There are more than a million old-car collectors in the United States. Perhaps the most typical is the nostalgic, middle-aged fellow who began his collection with the car that struck his fancy when he first became aware of cars–probably about age 14. He was still too young to drive, and several dollars short of owning a car, but the attraction he felt then left a permanent yearning.
This is usually someone who enjoys owning, driving, and showing his car, and reminiscing about the old days. In many cases, he’s not much on spark plugs, carburetors, or spray paint, so he farms out his mechanical and restoration work.
That typical collector is flanked on one side by the “wrench turner,” a mechanically oriented car enthusiast who likes to tinker and restore, and on the other side by the straight investor, a business-minded type who sees good return-on-investment possibilities in old cars. The investor seldom touches or drives his assets, and doesn’t get emotionally attached to them.
But for most hobbyists, collecting is emotion-driven. “If you don’t have a personal reason to own a car,” Brownell asks, “why buy it? Buy stocks instead.”
The emotion factor causes segments of the old-car market to rise and fall in popularity, much as certain artwork goes in and out of favor. Cars that are currently popular include anything red and Italian (Ferraris, Maseratis, Alfa Romeos, Lamborghinis), late-1960s “muscle cars” (Pontiac GTOs, Plymouth Road Runners), and big 1930s Packards and Duesenbergs.
Japanese buyers have shown much interest in the “big fin” cars of the late 1950s recently. With no restoration facilities in Japan, however, they generally buy only cars in perfect condition. Whenever the dollar declines, Europeans tend to buy back their cars: The British buy British cars, the Germans buy German, etc. And, as the age-14 theory continues to prove itself, American men currently in their 40s and 50s buy U.S.-made cars from the mid-1960s back to the late 1940s.
In any case, the lure of owning a piece of history draws many people to old cars, particularly when the economy is healthy. And since the number of old Packards can’t go up, prices generally do.
Historic autos can be an expensive hobby, and a buyer must be careful not to let emotion draw him into a bad investment. “No matter how badly you want a car, don’t pay too much for it,” Brownell warns. “And don’t put too much into restoring it. Even if you intend to keep it forever, don’t buy a car you couldn’t sell and still get out whole.”
If you’re a prospective buyer, one of the first things to do is educate yourself. There are books on almost every car, so when you establish a budget for your first old-car purchase, you should earmark some money for an auto library. Classic Motorbooks (Box 1, Osceola, Wis. 54020, 800 826-6600) offers a catalog of thousands of books about old cars.
Books will tell you a car’s well-known weak points (all cars have at least a few), what it was worth new, its relative rarity, its market desirability, and more. And the photos will help you determine how complete a specific car is and how original.
The most important part of your education will be price awareness. “An informed buyer,” says Brownell, “is a formidable foe for a seller who’s misrepresenting his goods, and more than a match for a person who overvalues what he’s offering.”
You’ll need to budget for insurance too, though not nearly as much as you may think. As long as you own one non-collectible car for each driver in your family, register your collector car as a historic auto, and agree to limit its use, you can buy liability coverage for as little as $15 a year. Collision insurance will cost a good deal more, however, since it’s based on the value of the car. Three agencies that specialize in old-car coverage are Condon & Skelly, Maple Shade, N.J., (609) 234-3434; Heacock Insurance, Lakeland, Fla., (813) 646-6641; and J.C. Taylor Antique Auto Insurance Agency, Upper Darby, Pa., (215) 853-1300.
You should also hold back about 10 percent of your old-car budget for miscellaneous expenses. Every old car needs something, from hose clamps to major work, and you may not know what work yours requires until you get it home.
The rest of your funds can go for the car. What will $5,000 buy these days? A 1965 Corvair coupe, in excellent condition. It’s a car with a history, in that it made Ralph Nader a household name and helped force Detroit to pay attention to safety. For $10,000, you can own an early Mustang convertible, the car that established Lee Iacocca’s reputation. For $25,000, you should get an absolutely no-excuse perfect car, perhaps a 1930s LaSalle convertible or an early 1960s Mercedes 230SL or 250SL roadster. For $50,000? A wide range, including classic Rolls-Royces. Above that, the exotic and rare. Most activity in old cars is below $50,000.
Good places to start looking are at local car shows, meets, and vintage-car auctions–where you can see several cars up close, perhaps drive a few, and listen to car people talk (which is quite educational). Another interesting source (of both cars and education) is Brownell’s magazine, Hemmings Motor News, a monthly 800-page tome of classified ads for old cars, parts, and services ($23.95 per year; Box 100, Bennington, Vt. 05201). A few evenings of browsing will give you a sense of current prices, the market for any car-plus the availability of parts, restoration sources, etc.
In almost every case, you’ll find convertibles worth more than hard-top or sedan models of the same car, by 50 to 100 percent or more. They’ll cost you more to buy and to restore, but they’ll bring back much more afterward.
A car is also a better investment if all its parts are authentic. A LaSalle with its original engine (serial numbers on the chassis and engine match) will cost more than one with a Pontiac engine, say, but will also bring more when you sell.
When it comes to restoration, think hard before you buy a car that needs any. Expert restorers charge from $30 to $75 an hour, plus parts, plus storage time if they have to wait long periods for parts to arrive. Depending on the car, a top-to-bottom restoration can run from $20,000 to the low six figures. What’s worse, restorers seldom give firm estimates, since they usually can’t predict what they’ll find once the paint and cylinder heads come off.
So, unless you like to do this kind of work yourself, you’re probably better off buying a fully restored model. You’ll pay a good deal more at first, but the price may be less than the cost of restoration. And the hassles avoided will be priceless.
When you’ve bought a car in good shape, don’t just store it-enjoy it. Don’t forget maintenance, however. Once a car is restored, it begins unrestoring itself almost immediately. So garage it, clean and polish it often, tune it up when needed, and change the oil regularly.
But enjoying it also means driving it. A collector car from the mid-1930s or later can take your family for a comfortable Sunday drive, and should even be able to handle long trips. Older cars–vintage models and antiques–are oaky for the Fourth of July parade, but they’re usually too valuable to drive regularly and too slow for safety. Their brakes are a treat, too.
If you get this far in the old-car hobby, you’ll likely find yourself joining a car club, and attending the same meets and shows you began with, but now as an owner. You’ll notice novices moseying about, trying to hear what you have to say.