It is the extraordinary cars that are reaching new highs and breaking all the records. But the term “extraordinary” is now a moving target, and is much harder to define than it was just a few years ago.
It used to be generally accepted that an extraordinary collector car had one or more of the following attributes: 1. It was very rare. 2. It was restored to exceptionally high standards and was often judged by a sanctioning body. 3. It was a “survivor” in the sense that it was original and in excellent condition. 4. It had a “bullet-proof” provenance. Cars that checked off one or more of these boxes were often European collectibles that were produced in numbers that could be counted on one or two hands.
This is not the case anymore. Rarity seems not to be so much of an issue. Look at the production figures of some of the rising stars of the collector car market. The 1967 Corvette 427/435 (3754 built), the Ferrari 246 Dino (3761 built), or the Mercedes Benz 300SL (3258 built).
Condition doesn’t seem to bother buyers quite as much as it used to either. Hardly a major auction goes by that doesn’t have a Mercedes Benz 300SL Gullwing. This is not at all surprising. What is surprising is that they have usually just been pulled from 30 years of storage in a chicken barn. They are presented resplendent in their coat of filth and feathers, and they are in need of a complete restoration. Rarely do they sell for less than $1 million dollars.
Even the term “survivor” seems to be changing. A “barn-find” is not a “survivor.” These cars are not “survivors” simply because they survived and they exist. In its simplest form a “survivor” should not need to be restored. Otherwise, why pay a large premium for a car that you are going to restore anyway? Doesn’t it make sense to let someone else buy the car, restore it, and then buy it from that person for pennies on the dollar?
A high-profile example of the frenzy for these non-survivor “survivors” took place this past September at Lambrecht Chevrolet in Pierce, Nebraska. About 240 vehicles were offered at auction. What made them unusual was the fact that many were brand new cars that had never been sold before the dealership shut down. Other cars were used or slightly used. Unfortunately, almost all of the vehicles had been stored outdoors, and had suffered the ravages of time and weather. Those that were stored indoors did not fare much better. This did not stop more interested buyers from descending on Pierce than the entire population of the town (1767 people). When all was said and done, the cars - virtually all of which needed to be restored - had sold for astronomical prices. I suspect that many of the buyers had some explaining to do when these cars were delivered to homes all across the country. I think that it is telling that many of the local townspeople were astounded at the interest in the cars. At least one pointed out that “If these cars were meant to be an investment, Ray Lambrecht would have stored all the cars in a building with at least a roof.” I think he’s on to something.
It is always hard to quantify what makes anything collectible. If we could, we would all be rich. But I think one word defines it best…Perception. If more buyers than cars that are available perceive that they want it, or need it, or have to have it…it is collectible.
Enzo Ferrari’s mantra of always building one less car than the market demands was as applicable in his day as it is today.