Vroom, vroom! The 5 most expensive race cars sold at auction

There really is no “cheap” way to race cars. Considering all of the tools, parts, safety equipment, fuel, travel costs, and entry fees involved, auto racing is one of the most expensive hobbies out there. And the costliest piece of the puzzle, of course, is the car itself, which can range in value from a few grand to a few million.

Then there are cars that the vast majority of us can only dream of owning, those that sell for the price of an IndyCar team.

As we anticipate Gooding & Company’s sale of the JW Racing Gulf-liveried 1970 Porsche 917K at Pebble Beach next month, below are the five priciest race cars to sell at auction. Sadly, they’ll likely never be driven in anger again, destined for a future of slow-speed runs—if they ever see the track again.

Given the incredible growth of the collector car market over the past decade, it isn’t surprising that all of the sales took place within the past five years. Four of the five are Ferraris, evidence of the marque’s allure to collectors of top-shelf cars. Also of note, two were driven by Juan Manuel Fangio, and all are from the 1950s to the mid-1960s.

  1. 1962 Ferrari 250 GTO
    Sold by Bonhams for $38,115,000
    Only 36 examples of the 250 GTO were built, and the car is regarded as one of the greatest and prettiest sports cars of all time. It was also the dominant GT car of its day and brought Ferrari three championships in succession from 1962-64. The GTO is the most valuable sports car on earth, the bluest of blue-chip collector cars, which means you can’t just go out and buy one. Owners tend to keep their GTO long term (Pink Floyd drummer Nick Mason has had his since 1977), and they very rarely sell at public auction. That’s why this one was such a big deal when it was consigned for Bonhams Quail Lodge auction in 2014, the first auction appearance for a GTO since 2000.

    In the weeks leading up to the sale, speculation in the popular press was that the GTO might be a $50–$70 million car. But this example was involved in a fatal crash in period, and by GTO standards its race history was unremarkable. While the final result was considerably less than some expected, however, the sale grabbed headlines because it still shattered the previous record for the most expensive car ever sold at auction.

  2. 1957 Ferrari 335 Sport
    Sold by Artcurial for $35,673,848
    This was a monumental price for a monumental Ferrari. The car finished second at the Swedish Grand Prix and second in the last-ever Mille Miglia race in 1957. It also won the Cuban Grand Prix in 1958, plus it briefly led at Le Mans and competed at placed like Nassau and Venezuela. Its strong results helped Ferrari win the World Constructors’ Championship in 1957, and the list of people who piloted the car reads like a veritable who’s who of great racing drivers: Peter Collins, Maurice Trintignant, Wolfgang von Trips, Mike Hawthorn, Luigi Musso, Stirling Moss, Masten Gregory, and Lance Reventlow. It’s not often that so many famous names are attached to one car, and that’s a big reason why this became the most expensive car ever sold at auction in Europe.

  3. 1954 Mercedes-Benz W196R
    Sold by Bonhams for $29,700,000
    Before that GTO came along and captured all the attention, this was the most expensive car ever sold at auction and was the star of the Bonhams Goodwood Festival of Speed sale in 2013. The W196 marked the return of the Mercedes-Benz “Silver Arrows” to Grand Prix racing, and they were the dominant cars in the 1954 and ’55. This example was driven to  a pair of 1954 victories (German Grand Prix, Swiss Grand Prix) by five-time champion Juan Manuel Fangio, providing valuable points en route to his second World Championship. The car is also unusual in that it is largely original, and it sold at a time when “patina” and “unrestored” were becoming buzzwords in the collector car world. Given that the other surviving examples are either owned by the factory or reside in museums, this was something of a once-in-a-lifetime buy, and the massive sale price wasn’t a surprise.

  4. 1956 Ferrari 290 MM
    Sold by RM Sotheby’s for $28,050,000
    Like the 335 Sport sitting at No. 2 on this list, this 290 MM has the kind of racing pedigree that makes for a top-grade collector car. Fangio is regarded by many (including Moss) as the best racing driver of them all, and he drove this Ferrari to fourth overall in the Mille Miglia. It also raced at the Nürburgring, where it finished third, and the Swedish Grand Prix, where it finished second. It then won the 1,000-kilometer race in Buenos Aires and also competed at Spa, Nassau, and Cuba, driven by greats Phil Hill, Olivier Gendebien, Luigi Musso, Masten Gregory, and Jo Bonnier.

  5. 1964 Ferrari 275 GTB/C Speciale
    Sold by RM Sotheby’s for $26,400,000
    Ferrari built three special-competition versions of the then-new 275 GTB with lighter-weight chassis, dry-sump lubrication, six Weber carbs, 70 extra horsepower, and aluminum bodywork. While the cars were considered an evolution of the 250 GTO, only one of the three raced, finishing third at Le Mans in 1965. This one was sold directly from the factory to an Italian owner who used it as a road car. But its rarity, performance, and drop-dead gorgeous looks were not lost on the Monterey bidders three years ago.