Kirk F. White died recently. You may not recognize the name, and you’d be forgiven if you have not heard of him. I got to meet him once, a chance meeting at Carlisle sometime in the 2000s, as he sat next to his Ferrari Daytona which had been loaned to Dan Gurney and Brock Yates for what became their record-making coast-to-coast run in the Cannonball Baker Sea-to-Shining-Sea Memorial Trophy Dash.
When I had learned of his passing, I Googled his name and came across a four-part series of articles written about him on The Classic Cars Journal website. The article’s author credits Kirk White with staging “the first modern car auction” in 1971, an event that the author directly links to the launch of the Barrett-Jackson, Kruse, and RM auction companies. This may or may not be true. I have no evidence to refute the claim, so let’s accept it at face value.
Let’s also quote some interesting sales facts from this article:
- A writer from Sports Illustrated magazine in attendance claimed that “the standing record price for a car at auction was $45,000 for ‘the legendary ‘Harry Johnson’ Mercer back in 1968”.
- A Duesenberg Le Baron Phaeton was reportedly bid to $66,000, but did not meet reserve and was declared a ‘no sale’.
- The highest sale price of the auction was $20,000, for a 12-cylinder Auburn Speedster. It was reported that the new owner planned to drive the Auburn from the auction location in Philadelphia back to his residence in Indiana.
Reading some of these numbers from the perspective of 2020 is dizzying. The $45,000 record sale price would today barely get you into a near-luxury sedan or SUV. Checking my June 1971 Car & Driver, I see that a new 1971 Corvette with a 454 LS6 engine listed for $7,619. A new 1971 Volvo 142E had a list price of $4,032. The back cover ad for the de Tomaso Pantera stated that the car is “around $10,000”. So twenty grand in 1971 dollars for any car, much less an old Auburn, was a lot of coin.
A 12-cylinder Auburn Speedster is, of course, the striking boattail. My reference books indicate that the V-12 Speedsters were made for two model years only, 1932-1933. The 1933 model cost $1,745 new (a 1933 Ford V8 cabriolet was $585). This was during the Great Depression! It’s a coveted model today, so coveted that an entire cottage industry has sprung up building replicas which tend to sell in the $40,000-60,000 range, if Mecum’s recent sales of them are an indicator.
The 1971 sale car was a real one – the ‘tribute’ market had not been born yet. In 1971, $20,000 could have bought 2 Panteras, or 3 Corvettes, or 5 Volvos, any of which would have served as more reliable daily drivers than an Auburn. So spending twenty large ones on an old car was a real indulgence. Did the owner keep it? If so, for how long? When he sold it, did he earn a profit on the sale? If he or his heirs still own the car today, what is it worth?
There are very few recent documented sales of real Auburn boattail Speedsters. Mecum, at its January 2020 Kissimmee auction, sold a RHD one that needed extensive engine and other mechanical work for $440,000. There is exactly one on Hemmings.com at present, with a supercharged 8 and not a V12, carrying an ask of $795,000. If we split the difference and state that an Auburn Speedster might be worth $600,000 in the real world, that’s a 30-fold increase in value over 49 years.
Wait. We have no idea of this Auburn’s condition in 1971. Sure, it was reported that the new owner planned to drive it back to Indiana, which doesn’t mean that the paint and interior were pristine. Once home, he had to garage it; insure it; perform routine maintenance on it; refresh its cosmetics; acquire a tow vehicle and trailer so as not to sully its refreshed cosmetics; make repairs as items wore out or broke; replace the battery, fluids, tires, brakes, and rubber parts on a regular basis; and so on.
If the car saw any regular use, chances are it would have reached the point where it needed a complete restoration. Even without regular use, cars which sit deteriorate. Depending on how it was stored, maintained, and used, it’s not unreasonable that decades later, it may have needed yet another restoration. Any calculation of ‘final sale price’ as an indicator of profit ignores the decades of maintenance and repair necessary when a valuable old car is under your care.
Old-car enthusiasts who are not active owners seem to presume that all old cars increase in value. I’ve heard it, I’ve read it, and I’ve had it said to me when showing one of my own cars at an event. The conversation goes something like this:
Show-goer: “Hey, nice car! I bet that thing is worth some money!”
Me: “Well, maybe it is, but I’m in the hobby to enjoy the cars and the people”.
Show-goer: “Hey, if you don’t mind my asking, what’s that thing worth?”
Me: “Well, I’m not really sure. Any number I quote is just a figure from a piece of paper anyway”.
Show-goer: “Well, I bet you’re sure that you’re gonna make a killing on that thing when you go to sell it!”
Me: “We’ll see. It’s not for sale, and like I said, I’m in this hobby to enjoy it without focusing on values too much”.
Do classic cars increase in value? The answer is almost certainly “yes”. However, the intrinsic value of the car, its condition, and the length of time between two sale points all play significant roles in any potential value increase. A 1933 Ford 4-door sedan is very likely worth more today than it was in 1971. But there is no comparing such a car with a genuine Auburn boattail. Perhaps the biggest argument against the Ford would be its lack of desirability in today’s collector car market.
I still see too many ‘collectors’ who are more focused on future values than they are on the enjoyment that the hobby can bring. Following recent auction trends, it’s not unusual to see the same cars repeatedly dragged across the block, and either failing to meet an unreasonable reserve, or actually selling for less than the car sold for the previous year. It’s a complete oversimplification to look at this 1971 Auburn sales result and exclaim “I told you that there’s money to be made doing this!” Sure. Would you have had that kind of spare cash in 1971 AND have been able to wait 49 years before reselling? I didn’t think so.
If I had known when I met Kirk White that he did indeed kick-start this entire collector car auction mania, I would have personally thanked him. Are all car auctions great? No. Does every vehicle sold at auction hammer for a number higher than its previous sale? Absolutely not. Have auctions brought many more people into the hobby and served as a source of education and entertainment for collector car enthusiasts? We can only answer that with an unqualified ‘yes’.
All photographs copyright © 2020 Richard A. Reina. Photos may not be copied or reproduced without express written permission.