Category archives: Commentary

Strong Arizona auctions set the stage for solid 2014

A rare 1967 Corvette L88 coupe at Barrett-Jackson hit $3.85 million, the top American-car sale during Arizona Auction Week. (Photo: Barrett-Jackson)
A rare 1967 Corvette L88 coupe at Barrett-Jackson hit $3.85 million, the top American-car sale during Arizona Auction Week. (Photo: Barrett-Jackson)

Arizona auction week started off the 2014 collector-car calendar with a bang. The six auctions sold 2,312 vehicles for a total of nearly $249 million and an average price of $107,096, all significant gains over 2013 results.

The premium auction houses – RM, Gooding and Bonhams – stepped up with great collections of cars, and the 43rd annual Barrett-Jackson auction in Scottsdale had the highest number of cars and highest total results in its history. Barrett-Jackson was so big, it made the Guinness Book of World Records.

There was even a classy new starting point for auction week, the first-ever Arizona Concours d’Elegance at the Arizona Biltmore Resort.

The Arizona auctions are considered a bellwether for the year ahead, so last week’s huge success bodes well for collector-car sales and values during 2014. As Corky Coker of Coker Tires said during one of the week’s many classic-car seminars: collecting old cars has become less of a hobby and more of an industry.

A 1958 250 GT LWB California Spider soared  at RM in Phoenix to a $8.8 million sale. (Photo: Bob Golfen)
A 1958 250 GT LWB California Spider soared at RM in Phoenix to an $8.8 million sale. (Photo: Bob Golfen)

While there are just about as many stories and lessons learned as there are vehicles on the dockets, here are a few observations from a hectic week:

Rising tide of values goes across the board – There were more than two dozen sales that reached over a million dollars during the week, but prices for more-modest cars and trucks also had strong gains this year.

The $25,000 to $50,000 range shows a healthy market of cars for regular Joes, although the price of entry has sailed upstream, leaving many left behind.

As usual, spending more up front for a well-restored or highly preserved original will pay off in the long run. Restoration costs are through the roof these days and can quickly take the bloom off a bargain purchase price.

“Barn finds” cast magic spell – Preservation verses restoration was a hot topic of conversation, with most savvy collectors heeding the old adage: It’s only original once. A well-preserved car or truck is a thing of beauty, with an air of authenticity and patina that cannot be duplicated.

But there is a flip side to that, as Sports Car Market and American Car Collector publisher Keith Martin observed, “There’s a difference between a preserved car and a nasty old thing.”

A 'barn find' 1956 Mercedes-Benz 300SL reached a surprising $1.88 million at Gooding. (Photo: Bob Golfen)
A ‘barn find’ 1956 Mercedes-Benz 300SL reached a surprising $1.88 million at Gooding. (Photo: Bob Golfen)

And the debate is on after the sales of two rare and valuable “barn finds” at the Gooding auction in Scottsdale. Both results were very surprising, to say the least, because while they were highly desirable cars at the top of the pecking order, neither of them were very appealing. Though original dirt does have its charm.

The first over the block on Friday was a dusty, musty 1956 Mercedes-Benz 300SL Gullwing that shocked with a $1.88 million selling price, including auction fee. That should buy you the very best restored Gullwing (steel body, not alloy) and seemed excessive for this survivor. Indeed, several beautifully restored examples sold for much less during the week.

The other one, a 1967 Ferrari 330 GTS Spider, soared to exceed $2 million, including fee. This car was a crispy critter, the victim of an engine fire and many decades of subsequent storage. It was in no way preserved and deserves an extensive – and no-doubt wildly expensive – restoration. According to the price guides, the Ferrari is already fully priced for one that’s in top condition.

So there you go. Such is the romantic lure of the great “barn find.”

Ferrari prices are on fire – Beyond the lofty price tag of the soot-smudged 330 GTS, the top sale of the week was a mighty $8.8 million, including fee, for a 1958 250 GT LWB California Spider, a record result and the highest-ever sale at an Arizona classic-car auction. All the Ferraris were hitting big numbers, going well into seven figures for anything of any rarity and history.

The famed 1969 Chevrolet Corvette #57 Rebel L88 convertible sold for $2.86 million. (Photo: Barrett-Jackson)
The famed 1969 Chevrolet Corvette #57 Rebel L88 convertible sold for $2.86 million. (Photo: Barrett-Jackson)

Dinos are rocking the house, with a 1973 246 GTS hitting a lofty $500k at Gooding. Even such high-production runabouts as the 308 climbed into six figures; a 1976 fiberglass 308 GTB sold for $114,400 at Bonhams.

Likewise Corvettes – Barrett-Jackson, always Nirvana for aficionados of the Chevy sports car, hit the ceiling with the sales of two very rare and special Corvettes: the 1969 race-winning Corvette dubbed The Rebel, which sold for $2.86 million, and an ultra-rare 560-horsepower 1967 L88 coupe that hit the heights at $3.85 million, becoming far and away the highest-priced Corvette ever sold at auction.

But Corvettes across the board were fetching premium prices as well. For example, among the top sales at Russo & Steele in Scottsdale were a 1971 454 SS convertible sold for $250,250 and a 1953 roadster for $225,500.

Many classic-car hobbyists are feeling priced out of the auction scene, and with good reason. There still are some worthwhile deals out there, and many examples of American muscle cars seem underpriced, but by and large, it takes deep pockets to buy anything of value.

For those still able to take part, 2014 should be a golden year for classic-car auctions if nothing bad happens to dampen prices, such as war, pestilence or another economic collapse like the one that killed the market in 2008. We have now fully recovered from that downturn.


Arizona bids for title of best wintertime car show

Photo by Larry Edsall
Photo by Larry Edsall

For many people, the annual classic car auction week in Arizona presents a wonderful opportunity (1) to escape way-too-cold weather and (2) to buy or sell classic cars. But for many more people, the auctions are simply one of the biggest and best classic and exotic car shows on the planet.

For example, where else can you see not one, not two, but nine Mercedes-Benz 300SLs, including five with gull-wing doors?

Where else can you see 39 Ferraris, including a 1951 212 Export Berlinetta and a 1952 212 Inter Coupe, as well as four 250 GTs, one of them a California Spider?

Or three Model J Duesenbergs?

Or cars with bodywork by not only by Touring, Franay, Zagato, Scaglietti, Vignale, Bertone, Ghia, Murphy, LeBaron, Brewster, Mulliner, Gangloff, Chapron, Figoni et Falachi, Scaglietti and all the Farinas — Stablimenti, Pinin and Pininfarina — but by the Rippon Brothers and the Ringbrothers?

Or cars formerly or currently owned by the likes of Nick Cage, Gregory Peck, Ray Milland, Roy Rogers, John Dodge (that’s Dodge as in the car company), James Gandolfini, Winthrop Rockefeller, Richard Carpenter, Simon Cowell,  Matthew Fox, Rudolph Valentino’s manager, Tom Hanks and Rita Wilson, Carroll Shelby or even Dr. Jonas Salk?

You also can see (or even buy) the Testarossa used in Michael Jackson’s Bad Pepsi promo and the herringbone tweed jacket Steve McQueen wore in Bullitt.

There are a Bugatti that raced at Monaco in 1930, the Osca that won the Index of Performance at Sebring in 1960, one of Jim Hall’s 1966 Chaparral 1 racers, Shelby’s race-winning 1963 King Cobra racer, Donna Mae Mims’ pink H-Production national championship 1959 Austin-Healey Sprite, the “longtail” McLaren F1 GTR Global GT racer, a Sox & Martin A/FX Hemi ‘Cuda, the 1998 Ferrari F300 that Michael Schumacher and Eddie Irvine used for testing, and not only the Snake & Mongoose funny cars but the trucks that carried them to the drag strips.

And those numbers and those lists come only from perusing the thick, glossy, printed and heavy catalogs for the RM, Gooding & Co., Bonhams and Barrett-Jackson Salon Collection/Series 5000 portion of the Arizona auction week.

We have yet to click through Russo and Steele’s 409-page online catalog or the ginormous printed catalog for the rest of Barrett-Jackson’s 1400-car docket. And don’t forget that Mitch Silver will have an additional 350 or so vehicles out at Fort McDowell for your viewing (and even bidding) pleasure.

Photo courtesy Arizona concours
Photo courtesy Arizona concours

Nor do those numbers include the cars to be arrayed around the lawns at the Arizona Biltmore for the inaugural Arizona Concours d’Elegance that kicks off auction week on Sunday.


Finally! ‘Reality’ TV promises to get real about classic cars as Corky hits the backroads


Like me, are you appalled, even downright angry about the way television portrays the classic car hobby?

Click on your big screen and start surfing the channels and before long what you’ll see is someone buying a classic car as cheaply as possible, hauling it back to their shop, slapping on some paint, doing minimal mechanical and interior work, and then flipping the thing with one goal in mind — maximized profit.

Sure, everyone likes to make a profit when they sell something. But the classic car hobbyists I know are in this because they love the cars — and the search for the cars — and they love restoring and even maintaining them, getting them running again and looking great. For the most part, they sell them with a degree of reluctance, often only so they can begin the pursuit of their next project.

The find-fix-flip format we see on so many of the classic car “reality” television programs is the polar opposite of what I see when I look at the classic car hobby.  I get more than irritated when I see such shows, and I rarely watch them for more than a few minutes.

But that will change very soon, because I plan to tune in for the debut of Backroad Gold, Corky Coker’s new show.

From what Corky has shared with me, his show sounds like the classic car version of American Pickers, which is less about buying and selling than it is about educating us to America’s antiques and introducing us to the characters who have been caretakers to artifacts of our historic heritage. 

Backroad Gold debuts February 5 — and then runs for at least eight more episodes — on the Travel channel. The program follows Coker and company as they search for cars, motorcycles, old gasoline pumps, road signs and such.

Why am I optimistic about Backroad Gold? Because of Corky, who is about as genuine a classic car hobbyist as you’re ever likely to find. Oh, sure, he’s also part of what I call the classic car industry, the auction houses, insurers, transportation providers and parts producers who supply the things that classic car hobbyists need and buy to pursue the hobby. In Corky’s case, those things are Coker Tires, tires that offer the look of vintage rubber but that also provide the safety and engineering advances of modern tire technology.

But that’s just Corky’s day job. His passion is finding, restoring and driving old cars and motorcycles, and being an evangelist for the hobby.

When The Great Race, the annual cross-country rally for classic cars, appeared to be faltering, Corky bought it, pumped it up and put it back on solid footing. He resurrected the famed Honest Charley Speed Shop & Garage. He helped launch the Collectors Foundation that supports car restoration education in high schools and colleges.

“I grew up in the back seat of a 1910 REO,” he says of riding along with his mom and dad on the old Glidden Tours.

On the new television show, Corky hits the backroads in pursuit of more than just neglected classics. Corky is a car guy, but also a people person, and part of his mission is to introduce the world to what he calls the real Americans.

“The real people of America are on the backroads,” he said, sharing just one example we’ll see on the show — twin 78-year-old brothers who have protected a V12-powered 1934 Pierce-Arrow sedan in their dairy barn for more than 40 years.

As for the cars he finds and is able to buy, “We’re able to restore them and put them back into play,” he said.

The “we” he mentions includes Corky; his father, Harold; his daughter, Casey; her husband, Greg; and Hal, the “head wrench” back in the shop.

Casey said that throughout her life, her dad has been “bringing home all this weird crap.

“I see labor and man hours and cost,” she added. “He sees a jewel.”

Corky’s personality isn’t the only thing that promises to separate his show from the others. For one thing, he’s playing with his own money, not with funding provided by a television production company. For another, instead of flipping the cars once they’re restored, Corky’s tendency, and perhaps his lament, is to keep them because parting with them would be painful.

As I said, this is a real car guy.


‘Year at a Glance’ provides a fresh perspective


Believe it or not, the first hammer of the first sale at the first auction of 2014 falls sometime today, at Dave Rupp’s Fort Lauderdale Beach sale in Florida.

But as the auction action starts anew in a new year, it can be entertaining if not enlightening to take a quick look back at one interesting snapshot of 2013. That snapshot comes in the form of a delightful “Year at a Glance” chart put together by the folks at RM Auctions.

Note: This chart involves only those auctions organized by RM. Nonetheless, it offers a perspective on the classic car hobby and industry that’s noteworthy — and then some.

For example, if you parked nose to tail all of the 879 vehicles sold last year by RM — and those 879 vehicles include a 1932 Garwood boat that was 28 feet in length — they’d form a single line 2.5 miles long.

Of those 879 vehicles, 288 — nearly one out of three — sold for more than their pre-sale estimates.

Bidding on cars and automobilia at RM sales was done by 3,779 people from 52 countries, which makes it a good thing that RM auctioneer Max Girado not only speaks English but is fluent in French, Spanish and Italian as well.

By the way, Girado also is an RM car specialist, which means he not only knows about cars, but he drives them, and drives them passionately. Last year, RM staffers participated in a dozen classic car rallies.

To get to those rallies and to vintage races and to their various auctions last year, RM staffers flew more than 1.5 million miles.

Speaking of miles, the longest distance a car traveled to be auctioned by RM was 6,738 miles. Based on restrictions imposed by classic car insurers, we’re guessing that car was flown, not driven, from its garage to the auction venue.

What was the most popular color among the 879 vehicles sold last year by RM? Red.

But that probably comes as no surprise if you look at what appears to be a bar code in the lower lefthand corner of the chart and realize that those bars represent the sales for 2013 by marque (based on dollars, not number of vehicles). By far the brand generating the most dollars/euros/pounds was Ferrari, followed by Mercedes-Benz, Maserati, Duesenberg and Porsche.

Those brands comprised the top five. Next came Jaguar, Aston Martin, Rolls Royce, Talbot-Lago and Shelby. Rounding out the top 20 were Packard, Cadillac, Ford, Bugatti, Delahaye, Chrysler, Chevrolet, McLaren, Lamborghini and — how’s this for a surprise — Toyota!

Who says Japanese cars aren’t emerging as collectible classics?

So, those are my reactions to the RM chart. What about it caught your eye? And who out there volunteers to produce a similar chart at the end of 2014 rounding up not just one auction company’s results but all the classic car auctions?


Starting the new year off the right way

Photos by Larry Edsall
Photos by Larry Edsall

Dana Mecum told me the other day that people who work within the classic car industry tend to forget that while it is the cars that draw people into the hobby, it is the people they meet that keep them actively involved.

“I see talk and interviews of the boom in the hobby and the industry and people credit it to a lot of different things,” said Mecum, who owns Mecum Auctions.  “But what I haven’t seen mentioned is what I think is the biggest reason for the growth — the social and entertainment value.

“People come [to auctions] not only to buy and sell but to see their friends. There’s a social aspect, a camaraderie.”

I got to experience some of that camaraderie yesterday during at Stephanie and Bud’s 13th annual New Year’s Day Drive.

Bud is a former vintage racer who still restores and drives and shows sports cars. Stephanie may not turn wrenches, but in her own ways she’s as active in the hobby as he is. Each New Year’s Day, they invite a bunch of old and new friends who also have classic or exotic cars to assemble for a continental breakfast in Bud’s Car Room — his office in which his desk is surrounded on three sides by part of his collection of sports car.

After breakfast, and once Stephanie gets people to stop talking to each other for a few minutes, everyone climbs into their cars and heads west on a specified route through cactus-studded desert to Wickenburg for lunch at Rancho de los Caballeros, a historic Western-style resort.

The New Year’s Day Drive may have started as an alternative to sitting around and watching all the college football bowl games, but after more than a dozen years people pretty much have forgotten about those games. They’d rather talk cars and drive them across the desert and then talk some more over lunch tables. And then drive those cars back home.

Speaking of the drive, it turns out that New Year’s Day morning is a great time to exercise your classic or exotic car. Or any other car for that matter. I discovered this a couple of decades ago when I worked at AutoWeek magazine. Each New Year’s Eve, I snatch something cool out of our test fleet so I could drive it with, let’s call it enthusiasm the following day.

Why? Because I realized the drunks are still sleeping off their New Year’s Eve hangovers (and for the most part the police who had been keeping a eye on them are sleeping in as well). Meanwhile, the football fans are perched in front of their televisions, watching the Rose Parade and enjoying a pre-game indoor tailgating.

And, New Year’s Day being a holiday, the semis aren’t out and about. All of which means the roads are empty, except for us.

Yesterday, us included perhaps half a dozen Ferraris — including a 328 GTS, a Testarossa and even a Daytona — a Mercedes-Benz 280 SL cabriolet, a 1960 Jaguar 150 S, a few Porsches (one of them the 1962 Porsche 356 S coupe owned by fellow Blog writer Bob Golfen). a 1972 Citroen DS 21, a couple of Lamborghinis, a Lister, a Corvette, and my friend John Priddy’s 1965 Chevrolet Corvair Monza in which I got to ride along.

Cars and Coffee gatherings have become a national classic car phenomenon. Wouldn’t it be nice if the same thing happened across the country with New Year’s Day Drives?


Are we looking at the wrong scoreboard? Dana Mecum thinks we are

Photos by Larry Edsall
Photos by Larry Edsall

When we report to you about classic car auctions,  we tend to focus on the highest dollar sales figures: Which auction house sold the most expensive car in Monterey? Which auction house took in the most money in Arizona?

Dana Mecum thinks we’re looking at the wrong scoreboard.

mecum7Mecum points out that when the OEMs — the original equipment auto makers who produce the cars that might someday become classics — when the auto manufacturers tally up their monthly and annual scorecards, “No. 1 is whomever produced and sold the most cars.”

That’s the most as in volume, not as in the most expensive.

Of course, Mecum likes keeping score by volume rather than by dollars because Mecum Auctions is the classic car volume leader.

“CNN reported that 19,000 cars were offered at classic car auctions in 2013,” Mecum said. “Well, we offered 12,000 of them. That’s 65 percent of the market.”

Mecum added that he’s not claiming that big a slice of the marketplace. Instead, he said, “I think their number was low. I think it’s more like 24,000 or 25,000 vehicles.”

But that still leaves Mecum controlling half of the classic car auction market, at least in terms of total vehicles.

Mecum said his perspective is based in part because of his personal experience. “My father has been selling cars for more than 60 years,” he said. “In the 1960s, he was the largest wholesale fleet dealer in the world. I’ve always been around large groups of cars. Five-hundred cars. Two-thousand cars.”

While the auto makers continued to focus on volume, “years ago, people in the collector car industry started counting success by dollar volume,” Mecum said. “I disagreed.”

While Mecum agrees that dollars are one way to keep score, they are not the only way. Nonetheless, he’s willing to play that game.

“If you take what I call the major auction companies and go to the dollar volume,” Mecum said, “there are four that sell more than $25 million a year: Us, Barrett-Jackson, RM and Gooding.

“If you take those four and the number of cars sold, we’re at 70 percent [of the market]. If you take the dollar volume, we’re [still] at about 35 percent.”

Mecum chuckles at those who try to make the classic car marketplace more complicated than it is.

“It’s such a basically simple industry,” he said. “It runs on middle-school economics: Supply and demand.”

Sounds to me as if Mecum definitely is into the supply side of the economic equation. What do you think?


Collectible minivans: Dream or nightmare?

1984 Ply Voyager frnt rt color 2

“Next across the block, ladies and gentlemen, is a pristine 1984 Plymouth Voyager, a rare SE model packed with all the options — full gauges, third-row seat, power-opening rear vent windows, wood-look exterior paneling, heavy-duty suspension, wire wheel covers and — taa daa — even a five-speed manual transmission.

“The five-speed was standard equipment, though very few customers did not opt for the three-speed automatic.

“Yes, this is the rarest of the rare first-year minivans, so let’s open the bidding at $50,000, shall we?”

Cough! Gasp! Even in the wildest moments of my imagination, I cannot bring myself to believe that the minivan ever will be considered a collectible classic car.

Well, I can see a couple of possible exceptions:

One would be the minivan, a Renault Espace, that the French automaker equipped in the mid-1990s with one of its 800-horsepower, V10 Formula One racing engines.

The other exception would be if the collector were the Smithsonian or some other museum committed to the display of the artifacts of American culture. (Or, in the case of the Renault Espace F1, in an auto museum in France, which is where that minivan is parked.)

Classic car collectors often start their collections with the car they wanted but didn’t get to drive back in high school. But who among those who grew up as part of the minivan generation even liked riding in one, let alone ever dreamed of driving one to the prom?

635779d1984_004Oh, the minivan was practical enough, especially if you had more than two children, but it also was pretty much a stage-of-life vehicle that you fled as soon as you didn’t need all that room for your children’s booster seats or for car-pooling to soccer practices.

Collectible or not, the minivan turns 30 this model year, and in some states that qualifies it to wear classic car license plates.

“… Sold! And for a world-record price! Don’t fret if you missed on that one, because here comes aPontiac Trans Sports, the famed dust-buster minivan…”