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Classic Cruising

Collectible-car fever is catching on across the country—from Detroit's Woodward Dream Cruise to California's Concours d'Elegance—with action for buyers, sellers, drivers and gawkers
Paul A. Eisenstein
From the Print Edition:
Michael Jordan, July/August 2005

About this time on a midsummer day in Detroit, Bob Stephenson and his family would normally be found tossing some hamburgers and steaks onto the backyard barbecue. Instead, this warm Tuesday evening, they're stretched out on a blanket along Woodward Avenue, passing around sandwiches and snacks as traffic races by, close enough to smell the exhaust. As the bright August sun slowly sets, the scene, just with different characters, repeats itself all along the sprawling, eight-lane suburban boulevard.

The last of the day's commuters are rushing home, but, imperceptibly at first, traffic begins to pick up again. Were you to wander through town on this particular evening, you'd undoubtedly wonder why so many spectators have come to line up along Detroit's major corridor. Then again, you might notice that the minivans, pickups and sport-utes that suburban drivers tend to favor these days are suddenly in the minority, the cars taking their place making you feel as if you'd taken an unexpected detour into the automotive past lane.

A deafening screech rolls in on the warm breeze. "Man, did you see him move?" blurts out Stephenson, when a classic, ticket-me-red Pontiac GTO leaves a patch of rubber as the light goes green at the 13 Mile Road intersection. But the suburban Detroit machinist's son has his eyes on a Mustang Cobra GT350 slowly cruising down Woodward, with a pair of fuzzy red dice dangling from its rearview mirror. On the other side of the grassy median, a Little Deuce Coupe (a 1932 Model B Ford like the one that inspired the Beach Boys song of the same name) rolls by. The hot rod's engine compartment yawns wide, revealing a maze of brightly chromed pipes and machinery, burbling menacingly. "We'll be out here every night this week," Stephenson says with a broad smile, the family nodding in agreement. And so will more and more folks each night this week. They'll pack tighter and tighter along the boulevard until the automotive orgy reaches its climax over the weekend, with the official Woodward Dream Cruise.

August 20 will mark the 11th anniversary of what has become the biggest classic car event in the United States. Somewhere north of a million people will line every available inch of grass, sidewalk and parking lot along a 16-mile stretch of the big boulevard for a chance to relive the golden era of American muscle. Oh, there'll be a few Porsches and Nissan Zs, along with some modern sedans and SUVs slowly rolling along for the ride, but after a monthlong buildup, the Saturday extravaganza will be dominated by more than 40,000 muscle cars, hot rods and other automotive antiques.

THE OTHER COAST, THE OTHER EXTREME
The raw numbers will be somewhat smaller on the other side of the country that weekend, but the passion will be equally intense. It would be hard for anyone anywhere along the Monterey coast to miss the sound of thunder and fury echoing from the Laguna Seca racetrack, which straddles the hillsides a few miles inland from chichi Carmel. Few opportunities exist to see a 1903 Stanley Steamer Turtle, which some claim is the world's oldest race car, or a recent-vintage Formula One Ferrari—as well as some of the racers, like Phil Hill and Stirling Moss, who steered them to victory. Yet here the crowds can spend three days watching them in action.

The Monterey Historic Races are just one in a weeklong series of classic motoring events all over the peninsula, building to an elegant finale on Sunday. For one day each year, the 18th hole at Pebble Beach is transformed into the world's most expensive used car lot. Some of the nation's most avid—and wealthy—motoring hobbyists spend all year working and waiting for this day. Celebrity gawkers will be richly rewarded, as big names like Jay Leno, Jerry Seinfeld and Ralph Lauren vie with lesser-known, if equally avid collectors. It's not uncommon for collectors to invest $5 million to ready the rare Bugatti or Duesenberg for the Pebble Beach Concours d'Elegance. The event prides itself on attracting only the most unusual, exclusive, even historic vehicles, often for their first showing in decades. But only one will take home Best of Show from this, the automotive equivalent of the Academy Awards.

Unless they're lucky enough to have access to a private jet, automotive aficionados have to choose which side of the country they'll be on that weekend. But even gearheads who can't make it to Pebble Beach or Detroit have plenty of other options. The number of classic car shows, cruises and auctions has steadily grown each year, along with the number of American collectors. Check the online calendar at www.hemmingsmotornews.com, the bible of classic motor fans, and you'll likely find at least one event every single day, even in the middle of winter. There's something for absolutely every taste and fancy. The annual "orphan" show in Ypsilanti, Michigan, for example, targets the unusually avid fans of oddball, out-of-production nameplates, like Rambler, Willys and Kaiser. And it's staged at what claims to be the nation's only remaining Hudson showroom.

CASHING IN ON COLLECTORS
"I've got two. I've got two. Who'll give me 210...210...210...now 220?" The chant is hypnotic—and effective, the audience responding with increasing fervor. Bidders hoist paddles, raise their hands, tap their foreheads or give other subtle signs that send the figure on the video tote board jumping up $10,000 at a time.

The object of desire is a red-and-cream 1938 Lincoln Zephyr V-12 street rod, one of the more eagerly awaited cars to roll across the stage at a recent Barrett-Jackson Classic Car Auction in Scottsdale, Arizona. Approaching its 35th anniversary, the five-day event is "more than an auction. It's a massive happening," laughs the legendary writer Brock Yates, who has anchored what regularly proves to be one of the most popular shows on the motor sports network, The Speed Channel, which carries a good portion of the auction's action. Craig Jackson, the auction's boyish ringmaster and son of one of its founders, has created a county-fair-cum-car-show. Booths hawk everything from car parts to car art—as well as chiropractors and massage shoes. You might need the latter if you expect to cover all the acreage.

The cars are still the stars. And, perhaps aptly, prices have gone into orbit. At the January 2005 auction, one bidder spent $3,240,000 for a 1954 Oldsmobile F-88 General Motors concept car (a figure that includes additional bidder's fees). And the Barrett-Jackson is by no means unique. A Duesenberg drew $2.7 million on RM Auctions' block early this year, while that same auction house dropped the gavel on a $1.76 million bid for a 1950 Ferrari 166 MM Barchetta during an event coinciding with the Amelia Island Concours d'Elegance. The Florida gathering marks the semiofficial opening of the annual auto collector season.

While these aren't record numbers, they're still sizable investments. "It's a multibillion industry and I don't think it's much different than...the stock market. There's a lot of gamesmanship in the collector car market," suggests "Top Hat John" Jendza, a Mount Clemens, Michigan-based auto enthusiast and historian who makes a living out of advising collectors.

One of the first words of advice a potential car collector will get is "don't." Don't expect to turn a fast buck. Sure, a few savvy speculators occasionally score big, but even the professionals get burned. The huge run-up in prices during the late 1980s was fueled by the Reagan-era financial boom. Even mundane Ferraris would regularly top the million-dollar mark. By 1991, a gull-wing Mercedes in so-so condition would grab $600,000, and in better shape might top $800,000, recalls Jendza, an occasional cigar smoker. But then the collector market ran out of gas, and within a year, he adds, the same car dropped "down to below $200,000. When the economy goes down, the market drops."

Smart businessmen, like Jackson, know they're better off with a stable market, even if prices don't quite hit record levels. They're discouraging the speculators, and inviting collectors who are as likely as not to drive their prized possessions home from the auction.

EVERYONE WANTS IN ON THE ACT
All the attention—especially the increasing TV coverage—has been great for the car-collecting hobby. "[It's] mainstream publicity. The general public are seeing these kinds of auctions, and it's generating interest," says Steve Moskowitz, executive director of the Antique Automobile Club of America in Hershey, Pennsylvania.

Hershey is the site of an annual AACA event known simply as the Meet, which this year will take place October 5—8. You need Dream Cruise-class statistics to describe what you'll find. Start with 9,000 flea market stalls—where you can find even the most esoteric part for the rarest collector car—stretching along two miles of aisles. The Car Corral has space for 1,000 classic vehicles up for sale, and plenty more cross the block during the two-day Kruse International Auction at the Hershey Chocolate Co.'s theme park. Nearly 1,500 cars compete at the Meet's juried car show. If last year is any indication, the 51st annual edition should draw upwards of 250,000 classic car fans.

Actually, Moskowitz disdains the term "classic car," because it more accurately refers to vehicles built by a relatively few specific and exclusive brands between 1925 and 1948. While he might not embrace your mother's '72 Plymouth Duster, Moskowitz and the Antique Automobile Club are far more democratic. The preferred term these days is "collectible cars," and it takes in a fairly broad range of automobiles, from earlier brass-festooned saloon Cadillacs and Rolls-Royces, to dateless, one-of-a-kind hot rods.

Yet there's been an unmistakable shift in popularity in recent years. "People tend to collect the cars they dreamed of owning when they were kids," explains auctioneer Craig Jackson. So these days, aging baby boomers are moving the bubble in the collector market away from pre-Second-World-War vintage vehicles to muscle cars and other autos of the post-Korean-War era. That shift hasn't been lost on the picky planners at the Pebble Beach Concours. They actually approved a hot rod class in 1999.

As you might expect, booming boomer demand means a big run-up in prices, most apparent by what people are paying at auction. At a Barrett-Jackson sale in April of this year, the first-ever 1968 Shelby G.T.500E convertible commanded a stiff $550,800, while a 1967 427 Corvette drew a jaw-dropping $259,200. Think that 1970 Plymouth Superbird your high school buddy raced around town was nothing special? Think again? One went for $153,360.

There's no question that muscle cars are fetching increasingly higher prices, but you can still find some good values at a big-event auction, and you'll likely do even better if you shop around, check trade publications, like Hemmings, or search used-car Web sites, such as AutoTrader.com. But whatever you're interested in, take a deep breath and think about what you're doing. "Don't buy what someone else tells you to buy. Buy what you like," stresses Jackson. "Otherwise, you won't like it as much or use it as much." And he believes it best to use both your heart and your head. "Let your emotions drive your choice, but come with knowledge and don't be afraid to ask questions."

Many auctions, such as RM and Barrett-Jackson, do extensive advance research and will reject cars with questionable pedigrees. A single digit in the VIN, or vehicle identification number, can be worth a fortune, and there are plenty of scam artists who'll transfer VIN plates or forge them entirely. In other words, it pays to understand the background of the car you're interested in. If you're not sure, check with a local collector club. They're just about everywhere, and easy to track down on the Web. Collectors are, by nature, gregarious, and if you carry along a shaker of salt, you'll get some good advice. Paid consultants, such as Top Hat John, could prove more than worth their fee, especially if they steer you clear of a dubious purchase.

GO WITH YOUR EMOTIONS
Rich Bellamo has put at least $21,000 into the '36 Dodge Coupe he christened Whammer Jammer in flaring script along its bustle-back trunk. And he admits he's not done working on it. For Bellamo, it's still like the old days; there's always a faster car to beat. Back in 1956, he would clock as many as 363 miles a night running up and down the Woodward Avenue circuit. "One morning, my mother asked me where I'd gone, and I told her I went out for pizza. But she had looked at the odometer. 'Where'd you get it,' she asked, 'Chicago?'"

Like Bellamo, most of the Dream Cruisers come from Detroit, but others have flown in from as far away as Germany, Guam, even Australia. It's a bit ironic that cruising and the cars of that era have come to be so celebrated, Jim Wangers says with a laugh. He was there when it all began. As the marketing genius behind the original GTO, or "Goat," and other legendary GM muscle cars, Wangers spent a lot of his off-hours racing up and down Woodward Avenue, listening to what the kids had to say and observing what they rode and raced.

This year's Dream Cruise comes as U.S. gasoline prices are soaring to record levels. The twin oil shocks of the 1970s, which quadrupled fuel prices and created long lines at the pump, helped put the brakes on the original cruising phenomenon. It just wasn't the same racing Woodward in a Volkswagen Beetle. But cruising was already an endangered activity. With the Vietnam War raging and the protest movement in full swing, suburban America had come to fear its children, and a special state police task force was formed in Michigan to crack down on drag racing and hot rodding. It was the same story all over the country. Just being young and having long hair was enough to get you a ticket, recalls Wangers. "It's ironic that the very thing they were so critical of then, they're eulogizing now."

You might say the same thing about the automobile itself, which is increasingly regulated, taxed and often reviled. Yet events such as the Dream Cruise, Pebble Beach's Concours and Arizona's Barrett-Jackson Auction reveal something very different: America's love of the automobile hasn't diminished—regardless if the car you've set your heart on is a '32 Packard or a '79 Sting Ray.

Paul A. Eisenstein publishes an automobile magazine on the Internet at www.TheCarConnection.com.

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