WESTPORT, CONNECTICUT — Collector cars have held their value better than many other investments, and it was in that spirit that I attended the Bonhams auction of "exception collectors' motorcars and automobilia" at the Concours earlier this month.
There’s nothing new under the sun. I counted no less than four electric cars on the field of the Fairfield County Concours d’Elegance, including a Tesla Roadster and an electric drive Smart. The oldest one? An unrestored 1912 Kimball Electric, which was part of the really cool lineup of “barn finds,” a first at the Concours.
These events stress elegance, not the environment, but it was fascinating to meet Stephen Smith, a local building official in Westport who wants to electrify the town’s venerable and historic train station (that was it in "The Man in the Grey Flannel Suit"). The plan is to install 30 kilowatts of solar, then provide parking for a veritable fleet of small electric cars. And I mean small — they want to charge up Smart-sized cars and fit two into a parking space. It’s all dependent on a $330,000 federal grant.
Let me confess here that I have a deep and abiding interest in collector cars, having owned scores of them in the pst and two now (a ’63 Dodge Dart convertible and a ’67 Volvo wagon). I follow the high-end auctions, even though I can’t hope to bid in them. It’s fun, and it’s an interesting clue to where our economy is going.
Are people still buying? What I saw confirmed a few basic rules: American interest in many classic models (especially high-end ones from Europe) is a bit soft and uncertain right now (mirroring a similar uncertainty in financial markets). But when cars hit the sweet spot for these buyers (a car, say, that brought back memories of youth to old-money buyers) the bidding was spirited indeed. Racing provenance matters more in Europe than it does here. And it pays to have a low auction number, because by the end of the Bonhams auction, fatigue had set in and some very nice cars went for very little money.
Auto auctions follow the money, and are traditionally held in upmarket watering holes like Pebble Beach in California, Amelia Island in Georgia and, more recently, Greenwich, Connecticut, where auctions from Sotheby’s and others have been a hit at the Greenwich Concours d’Elegance. The Westport event is only seven years old, but it is growing in power and prestige. Hence its first collector car auction this year.
I watched a very nice 1928 Rolls-Royce Phantom I Newmarket with body by Brewster bid up to $140,000 with an American buyer going up against an Italian on the phone. Later, I saw the American buyer giving his purchase a once-over in the car corral. He seemed happy. A powerful and well-restored 1958 Facel-Vega FV4 made $67,500, reflecting an attractive mix of French styling and American muscle (a V-8 engine from Chrysler). But it had been estimated at $80,000 to $100,000.
Also well below estimate at just $16,000 was a 1913 Maxwell Model 25 21-horsepower tourer. Why so cheap? The Maxwell was running but shabby (“well-aged cosmetically,” the catalog said), and restoration would be expensive. And cars from the ‘10s didn’t seem to be turning on the bidders. But for used-car money somebody got a really usable collector car with a great history (it was on the 1952 Glidden Tour) and a “patina” of use that a restoration would only erase. I say, leave it as is.
People get totally unreasonable at the sight of a Porsche Speedster, and the 1956 356A in Westport had been very expensively and sympathetically restored. Never mind that the Cabriolet version of these cars is more usable, with only marginally less performance. The Speedster went for $130,000, still south of the $160,000 to $180,000 estimate.
In recent memory, a 1967 Mercedes-Benz 280SL roadster with factory hardtop, even a very nice one, struggled to make $20,000. But now, even with a lot of them around, they’re way up there. The very original black example at Bonham’s fetched $43,000, right around the $45,000 to $55,000 estimate. In the mid-1980s, I passed up a mid-1950s 300SL roadster for $30,000, and it’s now worth 20 times that. But I didn’t have anything near $30,000 at the time.
These cars were all relatively early in the auction. As the crowd thinned out, so did the bidding, and the bidders on the phone (mostly in Europe) ran away with most of the goods. I was bowled over that a respectable 1976 Cadillac Eldorado convertible with just 3,500 miles stopped at $4,600 in a “no reserve” sale (half the estimate). It was gaudy and gas-guzzling for my tastes, but had a lot of miles left in it.
Some other late bargains included a great 1960 Volkswagen Beetle for $10,000, and a 1929 Studebaker Commander Sedan in running condition for just $7,900. The auctioneer blamed the “bad economy,” and that was a big factor, along with the car’s dodgy shape, bidder fatigue and a lack of cachet among Euro bidders. As Rod Steiger said to Marlon Brando in On the Waterfront, “Kid, it ain’t your night.”