Benz W196R Formula One race car.

But the figure failed to top the $52 million paid in 2013 during a private sale of another Ferrari GTO, the highest figure ever for any automobile. And the Thursday night auction bid -- which included a 10% commission -- actually fell short of what some had expected.

Early estimates put the potential price tag as high as $70 million, reflecting a surge in demand for the world's rarest classic cars, which have generally been grabbing strong prices since the U.S. economy begin its revival a couple years ago. Industry insiders note that demand has also been driven up by the arrival of wealthy new collectors from emerging markets such as China, who have been bidding up prices at recent auctions.

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Bonhams is one of a half-dozen auction houses quite literally setting up tents all along the coast of the tony Monterey Peninsula this weekend, hoping to tap into the presence of some of the world's most affluent collectors gathering for Sunday's grand finale, the Pebble Beach Concours. Some of the hot products going on the auction block have been featured at the car show in prior years, with a strong showing helping to drive up their perceived value.

As for the 1962 Ferrari, it is one of only about three dozen -- the actual figure believed somewhere between 36 to 39 -- that were reportedly produced from 1961 to 19634 as part of the maker's ambitious motor sports program. Unlike many others that took to the track, however, the GTOs were also street legal.

Only a few of them have exchanged hands in recent years, and when they have prices have been pushing ever higher, with figures of $20 million or more considered today's starting point for even one in need of serious restoration, according to classic car experts.

One originally built for the racing legend Sir Stirling Moss reportedly sold in 2012 for $35 million.

This particular car was produced for the 1962 racing season but early on was involved in a horrific crash that killed its driver, French Olympic ski champion Henri Oreiller. It was eventually repaired and put back into action. Adding to the appeal of the 250 GTO, it was Ferrari's last front-engine car built for racing.

"Over the long decades," Bonhams noted in its catalogue, "the Ferrari 250 GTO has commanded ever-increasing interest from the car connoisseur and art investor alike. Valuable levels have been achieved by the relatively few examples that have come to market over the past 20 years."

Technically, the bright red coupe that rolled across the auction block last night could have gone for as little as a dollar, the seller setting no reserve. But with the audience nervously murmuring in anticipation, anxious bidders quickly ran up the price, both in person and on the phone.

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But the action slowed, suddenly, as the figure on the big video screens hit $34 million, the auctioneer aggressively egging on potential buyers, drawing more bids that rose a few $100,000 at a time. Eventually, the phone lines went dead, and those under the tent sat on their bidder's paddles.

Despite falling short of the most optimistic expectations, Robert Brooks, the chairman of Bonhams, insisted he was pleased, later stating, "It's been a genuine privilege to represent this outstanding car and we are absolutely delighted with today's results. We've always maintained that we would exceed the current world record and that the car would bring between $30-$40-million and today the GTO did just that."

Brooks had other reason to be pleased. Bonhams also handled 10 other rare Ferraris, part of the Maranello Rosso Collection, which ended the night by going for a combined total $65,945,000.

The auction action will continue until Sunday night, and while no one is forecasting another individual record-breaker, there are expectations that all the various weekend events could push the total take to a new high.