Classics on a Budget
America’s great classic cars defined an era, but they are very usable cars that don’t have to cost a mint.
Suppose we gave you $50,000 to shop for a nice, enjoyable Full Classic™ – one of those fine vintage cars recognized by the Classic Car Club of America (CCCA). Think you could find one? The answer is yes – if you do your homework and shop diligently.
Founded in 1952, the Classic Car Club of America is dedicated to “furthering the restoration and preservation of fine or unusual motor cars which were built between and including the years 1925 to 1948.” The term Full Classic was trademarked by the CCCA to ensure its exclusive association with recognized cars. The designation can add value and prestige to CCCA-eligible automobiles.
The Full Classics here represent the best-of- the-best American cars built in the years surrounding World War II, from around 1938 to 1942 and from 1946 to 1947 or 1948 – the end date varies by make. For simplicity’s sake, we’ll call them ‘later’ Full Classics.
A little bit of history…
Large by today’s standards, many later Full Classics were more compact than the massive chauffeur-driven coach-built masterpieces that ruled before and during the Great Depression. As the U.S. economy regained momentum during the late 1930s, demand grew for more nimble owner-driven luxury models. America’s surviving premium brands responded with modernized models designed for the owner-driver of means. Hydraulic brakes, sealed beam headlamps and turn signals were the norm by 1941– the year that Cadillac first offered its fully automatic Hydra-Matic transmission. Such features make the later Full Classics as roadworthy, in many respects, as cars built decades later.
Most affordable later Full Classics are top-line regular production models. Two-door coupes and fastbacks are much scarcer than corresponding four-door sedans and more valuable, although most are still considered affordable. Later Full Classic convertibles and special or coach-built closed models in very good or better condition are usually priced beyond our budget.
Relatively uncomplicated mechanically, the later Full Classics include some of the most reliable, best performing and enjoyable-to-drive cars embraced by the CCCA. Not that you should discount an earlier Classic; the CCCA’s David Schultz reminds us that “there are [also] many very affordable and drivable Classics from the early Classic Era. It comes down to the experience one is seeking from owning and driving a Classic automobile.”
As an investment, buying a later CCCA Full Classic might be compared to owning a relatively smaller and more affordable – but still exceptionally well-built – ’40s colonial revival home in a prestigious neighborhood of grandly scaled ’20s and ’30s Tudors.
Finding your later Full Classic
A combination of the current economic conditions and long-term CCCA members – or their estates – handing off their prized cars makes this a good time to obtain a later Full Classic at a relatively reasonable price.
Where to look? Ads in hobby publications are a time-honored resource. Affordable Classics may also turn up at almost any collector car auction, so watch auction ads and check online sale catalogs. Sales associated with large collector events and auctions held in conjunction with major Concours usually include tempting later Full Classics; check out the Car Corral at swap meets, too. Hemmings Motor News, the CCCA Bulletin, regional publications and Web sites include classified ads that may offer member-owned cars coming out of long-term ownership. It is always best to check out a car you’re considering in person before committing to it. Hiring a professional appraiser to evaluate the vehicle is usually well worth the added cost.
Only certain premium-series models and/or model years are eligible for CCCA Full Classic status. You can check the qualified models on the Approved CCCA Classics list at classiccarclub. org/grand_classics/approved_classics.html.
Now, let’s get to the specific later Full Classic cars and models most likely to be affordable:
1936-’48 Cadillac V-8 — Select Series
Full Classic Caddies are powered by a reliable, powerful and surprisingly simple L-head Cadillac V-8. These include the svelte 1940-’47 Series 62 sedans and coupes, 1941-’42 Series 63 sedans, and the much admired but still usually affordable 1938-’47 Series 60 Special sport sedans. The only Full Classic 1948 production Cadillacs are Series 75 models, the last to retain derivative pre-WWII styling. The CCCA does not recognize price-leader 1936-’47 Cadillac Series 60 and 61 models, or 1934-’40 LaSalle ‘junior Cadillacs.’
1940-’47 Senior Series Packards
During the later Full Classic era, Packard offered Senior and Junior lines. The premium-grade Senior models are Full Classics, while Junior six-cylinder and regular eight-cylinder lines, including “120” and lowline Clipper series, are not.
1940-’48 Lincoln Continental V-12
CCCA members have avidly collected 1940-’48 Lincoln Continentals for decades. Numerous Hollywood celebrities owned these impressive boulevard cruisers new, and the cars that originated the ‘Continental kit’ still turn heads. Continental Coupes, especially the postwar models, can be bought for less than you might think, thanks in part to a relatively high survival rate. Avoid modified cars, especially Continentals without the original V12.
1936-’42 Buick Series 90 Limited; 1940 Series 80 Limited
Buick’s largest and most expensive cars between 1931 and 1942 were the Full Classic Series 90 models. In 1936, a new and spirited OHV straight-eight engine and other improvements took Series 90-Limited performance to a new level. The 1936-’40 Limited sedans and limousines are large automobiles, but they make excellent tour cars – as do the slightly smaller 1940 Series 80 Limiteds that are also Classics. Limiteds from 1941-1942 are especially sleek large cars, powered by a dual-carbureted Fireball Eight engine.
1940-’48 Chrysler Crown Imperial
Chrysler’s 145.5-inch wheelbase 1940-’48 Crown Imperial sedans and limousines were powered by a great inline L-head eight engine and were well-engineered fine cars. The 1941-only shorter wheelbase Crown Imperial Town Special Sedan was an intriguing one-year wonder.
For more tips about buying and driving pre- and post-World War II later Full Classics, visit hagerty.com/fullclassics.
BOB LICHTY’S PICKS
A well-established dealer can help you find the right later Full Classic. Long-time CCCA member Bob Lichty, whose Motorcar Portfolio showroom in Canton, Ohio, is usually stocked with several affordable later Full Classics, has handled and driven many such cars. At our request, Bob commented on our top picks, from both a touring and dealer perspective.
1941-’47 Cadillacs: “At the top of the list in terms of availability and desirability. These are driver’s cars and very dependable. Seek a 1941–’42 Series 63 or stylish longwheelbase Series 67 if you want something different.”
1940-’47 Senior-Series Packards: “Highly sought-after by Motorcar Portfolio customers. However, among the later Full Classics, these Packard models have proven the hardest to come up with.”
1940-’48 Lincoln Continentals: “Incredible bargains right now. Suspect their long-standing popularity with CCCA members resulted in an unusually high survival rate, which belies the cars’ limited-production scarcity.”
1936-’42 Buick Series Limited and 1940 Series 80 Limited: “The superb Series 90 Buicks have been largely overlooked by CCCA members. The later Limiteds drive even better than Cadillacs.”
1940-’48 Chrysler Crown Imperial: “They are quite rare but also very affordable, possibly due to their garage-challenging length and comparatively uninspired styling. The short-wheelbase 1941 Town Sedan is an exception.” Coincidentally, he’d just added one to his inventory shortly before we talked.
To see this article in its original format, view the pdf version of the Winter 2010 issue of Hagerty magazine.