Back to Print: 1990 AutoWeek issue predicts the collector car future

It’s obvious from all my blog posts covering automotive auctions from Mecum, Carlisle, RM Sotheby’s, and others, that I enjoy the collector car auction experience. Unlike classified ads, auction results provide an in-the-moment, real-world snapshot of what cars sell for. Part of the auction education is to learn about values. Price guides are great, but they’re numbers on a page or a screen. One can argue that a car at auction sold for too much or too little, but one can’t argue that a seller was willing to let it go at a certain price, or that a buyer was willing to pay a certain price.

Several friends of mine who are interested in the old car hobby have asked me about values rising over time, or put another way, “what can I buy today that I’ll make money on tomorrow?” They expect me to gaze into my crystal ball and spit out an answer. It might be possible to make the general statement that “all special interest cars appreciate over time”. However, it you’ve been at this long enough, and I know that many of my readers have, we’ve learned some hard lessons about vehicles and values.

Values of cars from the decade of the 1950s have peaked and have slid back, because the generation which grew up with them is dying off. Cars which are purchased as 100-point show cars and are then driven or allowed to deteriorate will decline in value. Sometimes, what’s hot today has simply cooled off by next month.

Conversely, we baby boomers have watched in amazement as cars from the ‘80s and ‘90s (which to us are “just used cars”) are being snapped up, some at surprisingly high prices, by the next generation of collectors. One famous scribe, who shall not be cited by name, proclaimed 20 years ago that “Japanese cars will NEVER become collectible!” He’s eating his words today as 1st gen Datsun Z cars, 4th gen Toyota Supras, and Acura NSXs trade for prices approaching or exceeding six figures.

My answer to my colleagues about my crystal ball? I tell them that my crystal ball shattered when the Ouija board fell off its shelf and knocked it to the ground.

Instead of a crystal ball, it’s more fun to travel back in time and see what was predicted about collector car values. I have the May 21, 1990 issue of AutoWeek magazine, its headline blaring “1990 Old Car Issue: Bring ‘em Back To Drive; A users’ guide to finding, buying and enjoying collectible cars”. I believe this 1990 edition was the first in what would become an annual series for AutoWeek, at least for most of the rest of the decade (I have two later examples in my collection). Let peruse the pages and see how right and how wrong they were.

The lead article, “Get ‘Em While They’re Cold”, suggests taking a long hard look at cars from the 1980s, buying them while they’re cheap, and then riding the wave of escalating values. By the way, this concept of buying cars which are 10 to 20 years old, at the bottom of their depreciation cycle, and then (hopefully) watching their values rise has really grown legs in recent decades.

A sample of the featured cars and their 1990 values, include:

  • 1986 Corvette Roadster, for about $25,000
  • 1982-1985 Buick Riviera convertible, many at less than $10,000
  • 1985-1988 Fiero, at anywhere from $6,000 to $16,000 depending on equipment
  • 1981-1983 Imperial, and I quote: “Current prices are in the $4,000 to $6,000 range, so it doesn’t take a Donald Trump to see the profit potential….”
  • 1984-1986 Mustang SVO, with “prices all over the map”

The featured story and cover car, about one man’s obsession with obtaining and restoring the 1938 BMW328 which won the 1940 Mille Miglia, is a delightful human interest tale of overcoming many setbacks before eventually triumphing. But there’s no mention of actual dollars spent. To his credit, even with the article implying that this BMW might be worth $2 million (remember, this was written in 1990), the owner said “Of course I’ll drive it, ‘cause that’s what it is – a car…. I just can’t understand the way some people think. The thought of turning a car into a $2-million floor lamp makes me sick”.

The final series of articles in this issue highlight 3 popular collectibles: the MGA, the Porsche 356, and the Jaguar XKE, also known as the E-Type. For two of these, I’ve captured AutoWeek’s pricing for a 90-point car. Just to keep things in perspective, Google reports that the 1990 average new-car price was $15,500, and the median household income was $35,400.

 

My January 2021 edition of CPI (Cars of Particular Interest) Price Guide shows a 1960 Porsche 356B S-90 Roadster worth $198,000 in excellent condition, and a 1967 Jaguar XKE roadster (OTS) worth $302,000 in excellent condition. Now that’s what I call appreciation!

Forlorn Jaguar E-Type Roadster Discovered

A few weeks ago, my wife and I headed to lunch at a restaurant in Whitehouse Station (NJ) that we hadn’t tried before. It’s about five miles from our house, and it’s one of those places that we’ve driven past a thousand times, always saying “hey, let’s try that sometime”, and finally we did.

For 1pm on a Friday, the place was quite busy, and since their primary parking lot was already full, we had to park a half block further away. No big deal, as the day was sunny if a bit cool. Our parking spot ended up being closer to the back, not the front, of the restaurant.

Approaching the restaurant from the rear, my wife was already several steps ahead of me, when my eye caught a glimpse of an interesting shape in the yard next door. The adjacent business is an auto repair shop, and as is typical, there are always a number of semi-repaired cars strewn about. But this was no recent “we’re just waiting for that replacement oxygen sensor to come in” type of vehicle. No, this one had been there a while.

At first glance, it looked like it was covered by a tarp.  I walked closer, and as my vision began to focus on said tarp, I saw that it only partly covered the car. “What is it?” I asked myself. The shape was so familiar, yet I still didn’t know.

I didn’t want to get too close (I haven’t had my tetanus shot), but as I walked from its rear to its front, I recognized the unmistakable XKE shape. It’s as if it were wearing a disguise: vehicle partly covered, headlight removed, and both doors missing! By now, my wife was on the porch, wondering just where I had gone.

 

Tarp needs to be re-secured; good thing the top is up
Tarp needs to be re-secured; good thing the top is up

Out came the cell phone to fire off two quick snaps. I rushed inside so as to not keep her waiting any longer. My attention was directed to the menu, but it was hard to stop wondering how this Jag ended up there, in that condition.  Was this a barn find? (There’s no barn.) And just when you think that all the Jag project cars have been found, this pops up 5 miles from me. Somehow, I avoided the temptation to make an inquiry.

It wasn’t until I got home to study the photos that I saw that it’s a Series II OTS (Open Two Seater). These 2nd-generation E-Types still used 6-cylinder engines, but had exposed headlights, a larger grille opening, and larger tail lights mounted below the bumper. While not as pretty or desirable as Series I cars, they still have a commanding presence, and are still coveted among collectors of European sports cars.

Door removal aids in photography of interior
Door removal aids in photography of interior

My CPI (Cars of Particular Interest) price guide for Nov.-Dec. 2016 puts such a car at $97,000 in “excellent” condition. Keith Martin’s Sports Car Market Price Guide for 2016 assigns a median value very close to that, at $91,000. This example, as the pundits would say, needs everything, so even if the car were free, you’d spend more than you could earn on resale. Perhaps it’s best to let this one return to earth from whence it came.

 

All photographs copyright © 2016 Richard A. Reina. Photos may not be copied or reproduced without express written permission.