While the market for enthusiast vehicles grows more savvy when buying and selling, an auction remains an imperfect place for buying and selling. Bidders paying attention—or not—when a car crosses the block can still score a deal. Success is by no means guaranteed, though. There are some guidelines to keep in mind before raising your paddle.
We gathered five each of the best and worst auction flips of 2019 to see what lessons we could learn. All 10 flips are ranked by annualized return (the change in price from one sale to the next) and adjusted to one year to put them on a level playing field. Read on to see which cars paid to play and which cashed in.
With its Colonial White exterior, Fiesta Red interior, and whitewalls, this hardtop Thunderbird has a classy presence. The optional, larger 312-cubic-inch Y-block V-8 rests under this T-bird’s hood, paired with a three-speed manual with overdrive and hauled to a stop with front disc brakes. We rated Continental-kit-equipped car a condition 2- back at Barrett-Jackson’s 2019 Scottsdale auction in January where it sold for for $36,300 (compared to its #3 condition value of $38,000). The car sold again two months later at Mecum’s Phoenix auction for $26,400; the loss of $9900, or -27 percent, over two months works out to an annualized return of -87.5 percent.
Despite the uprated specs of this car, the ’55–57 Thunderbird market currently suffers from too much supply and not enough demand. In those circumstances, speculating that a good deal can be flipped at a premium is risky.
1951 Mercury Series 1CM Custom Coupe: Paid to play (-87.9 percent)
This blue cruiser is slung low, in good hot rod fashion, powered by a 454-cu-in LSX V-8, and sits a custom Art Morrison chassis. That V-8 is paired with a six-speed automatic transmission that sends power to the back pair of five-spoke alloy wheels. Back in January of 2019, at Barrett-Jackson’s 2019 Scottsdale auction, this car took three figures—$128,700, only to sell in April for $79,200 at Barrett-Jackson’s Palm Beach auction.
The $49,500, or -38 percent, loss in less than 90 days means this Mercury custom earned an annualized return of -87.9 percent. Big-money customs with extensive modifications suffer from limited demand because they invite potential bidders to imagine how they’d spend all those dollars differently when building or specifying a custom of their own.
This red-over-grey ’91 Firebird Formula coupe boasts the 1LE performance package and is reportedly one of only 27 ’91 Firebirds to carry the LB9 5.0-liter, 225-hp V-8 paired with a five-speed manual. Its factory T-tops make it even less common; but all these go-fast goodies didn’t save it from a -47 percent drop in price over 99 days, from $18,700 at Barrett-Jackson’s Northeast auction in June of 2019 to $9900 the following October at Barrett-Jackson’s Las Vegas auction.
The $8800 loss in 99 days works out to an annualized return of -90.4 percent. Well-documented pony cars with high-performance equipment are desirable, but this flip suggests that those launched in the 1980s may have already had their moment.
1981 Datsun 280ZX Turbo Coupe: Paid to play (-96.6 percent)
Restored in 1987 and repainted to factory Rich Blue (over yet more blue inside), Datsun 280ZX boasts the turbocharged Nissan intended to rescue the heftier 280’s performance compared to its more sprightly predecessor, the 240Z. The turbo bumped the 2.8-liter inline six from 140 to 180 hp, which this 280ZX pairs with an automatic transmission. We rated it condition 3+ back in March of 2019; #3 (Good) condition 280ZX values at that time sat at $7900, but this car still sold for $17,050 at Mecum’s Phoenix auction. However, it nosedived a few months later to a sale price of $6875 at Mecum’s Portland auction in June of 2019.
The $10,175-loss (-60 percent) in 98 days earns this Datsun 280ZX achieved an annualized return of -96.6 percent. Venue matters, and while Portland is known for appreciating eccentric vehicles, this early turbo automatic Datsun apparently isn’t one of them. Perhaps if it were brown instead of blue?
We rated this pristine, black-over-black Mk IV Supra a condition #1 (Concours) this past August. Pairing a six-speed manual with its 3.0-liter inline six, this 29,000-mile car sold at RM’s Auburn Fall sale for $99,000, compared to its contemporary #1-condition value of $120,000. However, barely over a month later in Las Vegas, Barrett-Jackson sold it for for $71,500, chalking up a loss of -28 percent in only 35 days.
This loss works out to an annualized return of -96.6 percent; while this Supra might appear a bargain relative to our condition-appropriate value in August, not every auction has bidders willing to pay six figures for an up-and-coming collectible.
This eye-catching Thunderbird Bronze example, complete with matching interior and factory wire wheels wrapped in whitewalls, boasts the “E-code” 312-cu-in V-8 motor, rated at 270 hp. Paired with an automatic transmission, this car sold at RM Auctions Auburn Spring sale in June for $44,000—well under its corresponding #3-condition (Good) of $56,000 at that time. However, in August the hardtop sold for $77,000, and that 75-percent increase in 60 days earns it an annualized return of 250 percent.
Color matters, and as we saw in the “paid to play” cars, the ’55–57 Thunderbird doesn’t have a reliable market right now—in this case, the car was both well-bought and then well-sold.
1934 Ford Model 40 Five-Window Coupe Street Rod: Cashed in (+288 percent)
This lime-green Ford Model 40 street rod has, naturally, a 350-cu-in V-8, with an Edelbrock intake manifold and Weber carburetors to spice things up. Said to have been featured in the August 2005 issue of Street Rod Builder magazine, this Skittle-colored custom sold at Mecum’s Chicago 2018 auction for $50,600 and again in January of 2019 at the house’s Kissimmee auction for $104,500.
An increase of $53,900, or 107 percent, in just 78 days is good for an annualized return of 288 percent. As with the 1951 Mercury custom above, the market for big-dollar customs is not liquid; transactions don’t occur often and there is usually a large discrepancy between the asking price and the price bid. This illiquid market, then, explains the 2018 Chicago sale but not the street rod’s place in the list of “cashed in” cars. Unusual colors such as green or blue often increase the risk of a low price; most likely, the stars aligned for the car’s Kissimmee sale.
Of all the rainbow-colored cars of the muscle era, this turquoise vinyl-top Camaro definitely stands out. It’s said to be a special-order hue, and, together with the redline tires, it adds some serious glam to this numbers-matching Camaro and its SS-spec 396-cu-in V-8. The motor, rated at 350 hp according to the air-cleaner decal, mates with a Turbo 400 automatic transmission and is wrestled to a stop with front disc brakes. Cushioned a bit with power steering and air-conditioning to balance out the sensory assault, this car sold at Mecum’s Harrisburg auction in August of 2019 without documentation for $40,700. A month later it crossed the block at Mecum’s Dallas auction—now accompanied by documentation, for $59,400.
The increase of $18,700, or 46 percent, in just over one month, turns into a 571 percent annualized return. While color does matter, for Chevrolets of this era documentation matters more, which can bring a big increase in price.
1970 GMC C1500 1/2-ton Pickup Custom: Cashed in (+2377 percent)
This custom, short-box GMC pickup features Hugger Orange paint over shaved front and rear bumpers and rides on custom 24-inch wheels. Inside, the screaming orange paint on the upright dash pairs with black leather upholstery and a leather-wrapped, chunky orange steering wheel. Say what you will, the color scheme is consistent. Under the hood is a 350-cu-in V-8 paired with an automatic transmission.
The custom truck sold at Mecum’s Phoenix auction in March for $14,850, and only one month later at Barrett-Jackson’s Palm Beach auction for $26,950. Almost doubling in value (81 percent) in 28 days is good enough for this truck to snag the second-best flip of 2019. (Remember, that crazy 2377 percent gain is skewed by the short time frame of this flip, relative to the one-year adjusted standard.) Customs in unusual colors don’t always have the most receptive market, but finding one for close to the price of a stock example (here, compared to a #3 value of $12,100) with reversible mods can be a good bargain.
1977 Chevrolet Nova NASCAR: Cashed in (+529,000 percent)
Converted from Pontiac Ventura bodywork to Goodwrench-liveried Chevy Nova panels by Dale Earnhardt and his team, this Nova won several races in period with Earnhardt behind the wheel. Since its retirement, it’s enjoyed healthy activity in vintage races, including at the Goodwood Festival of Speed, and its 358-cu-in V-8 reportedly pumps out over 700 raucous horsepower. The venerable race car sold at Bonhams Amelia Island auction in March of 2019 for $53,000, and sold again one month later at Barrett-Jackson’s Palm Beach auction—for $209,000. (Again, the outrageous percentage increase here is a reflection both of the major price difference and a short one-month time scale.)
The takeaway? Venue matters. In just over a month, this car sold for almost four times its first sale price, snatching it the crown of best flip of 2019.
Which car surprised you most on this list? Let us know in the comments below.