Thu Aug 29 2013 16:56:25 GMT+0000 (Coordinated Universal Time)
Pedigreed race cars and sexy roadsters aren't the only vintage vehicles breaking records at the collector-car auctions this year. Automobile aficionados are also driving up prices for less rarefied fare, from Jimmy Carter-era Japanese SUVs to fruity-colored microcars with wicker seats and fringed surrey tops.
While not inspiring the same breathless headlines ($27.5 million for a Ferrari Spider! $29.6 million for a Mercedes-Benz racer!), the large middle market for vintage vehicles priced between $25,000 and $150,000 is quietly expanding. Unlike trophy cars bought at Champagne-soaked concours events and housed like precious works of art, these automobiles often serve as weekend and vacation-home transportation, driven proudly to the ice-cream store, the collector rally or the Home Depot parking lot.
Some two-thirds of vintage vehicles change hands through private-party sales, according to Hagerty, a Traverse City, Mich.-based insurance firm focusing on antique autos, while 15% sell on eBay Motors. But public auction firms are rapidly working to add and expand ever-splashier sales events. One of the largest middle-market players, Mecum Auctions Inc., of Walworth, Wis., says it has boosted its offerings to 12,000 vehicles in 2012 from 6,500 in 2010. It held a 10-day marathon sale in Kissimmee, Fla., in January, where a record-breaking 2,610 cars passed over the block, more than 25% more than in 2012.
Prices are rising, too. Another big player, Auctions America, based in Auburn, Ind., says the average price-per-lot in its yearly Fort Lauderdale, Fla., sale jumped by almost a quarter since 2010. While entry-level vehicles can be snapped up for $20,000 or less at auction, the middle-market average sale price hovers between $40,000 and $60,000, says independent auctions analyst Rick Carey.
It can be hard for new collectors to know what blemishes lie beneath the shiny paint and chrome—especially when so many first purchases are made through the warm haze of nostalgia. Barrett-Jackson Auction Co. of Scottsdale, Ariz., is instituting a rating system through which its experts—which include, for example, members of the National Corvette Restorers Society—try to vet seller's claims. "If you are saying it's original and has documentation, we try to verify it," says Craig Jackson, the company's chairman and chief executive. That won't happen on eBay.
But at this level of the market, the emphasis is still mainly on fun. Here, a roundup of where nostalgia is driving car collectors now.
Considered the quintessential American sports car, Corvettes, especially mid-'60s Stingray models, inspire heavy breathing among collectors. Ultra-high-performance versions with big-block engines regularly command six figures. But Vettes with a smaller, high-output V-8 engine start around $40,000. "They're lighter, they're more responsive, they handle better at half to two-thirds the price," says Mr. Carey, who also edits auction coverage at www.Sportscardigest.com. And many of the earlier C1 models, released between 1953 and 1962, can be had for between $50,000 and $80,000, says Donnie Gould, president of Auctions America. In top condition, in a popular color like Panama Yellow, a 1958 Corvette with a four-speed transmission and options including fuel injection and both a hard and soft top easily could top $100,000.
Fiat Jolley... they're pathetic in the horsepower department. But cheek, charm and a degree of rarity have boosted this postwar segment nearly 40% since 2008, according to Hagerty. The Fiat Jolly, a doorless, cloth-top buggy with wicker seats, sells for between $60,000 and $100,000. The four-cylinder version, in pastel colors such as coral or lime, bumps up value. Also riding high on the novelty scale are the BMW Isetta ($20,000 to $40,000), which opens from a single, snub-nosed front hatch, and the Messerschmitt ($25,000 to $45,000), made by the wartime plane manufacturer, some with a similar bubble cockpit.
Vintage SUVs... Fuel-efficient, they're not. But vintage sport-utility vehicles are being added to existing classic-car insurance policies at nearly twice the rate of other cars and trucks, according to Hagerty.
While vintage Jeeps are always popular, Toyota's FJ Land Cruiser models from the 1970s have rocketed up in price by 173% in the last five years. Their appearances at national auctions have more than tripled since 2011, with the most expensive examples selling this year for $88,000.
Why the big prices? Hard off-road use gave them low survival rates. And restorations to bring them back can easily run to $75,000, says Mr. Gould. Still, "their appeal is like pickup trucks: common utilitarian objects turned into affectionate weekend companions," Mr. Carey says.
Porsche 911... This year marked the 50th anniversary of the timeless 911 design, sparking a recent price rise: 1964 to 1973 models have jumped 77% over the past three years, according to Hagerty. Good colors and original drivetrains boost value, Mr. Gould says. But "it's not about the bling when you're driving a Porsche," he says. "It's all about performance." Quality of restoration and the overall rarity of a particular model or production year are additional deciding factors, says Sam Murtaugh, marketing manager of Mecum Auctions. Prices start at $35,000 to $60,000, but a desirable higher-horsepower S version easily can top $100,000.
Vintage Pickups... With new pickup trucks holding strong as one of the best-selling vehicle categories in the U.S. today, it's no surprise that there is growing collector interest in vintage trucks, especially short-bed postwar pickups from the 1950s and '60s, like the Ford F1s, the Chevy Cameos and the Chevy C10s. "They're easy to work on. There are a lot of parts available," says McKeel Hagerty, CEO of Hagerty Insurance. High-quality examples start in the $20,000 to $25,000 range, but exceptional vehicles can top $50,000.
Ford Mustang... It's neither exotic nor rare. But it rings the nostalgia bell for boomers while appealing to younger drivers who know it from the "Fast & Furious" movies. The budget-friendly Steady Eddies of the collectible market (a nice driver-quality '60s coupe starts around $20,000, with convertibles always higher), Mustangs might see a jolt as the 50th anniversary approaches next year. Cars from 1965 to 1970 are most desirable, says Mr. Gould, with popular colors like Poppy Red and Wimbledon White all adding value. While ultra-high-performance Boss versions can hit six figures, less beastly but still powerful performers like K-Code and Mach 1 models can be had for between $30,000 and $60,000. With its brawny engine, racing stripe and spoiler, the Mach 1 "is the alternative driving experience for the collector who can't afford the six-figure Shelby Mustangs," Mr. Carey says.