Old cars now a very big business

My usual week of attending automotive events at Pebble Beach, Calif., is normally a hectic dash to shows, races, unveilings, cocktail parties and tours.

This year, while no less hectic than others, saw me making it to far fewer events than usual simply because I was dragging a film crew around with me. It turns out that reality filming takes considerably more time than reality.

I did make it to four auction houses to view their offerings and with good reason. This is the most important part of my trip, as my primary goal for attending each year is to further the business and to purchase significant cars at good prices with a mind to re-offering them at auction some time down the line.

Historically, it is at the Bonham’s auction that my investment partner and I are most likely to buy. This year, however, despite a new and much larger venue at Quail Lodge and a fair assortment of vehicles, there was not one that I wanted to bring home as a potential short-term investment. I noted prices were running a bit high as well.

Saying that prices at the Gooding’s and Company auction held at Pebble’s Equestrian Center are running a bit high is like saying Hurricane Andrew was accompanied by a few sprinkles of rain. I have never bought or sold at Gooding’s despite trying. This year was no exception. The cars on offer were, for the most part, incredible and well beyond any budgets I or my investment partners would consider sane.

Gooding’s highest sale was for a 1936 Mercedes 540 K Special Roadster. It found new ownership at $11.77-million, but, it was, in fact, a disappointment to Gooding’s and its owners. The hype had the car as a contender to beat the world record auction price of more than $16-million set last year by Gooding’s. This year’s runner up was a Ferrari 250 GT LWB California Spyder Competizione, which sold for $11.275-million.

Gone, it seems, are the days when a car selling for $1-million was newsworthy. Gooding’s sold so many cars between the range of $1-million and $10-million that the average sale price was more than $1-million. The cheap seats were occupied by cars ranging in the hundreds of thousands and a very few sold for less than $100,000. A 1960 Lotus Elite

Series II sold for $93,500. I sort of think of a really nice Elite going for maybe $30,000.

In all, Gooding’s two-day sale realized a total sale of more than $113-million, eclipsing all other automobile auction records.

But Gooding’s wasn’t the only record maker. RM Auctions, the world’s largest automobile auction house, made a very special world record when it sold the most expensive U.S.-made car of all time at $11-million.

It was a Ford GT 40 lightweight, one of two produced and which, on top of its racing provenance, was used as the high-speed camera car in Steve McQueen’s 1971 movie Le Mans.

RM had a very interesting 1936 Peugeot Darl’mat roadster we were interested in purchasing. However, after careful consideration, we backed off when RM discovered it was actually a Peugeot-built recreation from the 1980s. Good thing RM found out and posted it at the last minute or we may have been stuck with a very expensive replica instead of the real thing.

RM’s sale this year showed an overall increase of 20% over last year so, like Gooding’s, it must be quite content.

Mecums was the last sale I attended and it was at this sale that my associate and I finally bought — or, at least, he did. Neither of us had attended this sale before and it is a relative newcomer to Pebble. Unlike RM, Bonham’s and Gooding’s, which employ old-world civility and witty auctioneers, Mecums is far more like a cattle sale with an auctioneer rattling off volumes of gibberish interspersed with numbers. The cars are, for the most part, muscle cars, hot rods, 1950s cars and the very odd pre-war classic.

The prices, however, reflected the Midwest more than the Monterey Peninsula and my partner managed to pick up a very nice 2003 Ferrari 360 with less than 2,000 kilometres on it for $110,000, so at least we came home with one car.

I managed to behave myself, but, if the sale had been closer to home, there were a couple of vintage trucks I could not have resisted. A $5,000 freight charge for any acquisition puts a bit of a damper on buying $15,000 trucks.

The week’s take overall was in excess of $260-million among the various auction houses. Describing this as the old car hobby has become rather ridiculous. Old cars are now very big business, and the corporate world has very definitely sat up and taken notice.

The 1968 Ford GT40 racing car raced at 24 hours of Le Mans and used as a camera car for the 1971 Steve McQueen movie Le Mans was the all-time most expensive sale of a U.S.-made car at $11 million. Photograph by: RM Auctions