Looking for cars with the ‘it’ factor? ‘It’ might cost you

Sometimes a car just has that magical quality, the “it” factor of provenance, pedigree, or mojo that distinguishes it from lesser cars. I arrived at Barrett-Jackson in Scottsdale in January excited to see the highly touted collection of 18 Fox-body Mustangs (lots 1561.1–1571). All were indeed low-mileage cars, but not one had the right combination of model year, color, options, and history to tempt me. They all lacked that “it” factor.

Then I found a red 1985 Mustang GT with the mojo to stop me in my tracks: 3900 original miles, no sunroof, last year of the carbureted 5.0, five-speed transmission, original tires and battery, Mustang Club of America Gold and coveted Thoroughbred award winner. The car had “it” in spades, so I bought it for $33,000—about 60 percent above its current #1 value, according to the Hagerty Price Guide (HPG). Clearly, “it” is not without cost.

10 Most expensive Cars Sold at Auction
Chart 1 Jesse Pilarski and Troy Oxford

What creates this magic? Chart 1 shows that rarity and race history are common indicators of what makes a car special. Other attributes include original paint, low mileage, a limited number of owners or a famous one, unique options or special colors, or a significant serial number. These factors will affect the price of any collector car, from a Fox Mustang to a Ferrari 250GTO. It pays to hunt down a special example.

In 2007, I convinced a customer to buy a 1959 Ferrari California Spider, chassis 1451GT. Ferrari experts harped on its long wheelbase (LWB) and open headlights, the least desirable configuration in Ferrari-land. Yet this was one of only eight factory competition cars, and it had sensational history, including a third in class and fifth overall at the 1959 24 Hours of Le Mans. A prior restoration disguised this history under incorrect paint and interior. Ten years later, after being re-restored to its 1959 Le Mans appearance, 1451GT sold for $17,990,000 at auction—more than twice the price of the most expensive non-competition LWB open-headlight California Spider (Chart 5).

Also at Scottsdale in January, Gooding & Company sold a 1973 Porsche 911T Targa for $313,500. It had been stored for decades and didn’t run, but it was a time capsule with 3400 miles in desirable Kelly Green, two factors that resulted in its nearly tripled market result (Chart 7). A week before, in Kissimmee, Florida, Mecum Auctions sold an 885-mile 2003 Honda S2000 for $71,500, far exceeding the $33,000 value for a #1 example in the HPG. Mecum also sold a 2002 S2000 with 23,000 miles on it for $24,200—about a $2-per-mile discount (Chart 3).

A 2006 Ford GT that Bonhams sold in Scottsdale for $489,500 seems like insanity (Chart 2). Yet this particular GT was owned since new by Carroll Shelby, had 600 miles, and was being sold from Shelby’s estate. The roughly 35-percent premium over the $365,000 HPG #1 value now makes sense. Coupled with the $13,750,000 sale in 2016 of the first-ever Cobra, CSX 2000—also owned by Shelby since new—it’s clear that significant ownership adds to the “it” factor.

Of course, bad history has its own effect on value. Any race car that has killed people is a hard sell, especially in Europe, where owning a “killer car” is taboo. Infamous owners can wreck provenance as well. Witness the 1939 Mercedes-Benz 770K once owned by Adolf Hitler that failed to sell at $7 million at Worldwide in Scottsdale, despite the seller’s pledging 10 percent of the proceeds to Holocaust education funding. Apparently, there’s a slim market of high-seven-figure buyers for a genocidal dictator’s car.

It’s important to remember that the sale of a special car doesn’t make a market. All 1985 Mustang GTs didn’t get a value bump in the wake of Barrett-Jackson, nor did all Honda S2000s after Mecum. What these sales and others do prove is that truly special cars that have “it” command an often-hefty premium when they hit the market. Of course, owning one is serious business as well, because although it can take decades to create the “it” factor, it can be erased in a moment. And that, beyond the price of admission, is the responsibility some of us are happy to sign up for.

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