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Muscle cars roar into the millionaire's club

When Milton Robson put his pride and joy up for sale for the tidy sum of US$1 million, he had no idea what he had started

NY TIMES NEWS SERVICE , NEW YORK

This 1970 Plymouth Hemi 'Cuda convertible sold for US$2.2 million in Scottsdale, Arizona, in January. Many of the high school leadfoots who burned rubber in their Hemi 'Cudas and Chevelle 454s are now wealthy guys intent on reliving their youth, and they are sending prices of rare muscle cars ever skyward.

PHOTO: NY TIMES

Blame Milton Robson, an Atlanta car collector, for the sky-high prices of muscle cars.

Four years ago, Robson, a former grocery wholesaler, placed a half-page advertisement in Hemmings Motor News to sell his 1971 Plymouth Barracuda, a convertible equipped with a Hemi V-8 engine and a four-speed manual transmission. The asking price -- US$1 million -- was an astounding sum, even considering that the car was one of just six similarly equipped 'Cudas that Chrysler built as 1971 models.

"When I saw Robson's ad, I said to myself, `Well, he's got to start somewhere,'" Colin Comer, president of Colin's Classic Automobiles in Milwaukee, said. "But he stuck to his guns and, sure enough, his Hemi 'Cuda went to a broker who flipped it," he said, using slang for a quick resale.

The once-astronomical price seems quite reasonable today, as survivors of the muscle-car era enter the millionaire's club, shouldering Bugattis, Ferraris and Duesenbergs out of the limelight. In January, at the Barrett-Jackson collector car auction in Scottsdale, Arizona, two icons of the period sold for seven-figure prices.

A 1970 Chevrolet Chevelle convertible with a 454-cubic-inch V-8, decked out in replica lettering from its days as a drag racing champion, sold for US$1,242,000. A 1970 Plymouth Hemi 'Cuda convertible in blinding orange -- High Impact Vitamin C in sales brochures -- brought US$2,160,000.

Two months later, a 1965 Shelby Mustang GT350R with a history of racetrack wins just missed the mark, bringing US$990,000. A Shelby Cobra racecar sold for US$1.65 million at the same Amelia Island, Florida, auction.

Why would a car that cost US$5,000 when new 35 years ago command US$1 million or more today? The simple answer is that wealthy buyers know what they want and are willing to pay for it. And years of steadily rising prices have made the purchase of a rare muscle car easier to justify as an example of investment-grade wish fulfillment.

While there is no concise definition of what constitutes a muscle car, it is certain that the horsepower race in Detroit heated up considerably with the arrival of the Pontiac GTO for the 1964 model year. The one-upsmanship among carmakers continued for eight years, until escalating insurance rates, unleaded gasoline and tepid horsepower ratings shifted buyers toward personal luxury cars.

Purists insist that a muscle car is made by marrying a big engine with a four or five-seat body, citing the example of the original GTO. The engines are typically from 383 to 454 cubic inches in displacement (in the vernacular, "big-block" V-8's), with factory ratings of up to 450 horsepower.

While sports cars like the Shelby Cobra and Chevrolet Corvette may qualify on the basis of horsepower and zero-to-60 performance, sticklers regard these powerful two-seaters as no more than affiliate members of their club. Imported cars were never considered for membership.

Comer, 34, was born as the muscle car era was fading. He admits that some of his affection for the cars is pure rebellion.

"My dad told me muscle cars were cheap kids' toys," he said. "I figured that if he didn't like them, they had to be pretty cool."

Like prices for other types of collectibles, muscle car values are determined by well-established guidelines. In this lofty price class, experienced buyers and sellers use special language to appraise their qualities.

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