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Classic Cars and
How They Got That Way

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San Francisco:  Americans have always been curious about older automobiles, but the current passion for collecting and restoring cars as a hobby dates only from World War II. Even then, most collectors seemed to want only two types of car: Model T or Model A Fords, and the heavy cars as they are now referred to by classic car connoisseurs--the exotic machines called Bugatti, Cadillac, Cord, Duesenberg, Packard et al. And even among these heavies, collectors thought only specific models of these worthy of salvation. Many a car magazine from the late 1940s and early 50s shows ads of old 1920s Packards and Pierce-Arrows cut into convertibles or converted into tow trucks and funky RVs. But most of the pre-war dinosaurs still lying around just prior to and after the war were relegated to the scrap heap. A few fortunate ones, like Ford or Chevy three- window coupes of roadsters from the '30s, fell into the hands of California hot-rodders and customizers. This attitude of neglect, if not downright disrespect, of venerable cars persisted well into the 1960s. While there were a few instant classics, (a rather contradictory term if you think about it), such as the 1953 Corvette and the 1955 Thunderbird, by and large car lovers were yearning for the hopeful future, not the terrible past. Few wanted to be seen in an old car.

Then, gradually, in the late 1960s and early 1970s, American car- consciousness started to change. American cars were getting tiresome--dull, tinny, stylistically uninspired, mechanically demonic. The Pinto and the Vega were upon us. Older cars, both American and European, started to look good---solid, tasteful. Then the Baby Boomers came of age financially through their careers or inheritances, and they wanted to possess the cars of their youth, or at least of their youthful desires. (Nine times out of 10, the collector buys cars manufactured when the collector was coming of age.)

The last factors in the equation for the collector car explosion also came along in the early 1970s. The average American began to be exposed to cars of the past through highly publicized auto shows and nostalgic movies. And finally, the oil-crisis of 1973 spurred a general craze for investments in anything that would help stop the onslaught of inflation, and this included going completely gaga over those potentially valuable old cars.

Along with this unbounded enthusiasm came the folly associated with trends based on sentimentality. And, worse, there were the sordid business practices that often accompany any pitch to invest in something as a hedge against inflation. One could hardly think of a sorrier reason to collect anything, much less a two-ton piece of what was often hastily re-assembled old metal.

Greed and ignorance can turn any respectable occupation into an orgy of speculation, and the booming hobby of collecting old cars was no exception. The Edsel was going to be one of the most valuable old cars of all time, they promised us, and the Cadillac Eldorado would be the last American convertible ever produced. But it didn't turn out that way, and many inexperienced people who looked to make their fortune in the collectible car market were sorely disappointed, either by the shoddily restored rust-buckets they paid too much for, or by the drab and utilitarian old cars they poured piles of money into, in the hope that the Smithsonian would call and make a generous offer.

Fortunately, the last 10 years have brought some constructive changes. For one thing, the Classic Car Club of America has been quite diligent in trying to bring back some meaning to the much abused word classic. Through laborious historical research and a rational system of judging an automobile¹s merits, an exclusive list of cars manufactured up to 1948 has been compiled, and honored with the label "The Classics". This doesn¹t necessarily please the more liberal wings of the collector car fraternity, but the fact is that most professional appraisers, curators, dealers and collectors acknowledge the CCCA's formulations as the standard by which to judge a true Classic.

Better than that, the public at large has gotten a lot more sophisticated, and while someone will still react emotionally and pay a premium price for a "classic" 1950 Chevrolet four-door sedan just like grandma owned, the majority of buyers, sellers and dealers will not. They have come to realize that the term classic represents not only the ability of a particular car to survive the ravages of time, but also embodies a timeless character--one that was clearly intentional on the part of the manufacturer.

So, if the car you own or are thinking of buying is not on the Classic Car List, how do you know what you have and what it's worth?

Well, for one thing, you can embrace the Golden Rule of Automotive Value, which is three-fold: condition, condition, and condition. A rusted 1964 Mustang convertible is worth practically nothing--a few hundred dollars at most--and an identical year and model nicely restored may bring $15,000. Same two cars, big difference in value. Secondly, you could consult any number of very informative price guides that are now available, such as Old Cars Price Guide, Cars of Particular Interest (CPI) and Kelley Blue Book's Early Car Edition. Last of all, you could page through the "bible" of collector car classifieds, Hemmings Motor News, and look at comparable cars for sale. They only show asking prices, which can be hopefully high, but at least they'll give you an idea of the current market.

And now for the Big Question. What will be the future priceless "classics" that are running on the road right now? Well, you never can tell for sure, but a good bet would be any low production expensive open car of outstanding style and performance. Possibly a few coupes that fit that description as well. Historically, very very few 4-door sedans have become classics, or even valuable collectibles, unless they were special one of a kind cars.

If the last 30 years has taught car collectors anything, it's taught them that the automobiles that will win the greatest admiration and achieve the highest values in the future will be the ones that were something very special on the day they were first made. The first Corvette. Porsche Speedster. Lotus Seven. The Muscle Cars. Jaguar XKE Series I Roadster. Cobra. Viper. You get the idea. Each a member of a pretty exclusive club. A "Classic" really couldn't be anything else. By Joe Troise © AutoWire.Net - San Francisco

Byline:  By Joe Troise © AutoWire.Net - San Francisco
Column Name:  "Classic Cars & How They Got That Way"
Topic:  Classic Cars
Word Count:   1100
Photo Caption:  "It's a Doozy"
Photo Credits:  Pebble Beach Company
Series #:   1999 - 10

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