Classic Cars: The One That Got Away?

Jim Motavalli

Jim Motavalli | Oct 21, 2014

It was the very first car offered at the Dragone Classic Motorcars, in Bridgeport, CT auction October 18: A 1949 Studebaker Champion four-door sedan in very respectable shape. Keeping in mind that it’s a pioneering Raymond Loewy design (with Virgil Exner, later of Chrysler), had a very clean original interior, ran well, and needed only a brake job, it looked like a winner to me. 

But the blue Studebaker went for pocket change, $3,700. Maybe because it was the first car in line and buyers were still warming up their paddles, or maybe it was just the wrong room for the car. I wish I’d bid! 

The one that got away? Blogger Jim Motavalli passed on this car. Sounds like a Car Talk dope slap is in order! Later I saw a classic 1912 Mercer Type 35 Raceabout, one of the best in the world, make $1.6 million (including buyer’s premium), and a rare alloy-bodied Jaguar XK120 roadster make $418,000. Seventy-nine percent of the cars in the auction were sold. 

Going once, going twice, gone for a mere $1.6 million!The classic car market is very healthy today, with some fairly common cars—1960s examples of the Porsche 911S come to mind—making crazy money. Here’s the rustiest one I’ve ever seen on Craigslist, an undesirable Sportmatic model, too, but the owner thinks it’s worth $12,000. This is definitely a bubble! 

(Image via Craigslist)Maybe I’m just jealous because the nice Mercedes 190SL I sold in the 1980s for $4,500 is now worth, what, $150,000? 

But there are still bargains out there if you know where to look. At the annual auction that’s part of the Greenwich Concours d’Elegance, I recently saw a 1980s Maserati Quattroporte sell for something like the same $3,500. It was a less-desirable four-door Maserati, and you’d probably need to put a second mortgage on your house to keep it on the road, but actually looked quite solid. 

In most cases, buying cars like that basket-case Porsche are almost always mistakes. The purchase price is the downpayment for a restoration costing tens or even hundreds of thousands. You’re far better off buying a restored car. If you’re set on going the restoration route, though, pick something with a wide parts (and parts car) availability, and start with the best car you can find. And it doesn’t hurt to consider its future value. 

My friend Alden Sherman, now in his 90s, told me priceless stories. An abandoned Duesenberg sat by a Connecticut roadside for decades. In the late 40s, a friend offered him—free—examples of both the SS and SSK Mercedes-Benz. “I had no way to move them and nowhere to store them,” he told me. Alas, because an SSK made more than $8 million at a 2004 auction. But 60 years ago Sherman did buy three Bugattis for a total of $3,300, and he’s still got them.  

Wallace Wyss wrote two entertaining books about “barn finds,” hyper-valuable cars in most cases that somehow slipped through the cracks and ended up parked behind diners or in suburban garages. He himself sold his Porsche 356 Convertible D for $4,000 25 years ago; today, it’s worth $140,000. He also passed on a bargain Ferrari GTO. 

Wyss’ advice for finding a classic bargain today: “Keep your powder dry. If you’re shopping for a car, pick the one most likely to appreciate. Drive down dead-end streets, because nobody else goes down them, and the last house on the right might have a million-dollar Duesenberg on blocks in the yard. And look on Sundays, because that’s when people have their garage doors open.”

Read these stories from Wyss’ books and weep.
  • A classic 1937 Cord 812 that had belonged to cowboy star Tom Mix (he, in fact, died in it) was abandoned in a gully before being purchased for just $500 in 1966. One of these without the valuable Mix connection sold for $400,000 recently, but it’s not all gravy—this car was such a mess it cost more than that to restore. 
This 1937 Cord 812 was fatally wrecked by cowboy star Tom Mix, then it sat in a gully until rescued.
  • A 1939 Bugatti Type 57SC with unique streamliner body by Van Vooren was a gift from the French government to the Shah of Iran. It was later sold in the 1950s by the Shah’s Royal Hunting Department (a big thing back then; the Shah had his own hunting preserve in Teheran) as “a car with a long hood” for something like $275. A Dutch dealer (who thought he was getting an equally priceless Bugatti Royale) was the lucky buyer. 
Pro tip: Buy from the Shah of Iran, who could afford to let this custom-bodied Bugatti Type 57SC go for $275 or so.
  • A 1963 Ferrari 250 GTO with illustrious racing history, probably the most valuable car in the world (one recently changed hands for $50 million) was donated to a Texas high school shop class. It was then sold for $6,500 to a farmer named Joe Kortan, who for reasons unknown left it to rot in an Ohio field for 14 years. It finally went into sympathetic hands in the late 1980s, and the next time it’s available you’d need Uncle Scrooge’s money bin. The time to buy it was when it was out in that field.   
Financial Advising Pop-quiz: You have a Ferrari 250 GTO. Should you (a) sell it for $50 million (b) donate it to a high school shop class (c) park it in a field for over a decade?
  • A 1939 Delahaye Type 165 Cabriolet with body by Figoni & Falaschi, shown at the New York World’s Fair that year, got stranded in the U.S. by World War II and ended up on a used-car lot in Hawaii. It exchanged hands, getting progressively shabbier, until it was abandoned at a Fresno, California service station. A tow truck operator paid $1,200 for the carcass and stuck it in his suburban garage, where its flashy tail poked out. That’s where a lucky buyer found it years later, working on the reluctant owner for years until he’d agree to part with the car for $30,000. Again, the restoration cost a fortune, but the car might be worth $20 million today. 
From the World’s Fair to reclaimed junk in a Fresno, California garage. Now it’s worth $20 million. I’ve found some bargains, including a string of $50 cars—nothing exotic, Chevy Novas, Dodge Darts—a $1,000 Mercedes-Benz 220S, a $350 Volvo 122S with 70,000 miles on the clock, and an Alfa Spyder for $1,000. 

My regrets? I sold my now-$150,000 Mercedes 190SL for $4,000 in the 1980s. I didn’t buy a fine Porsche 911S with minor rust for $3,000, a 1969 911S Targa (a bit of a mess, admittedly) for $1,500. How about a Sunbeam Tiger (with Carroll Shelby history and Ford V-8) in excellent shape that I passed up for $4,000? I’m ultimately as dumb as the next guy. It comes down to a simple fact: I didn’t have a crystal ball. 

Gary Patterson, vice president of strategic sales at Shelby American (the Cobra guys) told me it’s simple: “The Shelby is one of the few cars you can buy today that appreciates right out of the gate. Shelbys tend to be great investments. But if you buy a Porsche Turbo S, a great car, and drive it home it’s already worth $25,000 less.” 

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