1955 ‘Kelley Blue Book’ shows how things have changed

The rare and valuable 1953 Porsche 356 America roadster was just another used car in 1955 | Bob Golfen
The rare and valuable 1953 Porsche 356 America Roadster was just another used car in 1955 | Bob Golfen

Did you know that in 1955, you could have purchased a 1953 Chevrolet Corvette for between $1,700 and $2,150? Or a 1952 Porsche 356 America Roadster for the same amount? These are six-figure collector cars today, but back then, they were just used sports cars that had depreciated after leaving the showroom.

I came upon these numbers while digging through the rubble of my desk, where I unearthed an interesting relic. It’s a Kelley Blue Book that’s nearly 60 years old.

The May-June 1955 used-car value guide for the dusty Arizona-Nevada region comes from an era when “The Blue Book” had a real mystique. Only dealers could get them, it seems, and the average person would kowtow to the concept of “book value” handed down by the car salesman, who usually had one stashed in his back pocket.

My 1955 Kelley Blue Book is well preserved | Bob Golfen
My 1955 ‘Kelley Blue Book’ is well preserved | Bob Golfen

Oh how things have changed, especially now that the Internet provides the average car shopper with an endless supply of value guides. But back in the dark ages of the mid-20th Century, this was pretty much it, and the information was essentially unobtainable for anyone who didn’t know the secret handshake.

After six decades, my little Blue Book has remained in remarkably good condition, obviously thumbed through loads of times but still intact. I’ll bet the survival rate for these things is miniscule. When the new books came out, the old ones were trashed.

The slim 1955 KBB guide lists cars sold after World War II from domestic automakers and a scant number of “foreign” brands. The foreign jobs are essentially a number of British makes – most of which have gone by the wayside – plus Porsche and Volkswagen.

No Italians at all. No Fiat, Alfa Romeo, Lancia or even Ferrari. Perhaps their post-war numbers in the U.S. through 1955 were too scant to make the grade.

And among the domestic brands, there is the sobering rendition of those that have gone away: Studebaker, Hudson, Packard, Nash, Rambler, Willys, Crosley, De Soto, Kaiser, Plymouth, Oldsmobile and Pontiac.

Even sadder are the prices from 1955, particularly for those merely used cars back then that are valuable collector items today. I have the latest Kelly Blue Book guide for post-war collector cars, so I compared values between then and now. I also checked the current Hagerty Price Guide, which generally lists higher values than KBB.

A 1953 Chevrolet Corvette sells for six figures today | ClassicCars.com
A 1953 Chevrolet Corvette sells for six figures today | ClassicCars.com

So let’s see, that inaugural year ’53 Corvette is calculated by KBB as having a value today ranging from $43,900 for one in fair condition to $263,600 for an excellent car. Hagerty’s valuation is higher, from $123,000 to $323,000.

And that 1952-53 Porsche America Roadster, a rarity that is one of today’s most highly desired Porsche production cars, would set you back around $311,000 to $853,000, according to KBB. Hagerty doesn’t have a separate entry for the America Roadster, but any early Porsche model from that time goes into six figures.

Inflation only accounts for a fraction of today’s values. According to an online inflation calculator, a dollar in 1953 would be equivalent to about $8.87 today. So if you only consider inflation, the high value of $2,150 for that 1953 Corvette or Porsche would be about $19,000 today. Try buying one of them for that.

Some other comparisons for cool ragtops from then and now:

You could have purchased a wood-bodied 1947 Chrysler Town and Country convertible coupe in 1955 for the meager price of $120 to $220. Today, that car would fetch $56,500 to $154,900, according to the latest Kelley Blue Book, noting that you would add 10 percent for Highlander trim. Hagerty says today’s value is $84,800 to $236,000.

A 1947 Chrysler Town and Country was once a cheap ride | Barrett-Jackson
A 1947 Chrysler Town and Country was once a cheap ride | Barrett-Jackson

In 1955, the groundbreaking 1950 Jaguar XK120 roadster would have been valued at only $950 to $1,275, with no differentiation noted in the old Blue Book between the steel-bodied Jag and the lighter, more-desirable alloy model. KBB says that today, a steel XK120 would sell for $50,000 to $137,100 and an aluminum one would get $141,300 to $387,500. Hagerty has the XK at $80,800 to $153,000 for steel and $284,000 to $490,000 for alloy.

A 1953 Buick Skylark convertible was valued in 1955 for between $1,750 and $2,210. The latest KBB rates it at $65,500 to $179,700. Hagerty has it at $74,500 to $192,000.

A 1948 Lincoln Continental cabriolet powered by a V12 engine would have sold for just $650 to $900 in 1955. Today, KBB values that car at $39,200 to $107,500. Hagerty does not have a separate listing for this model.

It’s too bad there are no listings for Ferraris in the 1955 Blue Book because the difference in those values between then and now would be truly eye popping.

The 1955 value guide also has some new-car prices, and if you do the inflation math of multiplying by 8.87 for today’s money, they still seem like a bargain. Some examples of what you could have bought brand new in 1955:

A Chevy Bel Air sport coupe for $2,605.

A De Soto Firedome Sportsman two-door hardtop, $2,986.

The first-year Ford Thunderbird, $3,192.

A Rambler Custom station wagon, $2,233.

An Oldsmobile Holiday coupe, $3,115.

A Plymouth Belvedere Club Sedan, $2,302.

A Pontiac Star Chief Catalina coupe, $3,163.

Back to Porsche, it’s interesting to note that the 1955 356 Speedster was something of a stripped-down model marketed as the cheapest way to get into one of those relatively pricey German sports cars. According to KBB, the Speedster was priced at $2,995 for the 1500 and $3,495 for the more-powerful 1500 S. The other Porsches were more expensive: a 1500 S coupe would have cost $4,395 while the top model, the 1500 S cabriolet, was $4,695.

But look at what that budget 356 Speedster is worth now. These lightweight and much-loved roadsters go for $117,100 to $321,000, according to the latest KBB, while Hagerty has them listed at a more-aggressive $208,000 to $508,000. Note that a 1958 Speedster in “preserved” but needy condition sold for $484,000 at Gooding’s recent Scottsdale auction.

For now, I’ll put away my 1955 Kelley Blue Book in a safe place to rediscover sometime in the future, when I’ll marvel yet again at how much things have changed.

 

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10 thoughts on “1955 ‘Kelley Blue Book’ shows how things have changed”

  1. Thnx for the info, enjoyable read! What are your thoughts re mercedes benz “pagoda’s?”..i get the feeling they will rise up, since mere mortals can’t purchase gullwing and 300sl roadsters anymore! Thnx, gary c shapiro toronto

  2. Personal example: In 1978, when I was in my late teens, I bought a 1965 Galaxie 500. Hardtop, white leather seats, automatic, 390 engine, near-perfect body, less than average miles for its age. I bought it from a friend for $300. Maybe he gave me a break, but I think that the price was probably not too far from the KBB price. I slapped a paint job on it, and turned around and sold it for $600. I thought that I had done good for myself with the deal.

    I’m going through my second teenage years now, and have been looking around and messing with automobiles like I did back then. Apparently, those mid-60’s Galaxies (Fairlanes and Falcons, too, I think) are very popular now. I was stunned to see the current prices for a similar automobile today–a figure of around $10,000 is not unusual!

  3. I had forgotten how exclusive these Blue Books were. My Dad was a banker and when he got one of these “out” it was a big deal! Some kids read novels; I read Kelly Blue Book. I retained none of it, so it made reading your article great fun. Thanks

  4. Prices on Porsche’s didn’t change much up to 1967, when I purchased my 1959 356 A coupe. 1600 Super, 88 H.P., in Palo Alto, Ca. for $1850. They may have been higher at the Porsche dealership, I never checked at that time, since I was happy with the car. I bought it from a repair shop owner, who bought and sold and repaired Porsche’s. He had four to choose from, all in the 50’s year models. I liked the sleek aero dynamic profile lines of the hardtop, and the Silver paint with Red interior. I drove it for three years, then changed the electrical system over to 12 volts. But there were no conversion devices available to change over the windshield wiper motor to 12 V., it then became my fair weather car. I drove it until 1982, then parked it after a bearing gave out. Last year I decided it was time to restore it. I am amazed of the availability of restoration parts now. I found a transistorized 12 / 6 V. voltage reducer for the wiper motor from Zimms in Texas, for $100. They have a 25,000 sq. ft. ware house of new and used Porsche parts. There are many on line parts sources now, and just about any part needed can be found.

  5. The ’55 KBB is an antique and the only one I know of. Kelley does have available a reproduction of, I think, a 1926 Blue Book. Check their website at kbb.com to see if you can get one.

  6. Many years ago while going through some old books at my Grandparents house I came across what is titled “Blue Book”. “National Used Car Market Report, Executive Edition.” Copyright 1920-Copyright 1935. This one is the 96th Edition, Nov-Dec-, 1935. It’s in excellent condition. It measures 9 x11 1/2. I wish I could post pictures. On the first page it’s described as “Unbiased and Dependable Valuations for all interested parties to each transaction involving a used car.” —– A 1935 Auburn Speedster Torp-2 Model 851…(Factory Price $2,245) Cash Value: $950.00, Retail Sales: $1,188.00. —- A 1930 8-Cyl. Pierce-Arrow Convertible Coupe…(Factory Price $$3,350) Cash Value: $165.00. Retail Sales: $230.00. —– A 1930 Packard 8-Cyl. Speedster Runabout-2, Model 7-34 (Factory Price $5,200) Cash Value: $165, Retail Sales, $230. There is also a section for discontinued models such as the Stutz which range in price from $30 to $600. Also, for Duesenberg it reads: “Complete line built to order. No cash value figures as body prices are not available.” It lists the average cash value as “Salvage”!

  7. We have a restored mint and original 1953 Super 1500 Porsche that we may decide to sell.. Any interested parties let us know before it goes for auction.

  8. Back in 1955, my Dad sold his 1952 MG-TD, and upgraded to a 1953 Porsche 356 1500S Cabriolet. What an improvement it was over the MG. Unfortunately, it developed some engine problems, so for a period of years the engine remained in pieces in my mother’s sewing room, and the Porsche continued to motor on with a functional, abeit, somewhat anemic VW powerplant. A number of years later, the 1500S got traded for a 1960 356 1600N Coupe. Nice car too, but it suffered a failed crankshaft while I was driving it. It too lived with a VW powerplant for a period of time while the engine was disassembled for repair. Sadly, Michigan winters and calcium chloride covered dirt and gravel roads took their toll on the body, and by the time it found a new home in 1969, the body was pretty much shot, even after one complete rebuild about 5 years earlier.

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