The 2020 collector car market was a frame-off rebuild, and it likely won’t ever be the same

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Matthew Tierney

I’ve been in the collector car trade for over 30 years, so I’d like to think I’ve seen it all. Nope. Thanks to 2020, I can add “pandemic” to the list.

In 2019, following years of unprecedented growth, the market slowed. Many expected more of the same going into 2020. January auction results from Scottsdale indicated as much; they were down 3 percent against 2019 totals despite 17 percent more cars sold. Rolling into Amelia Island amid heightened COVID-19 concerns, results there also dipped, from $79.6M in 2019 to $77.4M, albeit from 100 fewer consignments. Few of us understood it would be the last show or live auction event we’d attend for a long, long time.

Within weeks, it seemed unfathomable that the pandemic wouldn’t do irreparable harm to both the market and to values. After all, if you can’t leave your house, do you really need cars? Would we all soon be trading them for ramen noodles and Charmin?

2020 scottsdale auction bmw
Matthew Tierney

But nobody puts this baby in a corner. Driving remained one of the few escapes available to us, and online auction sites saw a surge of activity as enthusiasts turned to them for entertainment as well as commerce. They seamlessly filled the vacuum left by the cancellation of, well, everything. It was an impressively rapid transition that included traditional land-based auction houses pivoting to online sales platforms. As a result, the old-car market in 2020 witnessed an uptick instead of a crash. Collector cars weren’t alone in this, either. Late-model new and used car values were way up over 2019, helped by a severe supply issue of new cars due to production shutdowns.

So, where do we go from here? Well, the 2021 Scottsdale auctions, long the market barometer for the coming year, were all canceled, rescheduled, reformatted, or moved online. As of this writing, Amelia is on for late May, but that’s not saying much these days. Last year put an end to so many auction houses, concours events, shows, and tours that the landscape will never be the same. A slow return to live events is a certainty, but will people ever feel comfortable being in a packed auction tent or show field again? Time will tell.

2020 scottsdale auction gooding and company auction
Matthew Tierney

Another casualty of the virus may just be an unwillingness for many to pay what it takes to conduct business at a live auction. In recent years, many auction houses raised their buyer’s commission to a tiered 12/10 percent scale, and seller’s commissions remained at 10 percent; this meant the house often retained 22 percent of a deal, while buyers and sellers also incurred shipping and travel expenses, plus the related inconveniences of all of the above. Compare all that with buying a $1M car on Bring a Trailer, where the buyer pays a flat $5000 and the seller pays $99. Nobody has to travel, the buying pool is larger, and the principals deal directly. It’s easy to see the challenges now faced by the old model. I envision a further evolution of the online auction process and predict new non-auction platforms that will utilize greater transparency to meet the standards online buyers are now accustomed to.

2020 scottsdale auction porsche race car
Matthew Tierney

When I asked my friends what they missed about the lack of major events in 2020, not one said buying a car at auction. What they missed—what we all missed—was seeing friends. That said, I have long been addicted to live auction theater, and when the time comes, I’ll be thrilled to return.

To be sure, certain segments of the market rely more heavily on live auction. Muscle cars, hot rods, and customs are the types buyers often need to see in person in order to find the one that speaks to them—to judge the quality, originality, or simply to speak face to face with the owner or builder. A 15-inch computer screen can’t convey any of that.

No matter your automotive proclivities or passions, there is no question our shared little world underwent a complete frame-off rebuild in 2020. It has a new look and performs differently. But in the end, it’s still the same old machine we know and love. It’s just a lot quicker on its feet than we ever could have guessed.

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