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Insights: Indulgences—Driving Passions

Which of today's new cars will one day be collector items?
Matt Kramer
From the Print Edition:
Bo Derek, Jul/Aug 00

Oprah can talk all she wants about how women bond. Men bond too--over cars. Recently, while strolling down a residential street in San Francisco, I passed a private garage. On the wall hung a photo of a Ferrari 275 GTB, a mid-1960s classic that I would willingly perform unnatural acts to own. Two men were in the garage, chatting and working on a car.  

I walked in, pointed to the Ferrari photo, grinned, and said "Great car!" Within seconds, we were friends, talking about all the "study-hall cars" we loved as kids that today are collector classics. (What's a "study-hall car"? It was one of those swoopy models you drew in your notebook while pretending to study.)  

The subject of men and cars has been exhaustively studied and everybody has reached the same conclusion: Men like cars. We dream cars. We buy cars. Almost every guy has had one car he's regretted selling, if only because it is now a classic that sells for big bucks. Who would have thought that a '68 Mustang convertible would someday go for $37,000? That's crazy. It only cost around four grand brand new. "If only I'd kept it" is the common, pained refrain.  

So, what new car can we buy today that will be tomorrow's collector's item? All we have to do is buy "right" and keep our heads--which is to say, keep the car.  

In the interest of full disclosure, I must confess that this exercise in car-collecting investment is being presented by someone who has owned two Lotuses. Not only two Lotuses, but two of the same Lotuses.  

In some circles, owning a Lotus confers a certain grudging status. They are connoisseur's cars, but lousy investments. Sure, the little two-seater Lotus Elans became profitable investments when the convertible craze hit in the '90s. However, my two lunatic lunges at Lotus-owning were not, natch, in that lucrative model. Rather, I purchased two 1971 Lotus Elans +2s. I lost a fortune--or so it felt. A fractional-use jet would have been cheaper.  

So, what new models might become tomorrow's valuable collector car? I consult Craig Jackson, president and CEO of Barrett-Jackson Auctions in Scottsdale, Arizona. Jackson knows cars. His company is one of the nation's leading venues for collector car auctions (www.barettjackson.com).  

When I ask Jackson for his take on tomorrow's collector car from today's models, he laughingly says, "This falls into the 'Who knows?' category. Actually, there are many possibilities out there. I think all these new retro cars, the BMW Z3, the new Jaguar E-type, the Porsche Boxster, are recalling old styles. I think they have possibilities as future collector's cars because of this.  

"You know what's a good possibility?" he adds, warming to the subject. "That new Mercedes-Benz CLK430 coupe [$49,000] or the convertible Cabriolet version [$56,000]. That's a beautiful car. In fact, I saw some new Mercedes bringing over list price at a dealer auction!" To Jackson, that's as if Nordstrom bought retail at Macy's.  

"Among American cars, I like what Chrysler is doing. Chrysler has the most originality. We recently sold a special-edition Viper for $180,000. And the car was just a year old! I was really impressed by that."  

Jackson confirms what many car collectors already know: the car has to be special and unique. For example, he says that if you're going for the BMW Z3, get the one with the 3.2 liter in-line six cylinder engine from the "M" series ($43,000). The real collector's BMW, at a cool $128,000, is the 394-horsepower Z8. Ditto for the sleek Porsche Boxster. You want the hot "S" version with its 250-horsepower engine. Then there's the recently released Audi TT convertible roadster, another retro-look car that's got future-collector's-item written all over it.  

"Special is a big part of it, definitely," confirms Jackson. "If you're buying it brand new, whatever the dealer says is hard to get, say, a special engine for a certain model, that's absolutely what you want. Make it a pain in the ass for the salesman and you're on the right track.  

"I like the prospects for the Chrysler PT Cruiser," he says. "Also the Plymouth Prowler, especially since they're stopping the Plymouth name. It's got an all-aluminum chassis and it's not that expensive at about, oh, $40,000. You want something special, different, something that's legitimately special-edition. But make sure it isn't just a dealer-sticker package, some decals or whatever. It's got to be real."  

I tell Jackson my woeful saga as a Lotus owner. He is kind. "Yeah well, I bought a [Corvette] ZR1 when it first came out and I sucked wind on it."  

Really? Wow. Jackson's a pro. How was that possible?  

"They guaranteed that they'd only make 1,000 of them. But it was so popular, they made 7,000. Who knows, maybe it'll come around," he says, self-deprecatingly.  

Emboldened by this admission, I tell Jackson that, after the Lotus debacle, I was determined to get a car that not only looked beautiful, but also would actually start when I turned the key. So I bought a two-door Lexus SC 300--"with a manual transmission," I add, defensively. Only 5 percent of Lexus SCs have manual transmissions. It turns out nobody wanted them.  

Sure enough, my track record as a collector's car picker continues unblemished. "I don't see any Japanese car becoming a collector's item except maybe the Acura NSX," Jackson says. "It's not the technology. They have great technology. But Japanese cars lack spirit."  

When Jackson says this, I know he is on to something. It's like sitting on a buzzer. You've got to get the jolt, whether it's nostalgia, sheer power or compelling, overwhelming beauty.   Former New York Times architecture critic and current New Yorker writer, Paul Goldberger put his finger on the lack of collector appeal of Japanese automobiles in the March 1997 issue of Diversion magazine:  

"Maybe somewhere there is someone who buys a Lexus because he wants to feel connected to Japan, but I doubt it. By contrast the act of acquiring, or even driving, a Ferrari is an act of buying into Italy...of that passion for celebrating the human connection that underlies everything about Italy, from the frescoes to the gelati."   Not so fast, says Jackson, who's nothing if not clear-eyed. "Not all Ferraris are collector cars. A lot depends on the model. Some accrue in value, while others are not such good investments. Right now," he advises, "the Ferrari that's hot is the 550 Maranello [named after the city in which the Ferrari is built]. It's a retro design that refers to the old 275 series. That's a new Ferrari that'll probably do well in the future."  

I look at the auction records on Jackson's Web site. Sure enough, you can pick up a Ferrari 308 (that's the one Tom Selleck drove on "Magnum P.I.") for as little as $25,000. Not a collector Ferrari. And that Ferrari 275 Jackson mentioned? A 1967 Ferrari 275 GTB-4 recently sold for $233,000.  

I call a Ferrari dealer to inquire about the price for a new 550 Maranello. "Well, first you put down $15,000 for a deposit to get on the list. Then you wait one and one-half to two years for the Maranello. It'll cost you $213,000, before any options like fitted luggage [$5,200]. I can tell you this much," he adds, "I just sold a used Maranello for $240,000."  

Sounds like a collector's car to me. But will it appreciate as much in value as its original inspiration, the 275 GTB-4? Probably not. After all, that car originally cost just $20,000. To get to that appreciation value, the Maranello will have to fetch a cool $2.5 million three decades from now. A bit steep, but then again, who ever imagined that a gallon of gas would cost $1.75 in the year 2000?  

Oregon-based Matt Kramer is a columnist for Wine Spectator, Cigar Aficionado's sister publication.

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