Europeans are buying American classic cars by the boatload
Picture yourself this July 4th weekend roaming a huge fairground along with more than 100,000 other gearheads. You’re gazing at the spectacle of 20,000 or so classic American cars, running the gamut from Airflows to Z/28s. As far as your eyes can see, it’s an ocean of bright paint colors, gleaming chrome, hood scoops, tailfins, and mag wheels.
It seems like a car culture scene as American as baseball, hot dogs, apple pie, and Chevrolet, but it’s more like soccer, falukorv, kanelbullar, and Volvo. This is Sweden’s Power Big Meet, and even if you don’t attend, there’s a possibility that a car you once owned might be there.
How is that?
In 2018 alone, about 30,000 classic cars left American ports in shipping containers, with most sailing to Europe, according to Dmitry Shibarshin, marketing director of West Coast Shipping, based in Richmond, California. Of those 30,000 cars, West Coast shipped 12,000, along with about 2000 late-model cars.
The 30,000 figure, Shibarshin explains, was determined by analyzing containerized shipping data from IHS Markit, a London-based global business information company. “We pull data from all vehicles and shippers,” Shibarshin explains. “We look at shippers that specialize in classic cars, and we look at the volume of containers, plus our own data.”
Shibarshin works from the company’s second location in Linden, New Jersey, which opened last year not far from where a General Motors assembly plant was demolished in 2008. “We’re one of the larger companies shipping in containers,” he says. “We have cars coming from all over the U.S. by the truckload. Some companies are shipping classic cars on roll-on/roll-off ships. For that, the car has to be able to start reliably and be driven, and it still gets some exposure to the sea air.”
Fins for Finns
Shibarshin confirmed that many American classics exported to Europe end up in Finland and Sweden. Australia, the UK, France, and New Zealand are also strong markets for American classics. “Germany and Netherlands are the biggest importers, but many of the cars then go to surrounding countries that don’t have ports,” he says.
The majority of classic cars shipped to Europe are American, with muscle cars, Corvettes, and pony cars in high demand, along with big coupes and sedans from the 1950s and 1960s. Numerous European classics are leaving American ports, as well. For example, Shibarshin says British roadsters are popular with buyers in France. Volkswagen buses are also popular exports from the U.S.
“The cars here are in better condition than in Europe. There are more climates here that are kinder to the vehicles, and more cars to choose from,” Shibarshin says. A recent trend has been an uptick in exporting Mercedes-Benz SLs from the 1970s–90s. “We’re seeing a lot more of those going back to Europe. We have quite a few in the warehouse.”
Some overseas buyers hire agents to look for cars in the States, while others come to the U.S. on “buying vacations” and look for cars themselves.
“I meet some of them in the office, dropping off a car to ship home,” Shibarshin says. “There’s so much competition to get cars that we have clients who employ people in the U.S. to scan Craigslist all day. Cars are selling within minutes of posting, or people are showing up at the seller’s door with cash.”
The shipping activity is not always connected with buying and selling. “We’ve had customers that ship their cars for cross-country drives,” Shibarshin says. “Others simply bring their exotic for a week to drive in L.A.”
Southern California remains the largest point of departure for exporting classic cars, but other areas are on the rise. “Los Angeles is still the first place many overseas buyers think of for finding cars,” Shibarshin says. “But it’s recently become overcrowded with buyers. We’re seeing more growth coming from the East Coast than the L.A. area.”
The Lost Angeles area ports still ship more classic cars in containers than other U.S. ports, but the approximately 8000 shipped in 2018 was a two-percent decline from 2016, according to West Coast Shipping’s data. New York and New Jersey ports shipped about half that number in 2018, but that was a 49-percent increase over 2016.
Some traffic comes the other way, too, especially when the dollar is high and for cars that are harder to find here than in Europe, such as Citroëns. “It’s a little more expensive to import cars here than to export,” he says.
One of Shibarshin’s uncles started West Coast Shipping around 2007 because he needed to ship used cars he was buying in the U.S. and selling in Eastern Europe. The company never shipped more than 1,000 cars a year until shifting its focus to classic models. “We saw an opportunity with classic cars around 2009, and that’s now our primary focus,” Shibarshin says.
For overseas enthusiasts, coming to America to buy cars makes economic sense. In addition to finding greater variety and supply here, the shipping costs are reasonable. Using the example of a Mustang going from California to the port of Le Havre in France in a shared container with two other cars, the processing and shipping cost would be $1300.
“Our agent there will accept the container, pick it up, unload it and clear customs. That process is about 500 euros,” Shibarshin says. Any further ground transportation would be additional. Shipping a car is fairly simple, requiring a title and filling out a shipping form and power of attorney. “We try to make the process as easy as possible.”