INVESTING IN CLASSIC CARS
It seems like the worst of times for investing in anything equipped with a gas tank: Saab has filed for bankruptcy;the U.S. Big Three continue to behave like the Three Blind Mice, running wild with SUVs, corporate bonuses, and denials of global warming ; and the big Japanese manufacturers, renowned for their impeccable quality, are recalling thousands of mysteriously flawed vehicles: faulty brakes, faulty air-bags – and even cars which won’t stop accelerating. At the moment, as they say in East Texas, I wouldn’t touch a new car with a ten foot pole.
But antique cars? Well, that’s another story. Basking in the glory and romance of the olden days, these beauties of engineering represent all the proof you need that they don’t make them like they used to.
Eccentric, quirky: top hats on bicycle wheels, flowing caravans fitted with lanterns that could light up a coal mine, chrome-lined space rockets – with almost as much lift, classic cars transform the most mundane journey into a parade, and remind us that even if our past was glorious and foolish, we, like they, are still very much alive.
And the vintage car market, it seems, continues to survive despite the financial crisis. Antique cars come in three varieties: classic, vintage, and veteran, though the terms are not strictly interchangeable. The youngest generation is the Classic, whose birthday typically falls between World War II and the early ‘80s. Vintage cars, meanwhile, are those which emerged between the wars, while Veterans refer to the first gas-powered spiders ever to have scuttled on four wheels (think Ford’s groundbreaking Model T).
But quite apart from the question of mileage – which in the case of high-performance cars like the Ford Mustang and Chevy Camero can be on a par with the fuel consumption needs of a Saturn V – the question continues to be: Are these cars a good investment?
Those in the know will tell you it’s a bit like putting your money in gold or silver. Basically, the investor gets a solid and reliable asset that can’t disappear overnight in the manner of a fragile ‘dot-com’. Rather, classic cars possess intrinsic value, and since by definition they are limited in quantity, their value follows a much steadier graph than that of the troubled stock market.
For cars of this class, the critical number is fifteen. That is the age at which, typically, a car’s value stops depreciating and reverses direction, appreciating in value at a rate equal to or greater than inflation . As late night talk show host and avid car collector Jay Leno says: “You might not make any money on it, but you probably won’t lose anything.” Well, you may not believe everything you hear on talk shows, but this sounds like good financial advice. With more than a hundred vehicles in his private collection, Leno is somewhat of an expert on the subject – the very least you can do, according to him, is break even.
Of course, the initial investment requires careful nurturing. Unlike a gold bar, a car is more vulnerable to the elements; you’ll need a safe place to store it from the rain and sun. You’ll need gas and insuranceif you decide to take it on the road and there’s always the risk of breakdown. In addition, you’ll have to maintain or buy rare spareparts, and all of this costs money.
But the consensus is that it’s well worth the initial and continuing outlay. Jay Grams, co-owner of Volo Auto Museum in Illinois, says it’s the best time for buyers in forty years. Others note how the babyboomers are rabidly scooping up the muscle cars of their youth, at prices hovering in range of scarcer veteran cars.
I pose the investment question to Pavel Lacina, owner of Bohemia Classic Cars in Prague.
It depends, Lacina says, on a number of factors: the make and model, how many were produced in a particular year, condition, whether you want the car to sit in a showroom, or whether you want to drive it regularly or just on weekends. It depends on whether it’s an original, and how heavily or not it has been restored.
For Lacina the question is not about doubling your money in five years but about enjoying the car for the bold style and performance of bygone days. He assumes you already have the money.
“In the old days,” he says, “only a few tinkering enthusiasts could enjoy these cars. Now the number of service centers stocking rare parts has increased. So now if you take out your Skoda Roadster on the weekend and it breaks down, just call us. We’ll come with the replacement part or a tow truck.”
Like automotive alchemists turning base metal into gold, his team of restorers turn forgotten relics into machines so shiny they make your eyes hurt. With a flourish, they banish rust, straighten dents into smoothness you want to lick, and flute doors in ways only thought possible on ball gowns.
Pavel shows me a restored chassis with a propeller sticking out of the engine end that I can easily spin with my little finger. The whole
frog-green frame looks strong enough to withstand bashes by a
sledgehammer and still glide. It’s hard to believe this chassis is going to ft under the rusting shell of a decomposed Buick.
He eagerly describes a Tatra 613 he hunted down in a
garage in Serbia. The communist-era car produced in Czechoslovakia in Kopřivnice had been sitting in the garage for over thirty years with a tree branch blocking the door – but the car was still perfectly intact. Pavel points to another intact original in his feet, a thin-shelled chestnut Velorex whose nose looks like an open umbrella resting
on its side. “Originals in good condition,” Pavel says, “are obviously better investments than heavily-restored vehicles.” There’s no question that an investor would do well if guided by Lucina’s expertise, but if you don’t have someone to help you along, it’s essential to ask for vehicles with solid documentation, verifable factory paperwork, and – If the car has been restored – pictures before restoration, and certifcation from national restoration societies. On the other hand, if you want to avoid middlemen altogether and go treasure hunting yourself, like Pavel did for that Tatra, it’s perhaps more fun to search the barns of Europe and trailer parks of the U.S. Many antique car enthusiasts swear half the fun is in opening that cobweb-covered door to fnd what grandpa left behind.
Another way to start is to get in touch with your local car club, which seemingly exist for every kind of car. Looking for a 1970 Porsche 911? There’s a club for that. E-bay and auctions are also useful for checking the going rate for the model and make you want, remembering that if you buy your car a auction, a percentage commission fee is added on. Crucially, though, there’s no point in investing in an antique car unless you really love them.
And that means loving them like Radek Uhlir does. Radek certainly fts the stereotypical baby-boomer profle when it comes to cars. He is the owner of several muscle cars (including three Corvettes from 1958, 1964, 1968) but he didn’t buy them for profit. He’s simply fanatical about cars with engines that would give nightmares to the ecologists of today.
For Uhlir, love is the key. And that means lavishing money on his acquisitions – up to fve times the original price in the case of one of his Corvettes. Where some people might check their email, he obsessively checks the images returned by the webcam hovering over two of his babies currently being restored in a dealer’s garage. Not satisfed with 24-hour images, Radek also visits the same garage three times a week to monitor in person the piece-by-piece assemblyof these very expensive Humpty Dumpties.“They restore better in the Czech Republic than in the U.S.,” he says. “Here they take care down to the last bolt.”
This man’s love for old vehicles began when he was a boy, zooming around on his grandfather’s motorcycles. He built his own at 13, and even now a pristinely-restored BMW motorcycle from
1927 stands in his office, somewhat oddly rubbing shoulders with brochures for operating theaters (Uhlir works for a company that sells medical equipment). I am eager to hear details about racing to IKEA or around the Krkonose mountains but Uhlir says he never races because he knows he’ll win every time. “I drive within the speed limit,” he says. I think immediately: ‘Speak softly and carry a big stick…’
This falcon, I suspect, is hiding his claws. But Uhlir does admit to turning his head to inspect whenever he hears a loud engine rumbling nearby. “Much more than I do for women,” he says, smiling for the frst time. Before I leave, Uhlir shows me photo after photo of his fully restored Sting Ray.
It’s like a brilliant time machine whisked of to diferent locations – to forest, bridge, or supermarket parking lot – at the touch of a button. He’s a proud man, and you know that he onlydoes it because of two essentials: unique, beautiful engineering. And love.