State of the Hobby

The collector car hobby is basking in the limelight. But what does the future hold?

Once it was thought that if you were into old cars, you were kind of strange or odd – a person with greasy fingernails and a hoarder of junk. Now the collector hobby is the stuff of prime-time cable channels, a dozen glossy magazines, lavish vintage racing and concours d’ elegance events, as well as thousands of swap meets headlined by the annual Antique Automobile Club of America (AACA) Fall National Meet in Hershey, Pa.

The hobby has come a long way since the AACA was founded in 1935. Today’s collectors encompass a wide range of people with varied interests. From early brass-era cars, classics, American “iron,” European sports cars, hot rods, customs and racing cars, every segment is well supported with events, clubs and suppliers. A large and growing group of enthusiasts have also made collecting “automobilia” a quickly appreciating part of the market. Driving events and vintage rallies have served to make collector cars more visible to the general public than ever before.

The growth of the hobby has been the subject of articles in Newsweek, The New York Times and Forbes in recent months. Indeed, the collector car hobby has arrived.

A 2006 Hagerty Hobby Survey showed that just less than half the respondents belong to clubs. Club membership is a key barometer to passion for cars. While club membership is not universally higher, certain single-marque organizations like the National Council of Corvette Clubs (NCCC) have grown by 20 percent in the past five years.

Helping fuel the hobby’s growth is the Internet. Dealers, private sellers and auctions continue to play a role, but online auction sites are widening the access to cars for millions of potential buyers.

Recently eBay Motors marked the 2 millionth car sold on the site. Selling a car 25 years and older every four minutes, it reports that as of the third quarter of 2006, an average of 8,200 collector cars are available daily on the site. The Internet has also made it easier for people to find cars far from their home; eBay statistics show 71 percent of the listings are sold across state lines.

Also helping fuel growth is the number of baby boomers entering their reward years propelled by a bullish stock market. The market has also been helped by a shift from equities investments to objects of all kinds, including cars. David Gooding, founder of the auction company that bears his name, put it this way: “People will realize that it’s more fun to have an E-Type in the garage than to own stock, even if it’s performing well.”

It’s generally agreed that this “bull market” is rather different from the last one seen in the late ’80s; the number of speculators in the market seems to be smaller than was the case then. People who are buying cars are doing so because they love them and want to enjoy them. Any financial benefits are looked on as “the icing on the cake.”

The collector car world has been abuzz in recent years because of the multimillion dollar prices for certain muscle cars at the Barrett-Jackson auction. In general, the value of muscle cars and European sports racing cars continues to rise, with interest in classics and early cars not far behind.

During the 2006 Monterey, Calif., event, 519 cars changed hands for a total of more than $100 million, up from 2005’s $79 million and 374 cars. Last year’s Scottsdale Barrett-Jackson racked up almost $100 million in a four-day sale that attracted nearly 5,000 registered bidders and 250,000 spectators. A source in the auction business predicts that evidence of a cool-down in the real estate market may be seen in a slowdown in the $50K-$100K segment of the market, while not being a factor in the top end where cars sell in the millions.

Many are concerned about an overall “market correction” that might be coming but is not necessarily a foregone conclusion. It can be expected that prices will level out or even decline at the end of a strong market. Says RM Auctions co-founder Michael Fairbairn: “Certain segments, those that have advanced the furthest and the fastest, will see greater corrections than others.”

Trends in the hobby

A key factor in determining values has been an emphasis on how collectors use their cars. Christie’s motor car department specialist Christopher Sanger observes: “The smart collectors are looking for usability for a specific type of event. Quality, provenance and usability will drive the market.” Cars that are eligible for the events people most want to enter bring markedly higher prices than those that are not.

Another trend is the newfound interest in “original” cars. Unrestored cars have become more desired as there’s no going back once they’ve been altered. Once, if a collector had a very original car, it was viewed merely as the starting point for a full restoration. Now that same owner is challenged not to touch it at all.

There’s also a growing gap between historic cars that have undergone full restorations – or cars that are in well-preserved and documented original condition – and more common cars with needs. This is true at all levels of collecting from common English sports cars to major classics, but is especially seen at the top end. “My 1931 Murphy Duesenberg roadster is original,” says collector Charles Le Maitre of Massachusetts. “People used to ask, ‘When are you going to restore it?’ Now, they say, ‘Please don’t touch that car.’ ”

“Now that they’re getting rarer and harder to find, original cars are even more appreciated,” says David Gooding. “People are realizing that shiny isn’t always the best. The cars that have never been touched have a lot to say.”

The Type 35 Bugatti that sold this year for $2.6 million at a Pebble Beach auction is unlikely to ever be used today on a vintage race track due to its extreme originality. But for those who crave usability, this creates a dilemma. The irony is that a car that has undergone some massaging with the application of replacement parts can still be driven – and enjoyed for what it was meant to be. “It’s the difference between an objet d’art and a piece of sports equipment,” says Miles Collier, owner of the Collier Collection in Naples, Fla.

So we are seeing a major division between “cars as cars” and “cars as art.”

“Cars have indeed begun to come into their own as art objects,” says Le Maitre. “The person who buys a Mercedes 540K for $2 million is really buying an automotive Rembrandt.”

In contrast, to the trend toward original, unrestored cars, there is a growing acceptance of street rods and resto rods into the hobby. “Not everyone can have a car like a Yenko Corvette or a 1970 ZR-1,” says journalist Ken Gross, “but it is possible for you to create one. Likewise, people today who own cars like an original 1964 Pontiac GTO or a Chrysler 300 run the risk of being blown off by a guy in a Subaru WRX. Now, it has become acceptable to use contemporary hardware under the skin -- as long as you do it carefully and tastefully without major surgery.”

In addition, suggests Gross, cloned cars, where an original muscle car like a Hemi ’Cuda is recreated using crate motors and reproduction parts, are starting to fetch prices that rival what the originals were going for several years ago.

The legislative climate

Hobbyists are rarely targeted by laws and regulations, but are often caught unintentionally in the broad net of otherwise sensible laws, especially as they relate to emissions regulations and alternative fuels. These laws are often the product of well-intentioned decision makers attempting to solve a legitimate problem without considering the needs of hobbyists. As a result, Hagerty and other companies have partnered with experts at the Specialty Equipment Market Association (SEMA) as well as numerous active car clubs to make sure that the needs of hobbyists aren’t overlooked.

An area of particular concern is the advent of alternative fuels such as ethanol and its potential adverse effects on older collector cars. Other concerns relate to stricter emissions laws, scrappage incentives for older cars and usage restrictions on vehicles of a certain age. (For more information, visit

The future

While energy policy and legislative initiatives are always difficult to predict, the hobby is better represented than ever before and should continue to thrive. Like any human phenomenon, the collector world will continue to be subject to the cyclical nature of the stock market, real estate prices and other economic barometers. But like fine art, interest is unlikely to wane, especially with technologies like the Internet and eBay – as well as a host of collector magazines – all of which will continue to fuel our passions and make information about old cars more accessible. The best is likely yet to come.


Fathers and Sons

Old cars can help fathers and sons build a strong bond. More than 20 percent of the respondents to Hagerty’s Hobby Survey share their car activities with their sons and 11.5 percent share with their fathers. Sports car collector John Wright inherited his passion from his Ford-loving dad, and now he’s passing it on to his son. When 16- year-old Johnny began driving, it was in a red MG that father and son restored together. The finished car was more than just a great Christmas present; it was a shared experience.

The hobby offers an opportunity to share a passion and become closer. That’s why more than 75 percent of those surveyed say having a family member involved in their hobby is important to them.
To see this article in its original format, view the pdf version of the Spring 2007 issue of Hagerty magazine.