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.
PHOTO: NY TIMES
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.
Rarity is a virtue. In 1969, Chevrolet made 69 Camaros with aluminum 427-cubic-inch V-8s for racing. Because even that meager supply exceeded demand -- the ZL1 engine option cost more than the base car -- many languished at dealerships. Today these are among the most sought-after Camaros. Comer recently sold one for US$840,000 and expects them to top US$1 million soon.
Optional equipment adds value, especially less-common factory-installed features like the model year's most powerful engine or a heavy-duty transmission; high-performance options can distinguish a top-shelf muscle car from a Plymouth Satellite that has little more than bucket seats and a mainstream family-sedan engine.
"The speculators buying lesser cars in hopes the rising tide of top-dollar muscle cars will make them wealthy are wrong," Comer said. "Market adjustments are inevitable. When that happens, speculators who bought marginal cars will get burned."
History matters, and documentation is crucial. What collectors call provenance traces the car to its origins by a bill of sale, paperwork tucked under the backseat by assembly-line workers, photos from previous owners, or trophies earned at the racetrack.
Included with the US$1.2 million Chevelle auctioned in January were an original New Jersey title, a factory "build sheet," and a collection of magazine articles chronicling the car's drag-strip victories. Ray Allen, who drove the car and directed its restoration, was present at Barrett-Jackson to erase any doubts about the car's history.
IT'S A NUMBERS GAME
Condition is crucial in setting the value of any collectible, whether an antique credenza or a classic car. But there's more to condition than surface appearances.
While first-time buyers may be impressed by shiny paint and sparkling chrome, experienced muscle car collectors dig deeper. They are looking for cars whose condition is as close to factory-fresh as possible. All-original examples are rare; most muscle cars suffered modifications at the hands of exuberant young owners.
Restorations vary widely in both the level of craftsmanship and the appropriateness of the parts that were used. In the complex language used to describe how well a car conforms to factory specifications, "matching numbers" is commonly used. The term implies that the car still has the same engine and major components that were installed at the factory. The numbers are identifying marks cast or stamped into the parts.
Because few muscle cars have survived with all their equipment intact -- emissions equipment was usually first to be cast off -- resourceful restorers gather the appropriate parts for assembly into what appears to be a seemingly correct muscle car.
The matching numbers description is not all-encompassing. The 1970 Chevelle that sold for US$1.2 million in January was considered a "numbers matching [restoration] car" because it is an amalgam of parts that are correct, though not originally installed on this particular car. In contrast, the US$2.2 million 'Cuda sold at the same auction is a "numbers matching [original] car" because it still had the same Hemi V-8 installed in 1970.
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