The Classic Car Market is Now Officially a Game for Mugs

I only started writing out my automotive bucket list 5 or so years ago. I’d owned a lot of Saabs in the years that I was writing about them and my attention started to wander.

I bought my first Alfa 33. I bought an MX-5. I bought a few more Saabs and then, when the Muller-era at Saab came to an end, I turned my attention to all-things-but-Saab. I’ve been watching classic car prices ever since and for the most part, I didn’t see prices as being overly intimidating.

FezzaBlueI remember some time around 2012, I could have bought a very nice looking Ferrari 308 GT4 (the unloved Dino) in a dark-ish blue with a cream interior for $37,000. Looking back, that seems quite unbelievable now. I didn’t have the money at the time. I could have accessed the money, but we were in the final stages of paying off our mortgage and it went against the grain to pull so much money out of the loan for such an indulgence. If only I’d foreseen the way prices would rise for such cars.

There must be a few of you out there who have been watching classic cars for longer than I have, though. Maybe you can tell me whether what we’re seeing now is extraordinary, a ‘new normal’ or simply a return to how things used to be.

Not being a long-term observer, I have to think the current conditions reflect a post-GFC world where those of a certain age who were fortunate enough to hold on to their money through the GFC now want to indulge in some reclaimed youth and take advantage of a hot market for a fun asset class – classic cars.

The headlines started four or five years ago with crazy auction prices for various classics, the most notable being variants of the Ferrari 250 family, a 7-figure car in basic form and one that now reaches 8 figures with monotonous regularity.

Porsche 911 CarreraThe other headline classic has been the air-cooled Porsche 911. I could have bought a mid-80’s 3.2 Carrera for around A$35,000 three years ago. A similar car sold at auction in Melbourne last week for $100,000.

None of that is news, though. We’ve all watched Ferraris go bonkers and I’ve written plenty about 911’s in the last 18-24 months.

What follows is a new level of lunacy.

I have my Saab 9-5 Combi here in Sweden but I was looking for something a little older, a little more engaging and fun to drive during the summer. Out of curiosity, I decided to take a look at the Alfa Romeo Sprint. I figured it might be a cheap fall-back option if needed. It felt like pretty sound logic to me. I bought a Sprint on Christmas Eve 2014 back in Tasmania for just A$1,100 so a Sprint here in Europe should be quite within my meagre fun-car budget.

What I saw on mobile.de and carandclassic.co.uk nearly made my throw my Mac through a window!

Let’s start with a comparative bargain in Portugal, a 1984 Sprint selling for £5000.

Here’s a 1988 Sprint in Italy selling for £7800.

The car that takes the cake is this 1987 Alfa Sprint at £15,500 – and that’s for a car with “just a few minor car parking dents”.

There’s something important to note as you ponder those prices – bearing in mind that the most expensive one is a full 30 times the price I paid for my Sprint nearly 18 months ago.

That particular generation of Sprint is not even the good one.

I’ve had one Sprint of my own in recent years and I babysat another Sprint for my mate Gavin the year before. They were both Sprints, but they were quite different. Gavin’s early Sprint was the more desirable Alfasud Sprint, based on the chassis of the Alfasud with its inboard brakes. My Sprint, like the ones listed above, was the Alfa Sprint and it was based on the Alfa 33 chassis.

The earlier Alfasud Sprint feels much lighter because of the inboard brakes and while it’s a little harder to work on, it’s a lot more fun to drive. Examples of this model are being offered for £11,000, £13,500 and £14,950 on carandclassic.co.uk right now.

So the earlier, ‘better’ model is seeing higher average prices asked but it’s the later model that’s seeing the highest maximum price being asked at the moment (and one should remember that a price asked is not a price received, but still….). And ALL of those prices are AT LEAST 10-times and up to 30-times what I paid for my Sprint back in Australia.

My Sprint was by no means perfect but it was great, inexpensive fun. I even wrote about it for Hemmings magazine in the US.

Alfa Romeo SprintGavin’s Sprint (right) was even more fun and I almost bought it when he put it up for sale but he’d invested more money than I wanted to spend and I didn’t want to bargain a friend down to what I could afford at the time. But damn, I loved that car!

The point of all this…..

The Alfasud Sprint and Alfa Sprint are great, fun cars AT A CERTAIN PRICE. At a certain price you can be subjective and accept potential losses. You laugh at the car’s foibles and call them endearing. You don’t mind their slow pace up hills because you feel like you’re going flat-out in a 1970’s go-kart made from Coke cans held together with cable ties. The Sprint has charm by the bucket load …… at a certain price.

Once you get to 10-times or 30-times that price, you’d feel compelled to be a bit more objective, wouldn’t you?

Well, the sad fact is that at £14,950 the Sprint is complete rubbish. It’s not old enough to be charming at that price and by any modern standards, the Sprint is uncomfortable, unsafe, under-equipped and downright slow. Cuteness is all that’s left at that money and 15-thousand quid can buy a hell of a lot of cute.

And yet people are asking these crazy prices and seeing as there are so many of them being offered for serious money, you have to assume that sellers are getting a fair proportion of what they’re asking for.

My advice – either identify something that hasn’t hit the speculator’s radar yet, or save your money and wait for the next GFC. It can’t be too far away with some of the idiocy that’s on display right now.

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14 Comments

  1. Classic car prices, like art go through cycles. Prices were crazy particularly in the 90s and the noughties but fell back because the folks with money were highly leveraged and in the process had to sell assets creating a downward spiral. All that’s really changed is the extremes of the pricing.

    As whether prices will fall, it’s unclear. Increasing global inequality is concentrating more and more money in the hands of a small group of people who are securing that wealth more effectively and buying assets such as classic cars. The next financial shock will tell a tale.

  2. Classic car prices are a bubble which will undoubtedly burst.

    Antique furniture has already crashed as no one wants dark wood anymore. One little change in our collective (pardon the pun) taste and bang that expensive table is now worth no more than the bits of wood and glue it is made of.

    When you pay ‘collectable’ rather than intrinsic value price for anything you are risking your money on nothing more than the Kings new clothes. Be it Star Wars figures, Dinky model cars, stamps etc, their true value can be only be measured in pennies.

  3. Some of this price explosion has to be because of market expansion. There are billions more automobile consumers now than at the turn of the century. Many of them are enthusiasts, and they never got to experience some great cars the first time around.

    Fact is, Top Gear spent their whole Clarkson-May-Hammond run telling the planet that you can’t consider yourself a car guy until you’ve owned an old Alfa. There aren’t enough old Alfas around.
    Same thing with air-cooled Porsches, they must have mentioned them every other episode.

    One parallel that I see with the art market is the disconnect between a “headline” market, where single pieces sell for millions, and a less glamorous collector market, where good pieces are in the same price range as new cars. I guess the standard advice is the same for both: “only buy stuff you love and want to look at every day, you may well be stuck with it.”

  4. When it comes to cars, I’m like Swade: I like cheap ones that provide a little pedigree and a little fun. If they’re completely different than what your neighbor has in his garage, so much the better.

    Thus, in this market, I’m looking for a sleeper that isn’t caught up in this insanity. A very good condition 1978 Datsun 280Z for US$9000, 2001 Saab Viggen at US$5000, and the pick of the litter, several early 2000’s Porsche Boxsters for around US$10,000.

    I simply can’t justify spending more with so much fun to be had for much less.

  5. A while back I had an excellent lunch with an ‘Alfisti’ (who turned up at a Saab Car Club day in his perfect Alfa 90 with the 3.0 V6) and the conversation turned to values of AR cars, as seen through the eyes of an expert. The gist of it was, anything with a metal bumper bar is worth more than the same car with a ‘placky’ one. I couldn’t imagine anyone paying 15K for a 2L Alfetta GTV, but it IS happening apparently.
    So, my ’81 323i resto project is one of the last of the breed of BM’s with those now-desirable metal bumpers and shark nose. Values are climbing ever so slowly but they are climbing. UK buyers are forking out silly money for cars that appear to have been given the full treatment. Which begs the question, why??
    I bought mine for $1500 three years ago. It’s currently in several boxes and doesn’t run, and its worth much more than that.
    Not two days ago a guy in Poland was listing the standard factory turbine alloys at over 1500!! Genuine Alpina 15 inch wheels are now rarer and more exe than some school’s yearly fees! Crazy.
    So, is this car about to ‘take off’? Hell Yeah!!
    (Just need to convince Her to let me finish the auto-to-manual conversion to really capitalise)

  6. That is why the I ended up buying a ’71 Saab Sonett III about 5 years ago for $4500 USD. I have probably put another $2000 into it since then, but it is fun, unique and gets more comments than anything else I have ever driven. Prices on those are starting to creep up as they get rarer. Nothing crazy yet, but I think I would definitely get my money back if I sold it. I even picked up a spare transmission locally as insurance last year for about $250.

  7. For a dedicated and knowledgeable car person, it’s not hard to find the unloved classic. The problem is that you have to be ok with knowing that every shekel you spend on restoring and upgrading is probably gone forever when you’re spending them on an unloved marque/model.

  8. I think Alfas are cool, but I have never coveted one…..well a typo 33 is the exception.

    I have been a SAAB guy for almost 60 years. We have several 95 Aeros in the family and love the cars and don’t mind putting money in them because they are so cool…..especially the Aero wagons. I am restoring a 2001 red stick shift Aero wagon right now and have a exotic 290 HP 2.3l B235 motor top put in it. My wife just bought a pristine 2001 Aero wagon with 95,000 miles on it and loves it.

    One of the other cars I own puts me on the other side of the collector coin…..in 1999 I bought a 1973 Carrera RS with a fresh 2.7 motor. We did a bare metal restoration a few years later and then I rebuilt the suspension, transmission and lots more. I did it because I love the car.

    Swade had a short ride in it going to breakfast in Santa Monica back when he was with Saab…….

    I woke up one day and all the money I spent on the car was a fraction of its value. I am not bragging, because I had no idea the value would go up……I guess I was just dumb lucky. Over the years I have learned how to fix everything on the car and I just love it and drive it about 10 K miles a year. The chassis has 230,000 miles on it……it could be 330K for all I know. I put 130,000 miles on it so I know it is at least 230,000.

    It is a rock solid reliable car. I have done 1000 miles in 3 days in it many times. I trust it like a new car.

    I am not a speculator and I am not going to flip it. It is just the most fun road car I have ever owned or driven, and it puts a smile on my face every day.

  9. Well, looks like even old Saabs are selling for much more than a couple of years ago. A very nice 1973 96 just sold on bringatrailer.com auction for $24000 USD! Bidding went up $11000 during the final two hours as two very interested parties went back and forth.

  10. lots of people here in Europe are buying Porsches 911 ( some in terrible state) just to keep them for selling later, when the price will be even higher. They don’t drive them.
    There’s a lot of hope that Chinese will buy them at the asking price.
    Some years ago you could buy an 912 for 5-10.000 euro, now they ask more for a basket case without the motor.
    Especially with Porsches this seems odd to me : at a certain point potential buyers will see the new 911 Porsches look about the same but are cheaper, better and faster.

    High prices means less cars on the road, and less really using ( even the same with Ford Escorts RS2000) the car.

    1. The new P cars may be cheaper, but the are not better…..they are heavier, more numb and just not as much fun as the older, lighter, simpler models.

      Faster….well my 1973 will do an honest 150mph……what more do I need?

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