The Most Dominant Era of Collector Cars: We Crunch the Numbers

Matt Tierney

Even if your tastes tend toward other eras, it’s hard to dispute that the 1950s, ’60s, and ’70s produced some of the most memorable machinery in the history of our hobby. That time period had just about anything an enthusiast could ask for: Design, innovation, experimentation, and, of course, variety.

British sports cars, ’50s fins, muscle cars, the dawn of Porsche’s 911, a heyday of passionate Italian models, the birth of the SUV, the characterful beginnings of Japanese cars … the list could go on nearly indefinitely. That array largely explains just how dominant that era is when it comes to what people choose to spend their money on.

Tallying up the sales from the last five years of online and live auctions, we find that 14 of the top 20 highest-grossing model years were within the 1955-1975 window. Vehicles made in 1967 and 1969 led the way, with each of those model years raking in more than $500M.

Breaking down the raw numbers, this 20-year period represents 16 percent of the model years considered but accounts for more than 39 percent of the $15B+ spent on collector cars from 2019 to now.

This era is also home to the greatest density of the most valuable cars. Twenty-two of the top 30 most expensive cars ever sold at auction were produced within this timeframe. Couple these high fliers with the sheer quantity of more attainable classics from this period that remain incredibly popular, and there’s yet another reason why this era’s momentum makes sense.

(Note: We always appreciate the thoughtful commentary provided by our readers. In response to a comment below, we’ve added this subsequent description and chart.—EE)

With consideration to the fact that some recent sales of truly expensive machinery may have outsize influence on overall sales numbers in the above chart, and to get more into the meat of the curve of each year’s numbers, we lopped the top and bottom 10 percent of sales from each year’s total. The outcome is very similar—peak years shift slightly, but the thrust remains the same—this twenty-year period is the strongest in the hobby. (As an aside, our analysts did not seek out the mean sale price for each year—another suggestion from our commenter—as that begins to get into a discussion of values as opposed to where people are spending their money. Your author tends to agree with the commenter that ’80s and newer models would factor more strongly in that equation, but we digress).

One of the most frequently discussed questions in the industry is whether enthusiasm for these cars will flag as generational preferences evolve. While it is possible for once-illustrious models to lose their stature and become more affordable, values are likely to taper more dramatically for models on the fringe of collector status: For instance, enthusiasts younger than baby boomers don’t value the Pontiac LeMans the way their predecessors did, but the GTO is still a blue-chip car. More broadly, however, mature market segments tend to stabilize and become less volatile over time. (We’ve observed this phenomenon with prewar cars.) Also consider that because the 1950s–70s has stood as a megalith in the hobby for so long, its staying power will protect it from quickly fading.

If anything, other segments may come up to similar heights. McLaren F1s continue to be talked about as the next Ferrari 250 GTO, and as demonstrated in the above chart by healthy sales of cars from the ’90s to today, the rise of one era does not necessarily have to come at the expense of another.

So, just like the local classic rock station that occasionally sprinkles a Soundgarden or Nirvana song in the mix of Led Zeppelin, Rush, and The Who, there might be a few new additions, but you can rest easy—the originals aren’t going anywhere.


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    Pre-war cars are a different beast. They were also subject to two wartime steel drives before the idea of collecting old cars had occurred to many (Larz and Isabel Anderson being notable exceptions). Many of this number that remain are pretty static in private collections and museums.

    Volume auction data is going to be skewed by the “investor” cars that get sold every few years which seems to be the fate of many Shelby Mustangs for example.

    Younger collectors aren’t opposed to Pontiac Lemans –they restomod them into GTO clones.

    The softening in the market will be in areas that aren’t seen as cool, and that softening is more likely to be not growing in value with inflation rather than some big drop in price. Things like early MG “sports cars” that don’t read as sporty to most people under 60.

    Outlier cars in value, like Ferraris, GT40s, gullwing Mercedes, etc. are going to skew the auction graph in value to the 50s/60s. Take this same graph and take out the data points that are on the top and bottom 10% from the mean value of that given year and it probably looks quite different. After you do that, run the average value per sale for each year and the graph will change shape again –I suspect the 80s and up look much better.

    Too bad there are so many GTO clones, especially Judges. Seems to cheapen the real ones…Same with Chevelle SS’s that tout 396 and 454 big blocks on the side markers, then run small blocks under the hood and 10 bolt rears instead of 12 bolts… if you’re going to do a clone, go all the way. But somehow with GTO‘s, cloning has more of a cheapening effect the authentics…

    I disagree! There will always be a market for the real deal, but not everybody has the pocket book. Back in the day I had a 66 conv. I’m now 76 and bought a Frame off Restoration 67 Tempest Custom Convertible for under 30k. I invested a little over 6k to clone it. Now I am able to enjoy shows and cruises that I would ordinarily not be able to do in the car of my youth.

    Agreed – clones do cheapen the authentic models. Kind of like a nice-looking “Rollecks” watch: sharp, but still fake. To each his/her own, but I would not knowingly waste my money on a clone. Sadly, some sellers try to pass off clones as the real thing, and some succeed.

    I think clones are silly. Why spend money on making a fake? You, in your own mind, will always know it is not real. Save the money you would spend to make the clone, add some additional savings and buy the real deal. At least the real deal is worth some money!

    You’re missing the point! Not trying to miss lead anyone including myself. However at 76 living on SS do not have the time or resources to acquirer the additional funding for the “real Deal”. As far as what the car is worth? Every time I take it out is priceless.

    Paul I understand where you’re coming from. With some collector car prices going through the roof, one cannot afford to put too much money into what essentially is a toy. I’m 63, have about $25k into my toy and need to look at what the future holds. You do your car the way you want, and enjoy it. That’s all that matters.

    I wouldn’t have a problem with a Le Mans. It was the first V8 I ever drove (326), and except for about 60 cubic inches and a few badges, it seemed identical to a GTO a friend’s parents had. If I had one, about the only things I would upgrade would be disc brakes and maybe a bluetooth radio.

    The 90% of us all want the car from our testosterone-exaggerated high school years. There’s many better and more exotic that we hung on our walls – but the Friday night winner still wins.

    I’m somewhat with 58 Corvette on this. But for me, cars started to became less interesting with the ’66 or ’67 models–that would be my 7th and 8th grade years. And that may be partly a function of having spent 7th grade in France, where I somewhat lost touch with the latest US cars. But I think it was mostly downhill for American styling after that, although very slowly downhill until maybe ’71. The ’80s–meh. I mean who could get excited about a Chevrolet Citation. And the full sized GM cars changed less in that decade than full sized GMs changed year to year from ’54 to the mid ’60s. It would have been one thing had the ’80s cars been gorgeous, but they weren’t.

    ^you both make interesting comments around high school.

    If you went to high school 55-75 there was both new, late model and old stuff that was cool –much of which is still considered cool today even by non-car knowledge people.

    80s-2000s you have Japanese sports cars, Mustangs, Corvettes as the maybe attainable someday cool cars for the masses and not much else (especially when things like Buick Grand Nationals stopped) but you also have the rise of truck and SUV. You didn’t have a beater 55 Chevy you made memories in… it was a Civic or Jetta or maybe a Caprice Classic (value on those are going up lately).

    I know that Hagerty asked questions like this before, but it might be interesting to know what high school era people are from and 1. what were the cool cars actually on the lot driven by students and 2. what was though of cool aspirational vehicle (not the Ferrari nobody would ever afford)

    I suspect the answer to #2 is a big part of the musclecar market holding so strong beyond its initial high-school crowd.

    It will also be interesting when the 2005-2025 high school cohorts age and we see how much this golden era of modern muscle influences their “I’m older and have the income to buy the vehicle I wanted” purchases.

    Well-stated. Those in high school in the 1990s and later will likely have little interest in 50’s-70’s cars except those that are already high-end and rare collectors (Gullwings, some Ferraris, Lambos, and Porsches).

    Your comment would probably apply to those who were not exposed to 50’s-70’s cars. My boys were both in high school in the 90’s and have a lot of interest in 60’s cars, especially their fathers 69 Mach 1

    Ted, I went to high school in the late 90’s. Myself and most my friends were and are into stuff from the 60’s and 70’s. As these were the cool cars that were still being driven at the time. My group of friends drove late 60’s Chevy trucks and Nova’s. The lucky ones had a Chevelle. We weren’t into the 80’s stuff at all. Then or now. It is interesting though how the 90’s pickups, F bodies and Corvettes have become more of a draw to my group.

    I was in high school in the 60’s and there was everything in the parking lot from VW bugs to Vette’s (teachers). The cool cars were Chevelles, Mustangs, Nova’s, and a juiced Falcon. Probably the most aspirational was a Vette though I recall a 427 Biscayne and a Belvedere 1 Hemi. The epitome of sleepers.

    Depends when you graduated. Early 80’s was not much of what we wanted. Maybe a Bandit TA but not much else in that era. We all drove clean muscle cars from he 60’s no one wanted in that era.

    Today It is a mix of old and new we like. I would love to have a 59-60 Corvette but my 02 is also fun. And I don’t want an 81-82

    GM will have to declare bankruptcy again and have another government-enforced asset auction to even think of getting your hands on an ’83 Corvette!

    Well… I graduated from HS in 73 (that’s 1973 for any wise guys out there!) and although my wife and I own a 72 Ghia, 71 F250 and 79 Vette, my interest in HS was actually 1930’s cars (working on restoring a 37 Nash Lafayette now). So maybe its because as a kid I was into 1930 gangster movies. Those guys hanging on a running board with their “Tommy Guns” were wild. And don’t forget the great movie “Bonnie and Clyde” which imprinted on me car-wise.

    FYI the 80’s cars are interesting but not good investments and not going to see much gain. I have one 85 I keep as it is a car I made special in my own way. Outside of that there are more fun cars out there in different eras.

    I’d gladly own a few 60’s-70’s era muscle cars but I have no garage space for them or the bank account.

    These views are on track in my eye’s. I collect many things car’s, trucks, motorcycles, cushman scooters, peddle car’s, and automobilia. These things from the past bring me pleasure just being close to them. The car’s from 1950 to 1970 had the feel the horsepower and in my eye’s those were better times than today. The horsepower changed drastically by 1972 do to our faithful government?? Now the sky is the limit go figure? There is still nothing like the sound of an LS 6 on the gas! Or any finely tuned 426 Hemi. Ford’s 429. I had a 1969 Grand Prix with a 428 HO my senior year of high school. Memories bring value to these years! Embrace yours!

    I would assume that since most older car purchases are emotionally based, with an eye toward investment, this peak line will eventually shift toward newer model years as those who found themselves drawn to the 50’s 60’s, 70’s cars will die off, shifting this peak line. That’s not to say there still won’t be interest, just that pool of interested buyers will be shrinking.

    I agree on early Corvettes. 81-82, were definitely poor years. I have three early 70’s, a mid 90’s and a 2003. Enjoy them all. But to have my 65 SS would be a real pleasure. Many happy and scary days included.

    It would be interesting to break-down the graph further, to separate stock and modified cars from the different eras.

    Stu, the rise in prevalence of significantly modified car sales is an increasingly common topic in our calls. We have a few things we’re working on in this regard—stay tuned!

    I encourage everyone to keep the chart ideas coming! We might not be able to cover all of them, but I’ll take them back to our analysts and see what we can work up.

    Cars that are from the collectors past are usually the hottest ones at the time. People that are in their 50’s on are the ones with the disposable income to collect cars. When I was a kid in the 1960’s the cars people were collecting were mainly from the teens up to the 1930’s. Some people were still driving cars from the late forties as their everyday drivers.

    It is very Interesting to me that we all have somewhat different preferences and likes.
    I grew up in Europe where European cars dominated (no Japanese until mid to late 70’s (read: Datzun 240Z)). I Did live in Ann Arbor MI from 1968-70 as a young boy and fell in love with that era Muscle cars, and they hold the sweet spot in my mind, heart and collection. I have a frame off restored 1970 Olds 442 W-30 Convertible, and it is not for sale………
    Most all brand’s Muscle cars from that era wakes me up……..Go to europe and you find the BMW 2002 series form the early to mid 70’s ( I owned one then, and own a frame off restored 202tii now…)as well as the large BMW 3,0CSI, the 2000CS to mention a few. As the US lost ground in the late 70’s and early 80’s the Euro brands grew. Pinnifarina designed many gorgeous designs both for Alfa Romeo( especially the GTV) and Fiat Convertibles as well as of course various Lamborghini and Maserati models among others. Lets not forget the Ferrari Dino (I named my first dog Dino after this car) as well as the 1962 Ferrari gto. Last but not least: The Porsche 911 has stood its course through all these years as perhaps the best design ever. Even when challenged in-house by the 924,944 and 928 series the 911 came out winning. This must be the most successful model of any car manufacturer over time. The 911 (although with different model descriptions) is the best car of any from the 60’s through the 90’s and beyond.
    I think some of your comments reflect too much of a closed minded view or experience of the auto market in those years. I know many of you will get upset with my comments, and that is fine. I happen to own several cars from all of these years and also a 1997 Porsche 993 Twin Turbo ( The very last air cooled Porsche Turbo imported to the US).

    when i was in High School in the 80s in Canada it was all 60s muscle cars cause they were cheap and you could work on them yourself and parts were still readily could buy a 68 mustang convertible in great shape for 3 grand now that same car in 50 grand. high schoolers dont have 50 grand but when we were kids you could save up that kind of money in a couple of years.there were even cheaper muscle cars you could buy chevelles cameros cudas chargers all below 3 grand might have needed a little work but it was still a cool car

    In 1969 I bought a 1963 Pontiac LeMans convertible, IRS (weird), 326 V8, 3-speed manual on the floor (non-synchro first), feeble 2-barrel carb, so not exactly a muscle car but a very nice pretender. I paid $375 for the car, which had recently been painted (over the rust from living in Milwaukee). I couldn’t afford more but it was a lot of fun for the buck. So you are right: affordable fun was accessible then.

    Just for comparison, in 1969 I was working at McDonalds at a starting wage of 35 cents an hour – 40 hour week = $14 a week before taxes. If I saved all my pay (and didn’t pay taxes) it would take 27 weeks to buy your $375 car.
    The local McDonalds is offering $10.75 hour starting wage – $430 a week. 27 weeks brings $11,610.
    Maybe there is still some bang for the buck.

    By the way in 1969 I had a 1963 cutlass convertible. 215 V-8 console automatic.

    In 1967, our family car was a 1948 Chev sedan. A monster of a car compared to the flat, wide American steel of the day, though similar in size to the SUVs that dominate today’s roads, oddly. It wore out quickly and by 1969 we were driving a rusted Beetle and then a brand new Toyota Corolla three-door wagon. I’d love one of those today, but very few have survived. I haven’t seen one in decades. My downtown upper-middle-class high school did not have a car culture. We laughed at the few Italian kids from the wrong side of the tracks who drove their Trans-Ams six or ten blocks to school for no good reason. Smaller late 1960s and early 1970s cars, such as Toyotas, Datsuns, Hondas, Lotuses, BMWs, Minis, Alfas, Lancias, Volvos (P1800, Amazon, 145) and even the Jensen Interceptor remain the favourites of this 1962-issue urbanite (though I have owned very few from that list because so few survived Canada’s winters, but have had 1976 and 1978 Sedans de Ville and a 1980 Lincoln, just for variety).

    Your comment about laughing at the Italian kids from the “wrong side of the tracks” is not cool. No car guy should be made to feel inferior. Shame on you!

    1970 340’Cuda. Bought it in 1976. Still own it. Pistol grip 4 speed.

    Prehistoric manual steering and brakes so I just put around town. Nothing will ever come close to the look as evidenced by questions I get at every stop. Compared to a new Challenger rip off (50 year old design really) it’s the real deal.

    The new Challenger sits up so much higher than the old. I guess because it’s on the same platform as the pigly Chrysler 300. If it didn’t have the side belt line, it would look even more awkward and too tall. Definitely not a sleek car. And it’s been in production far too long with the same look. So has the 300 for that matter.

    I graduated in Jan, 1961. There were 4 groups of cars that ruled at that time. Top of the list were 1955-1958 Chevy’s, any model with any engine, convertibles being at the top of the line.. Second group down were British sports cars from Bug Eyes to Austin Healy’s. Jaguars being at the top. Next down were practically anything you could afford. Old Studebakers, Hudson’s, Mercury’s and Plymouth’s. They were transportation only, not by any means chick bait, the exception being Mercury and Hudson. The last group were Dad’s car. Buick’s, Oldsmobile’s, Dodges, Fords. At that time the car belonged to Dad. There were no Mom’s cars. I can only remember one girlfriend I had that even had a Driver’s license. She also rebelled against the norm, much against the current thinking, and went to the University. Today the first two groups are all collectible and the bottom two groups have collectible cars within, however, those collectible cars in those group are unique among the group, either for styling, engines or some sort of innovation.

    I drove a rust-bucket ’66 Chevelle SS in 1971–I was 17. It cost dad $750. When I turned 64, I bought a much nicer one–for $25,500. Reliving my glory days!

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