What the heck, lets do something a little different for the West Coast Report this week, and take a look at the results of restoring an automobile. The following is an article I wrote last year for American Hard Assets magazine on the collector car market. Maybe you’re at the front end of a restoration project, and need a little boost to your spirits to see things right up to putting your car on the market. Maybe not, at any rate I suggest a spritz of Eastwood Carpet Adhesive to the freshen the air about you, and spend a little time reading this weeks West Coast Eastwood to brighten your day… thank you.
— John Gilbert
The end of World War II marked the beginnings of California cornering the world’s output of special interest automobiles. Of all the intriguing makes and models manufactured, over eighty-percent of global production shipped directly to California. The onslaught of sports cars from foreign shores motivated US manufacturers into producing limited number special editions to curb the tide. The results were an international mix of classic, sports, and muscle cars heavily concentrated on California real estate.
In the 21st Century, California has become a hostile environment for the automobile, yet the passion of its car culture is as strong as ever. Seven days a week there’s a disproportionately high number of old cars spotted on the streets of Newport Beach, California. Does this mean times are tough behind the Orange Curtain, or is there a movement brewing against the accelerated obsolescence one inherits with buying a new car? Neither, these old cars are rolling investments. Art history, the fountain of youth, and gold bullion all wrapped into one.
The memoirs of my life as a classic car collector wouldn’t be a Horatio Alger success story, rather a guide for others how to avoid a bad decision when they meet with a fork in the road. At almost every crossroads I’ve made the wrong choice, and consequently have had to sublimate the outcome from memory. When it comes to collecting cars the first and most important rule is to trust your first instinct. I can recount numerous times when I didn’t, but the most painful recollection is of not one, but two rare vintage Ferraris I allowed to slip away.
The year was 1985, and I owned Auto Exotics a full service restoration shop located in Westminster, California. One morning while having breakfast at Café Westminster, my coffee drinking buddy Duane told me about an odd sort that had some kind of old Ferrari stored in his garage. Duane was a car guy with a ’63½ R-code 427 Galaxie parked in his garage, but had no real interest in Ferraris. He only mentioned the thing because I had several 246 Dino Spyders in my shop at the time. Getting the Ferrari’s location out of Duane took several weeks, and just as I was starting to chalk it up as BS, Duane drove me over to the guy’s house. No one would have ever guessed there was a rare Ferrari in this garage. The house was a dilapidated mid-modern tract home not far from Anaheim’s barrio. The unmolested ‘61 Ferrari was the only vestige the man had ever met with success. At point blank I asked the guy if he wanted to sell the Ferrari, but he avoided the question with drooling babble, and wandered back into his dwelling.
I couldn’t get the hardtop equipped black’61 PF Spyder out of my mind. I returned numerous times trying to get the guy to name his price. The fifth time was a charm, in a rare moment of conversational clarity the man told me I could have the car for $9,000. I knew other running examples were selling for much more, but I didn’t trust my gut. I asked my friend Terry, owner of a nearby tool and die shop if he thought I should buy the car for nine-grand. Terry owned a LWB ’59 Ferrari 250 Pininfarina coupe he said I could buy for $5,000 instead. The coupe was apart with a freshly blueprinted V-12 Colombo motor poised adjacent on an engine stand. I had the five-grand, but was fixated on acquiring the ’61 PF Spyder.
It was time to jettison my old Martin guitar to generate some of the extra dough I needed. In retrospect I should have immediately dumped my ’60 Austin-Healy Bugeye Sprite, a pack of ’67 Austin Mini Cooper S’s, three Jensen-Healy roadsters, an XKE, plus some old Harley-Davidsons for whatever I could get. I looked to a good friend for help. Herman a fellow British car collector and vintage guitar aficionado had been through escapades of this sort with me in the past. Herman set me up with his friend Howie Hubberman at Guitars R Us in Hollywood. Howie brokered the deal, and I sold my 1917 Martin 042 to Bob Dylan for a thousand bucks.
Second guessing my instincts, I asked Herman what he thought about the car. Herman told me he didn’t think the Ferrari 250 PF Spyder was a model that would ever amount to much. Regrettably that was enough to discourage me from pursuing either car any further.
In a way Herman was right. In the last 28 years a Ferrari 250 PF Spyder hasn’t appreciated nearly as much as a Ferrari 250 California Spyder. Its not hard to get an online appraisal for just about any collector car ever made. I checked with Hagerty’s reference chart and in April 2013 they valued the ’61 PF Spyder at $1.1-million and the ’59 PF coupe at $365,000. A ’61 Ferrari 250 California Spyder in number one condition was valued at $8.8-million.
As a sidebar Colombo V-12 powered Ferraris have continued to skyrocket in value since April, 2013. Additionally it should be mentioned vintage Ferraris weathered 2008-on significantly better than other marques, declining in value only momentarily during the recession’s lowest ebb, and then rebounding higher than ever.
Let’s discuss concerns that apply to any collector automobile to be considered as an investment. Provenance is a term thrown about frequently at collector car auctions, but why is it important? Provenance is a documented history of the car’s origins to establish the car is genuine, and is exactly what the seller claims it to be.In my opinion the most important document necessary to authenticate a vehicle is having the build sheet in hand. Unfortunately the possibility of a build sheet existing varies from manufacturer to manufacturer. Old Chevrolets make it pretty easy if the build sheet is still located under the back seat.
If not, the next place to look is in between the trunk floor and the top of the gas tank. That requires removing the gas tank, and the odds are good if the car is unmolested, a build sheet will be found. The build sheet for a classic Chevrolet truck if undisturbed will be located trapped under the front seat in between the springs and foam seat cushion.
In 2007 I spoke with Dean Weber, archivist for the Ford Motor Company in Dearborn, Michigan. Dean told me Ford called build sheets, the “traveler” and explained a traveler was taped to the windshield, and then at the end of the production line depending on which assembly plant was plucked off and thrown into a trash barrel.
Be aware of buying a rare car the factory never built. The importance of a build sheet is every option installed by the factory will be listed, thus making it the absolute final word for confirming a car’s rareness and authenticity. A lack of a build sheet affects ultimate value, but one hasn’t reached a dead end if the build sheet is missing.
The next important item to verify is the VIN (vehicle identification number). The exact format varies from make to country of origin, but a vehicle’s pedigree can be authenticated by the VIN. For example early year high-performance Ford Mustangs were coded with a K in the VIN. One has to remove the Shelby VIN tag to reveal it, but the early Shelby 350GTs will have a FOMOCO stamped K-code VIN underneath Shelby American’s aluminum VIN tag. Oh, and if you discover an early Mustang with a K-code VIN, add $10,000 to the car’s total value over a garden variety Mustang.
Above and beyond decoding the VIN via an Internet collector forum there’s a host of experts, and market consultants available. For instance the Marti Report covers Ford products from 1967-1993, and thanks to a licensing agreement with Ford goes deep into detail. Galen Govier is the guru for Mopar products, and unearths every intricate detail from NASCAR legal Chrysler letter cars to Street Hemi powered Dodges, and Plymouths. General Motors’ Pontiac division did a better job of preserving history than the other divisions, hence a lot of production information is available to authenticate a Pontiac. In England, the Heritage Motor Centre is available for providing certificates and information for numerous British brands including, MG, Austin-Healy, Jaguar, Aston Martin, and Lagonda.
Beyond factory documentation, and where a car was sold new, there’s the value attached to a vehicle that was celebrity owned, or produced a major milestone in automobile history. An example of what celebrity provenance can add to the bottom line, James Coburn’s 1961 Ferrari 250 Cal Spyder recently sold at auction for $10.9-million. Bear in mind what a vehicle brings at auction isn’t necessarily an indication of what its current value is. At a collector auction the only thing for sure is there were two bidders ready and willing to pay whatever it took to keep the other guy from buying the car. Great public entertainment with a circus atmosphere, collector car auctions are a rich man’s game where players can win or lose big… An added bonus, the complimentary food in the Skybox is pretty good.
Years after an automobile has left the showroom floor it can be difficult to verify its provenance. Keeping historical documents with a car was not something most owners thought about back when the cars were new. One bought a particular car because they desired it, and rarely thought about keeping it as a long term investment… after all who in their wildest dreams could have imagined today’s market? That said, there are rare examples to be found of near-zero mileage original cars dealership owners, or speculators tucked away.
There’s a Century and quarter’s worth of automobile production available in today’s investor market. I call the high end most desirable of collectible automobiles, wine bottles. These are survivors that for the most part escaped butchers at body shops, shade tree mechanic’s lame efforts, and were relegated to hibernate extended periods indoors. To loosely categorize quality, automobile restorations are grouped by the decade they were restored in. They’re only original once describes it to a T. For example once a car’s original factory baked enamel has been stripped bare and recoated with acrylic lacquer in the 60s, or re-sprayed with urethane in the 90s all originality is lost. Some cars came new in heat cured acrylic lacquer, and often ended up splashed with $29.95 Earl Scheib enamel jobs. Mr. Scheib’s shops were famous for leaving D-A sander marks in the glass, and painting all the rubber in the door jambs. I still have the receipt for paying Uncle Earl to ruin my ’57 Chevy Bel-Air in 1969.
The used car market has always had a dark underbelly, and in today’s collector car scene things haven’t changed much. I have a friend that’s spent millions at collector auctions, and every car he bought came with its own pack of surprises. it’s a given brake hydraulics are usually rusty and will need costly repairs. That’s unless the car is to be used as a coffee table, or why stop if you’re having fun is your mantra. There’s a lot to be said for the thrill of the hunt. For whatever reasons pick out the car you desire and start searching. Remember these cars are art history, and rare works of thought to be extinct art have been known to resurface.