For much of the past few years, in nearly every aspect of our lives, we’ve been wondering when—if ever—things will return to a semblance of pre-pandemic normalcy. The collector car market is no exception: Since late 2020, values for just about every kind of classic have marched upward, fed by a combination of stimulus money, bored-at-home bidders, and inflation. Through it all, we’ve wondered when things might peak and how the other side might look.
The January auctions, which are wrapping up, gave us something of an answer. Both this week’s auctions in Arizona and Mecum’s big-tent event in Kissimmee at the beginning of the month posted impressive totals and, it should be noted, benefited from large, enthusiastic in-person attendance. However, a closer look reveals the upward velocity of prices has clearly slowed, and bidders are for the most part acting, well, normal.
Barrett-Jackson, the elder statesman of the January auctions, finished Saturday with $81.8 million in sales. This brings its preliminary total to $176.4 million and 1752 vehicles sold—an increase of 27- and 84-percent over last year, respectively. Mecum’s Kissimmee auction managed to increase its average sale price and once again surpass $220 million in total sales but had to work hard to get there; the auction house consigned more than 4000 vehicles but saw its sell-through rate dip despite the impressive volume.
Make no mistake, these are impressive figures, and there were some impressive cars on hand. A 1912 Simplex from Bonhams’ sale became one of the most expensive pre-WWI cars ever sold at auction. A 1969 Chevrolet Corvette ZL-1 from RM Sotheby’s became the third most expensive Corvette ever sold at auction. At Barrett-Jackson, an unrestored, single-family-owned 1962 Corvette with 9,611 miles and impeccable documentation raked in $572,000.
Buyers clearly showed up in droves and were not shy about spending money—they just weren’t willing to spend recklessly, as they had back in 2022. More than half of cars brought at auction during the pandemic and then auctioned this week lost money. Evidence that market fundamentals matter, money isn’t infinite, and dramatic shifts in value rarely last. Several market darlings of the past few years got knocked down a peg or two in Arizona. On Friday, a 2005 Porsche Carrera GT, a car that broke record after record in 2021, sold for only $1,053,300 – the lowest sale since March 2020 and 25.6-percent below Hagerty Price Guide condition value.
As you’d expect, in a week where some 2400 cars crossed the block, there were exceptions, and most of them were among top-tier cars. Barrett-Jackson sold a 1969 Ford Mustang Boss 429 for $605,000, a massive 59% over the Hagerty Price Guide #1 value. Even more shocking, it sold for $216,000 at Mecum’s 2015 Houston sale. That increase isn’t explained by a rising market, as the Hagerty Price Guide #1 value at the time of the Houston sale was $17,000 more than today.
It wasn’t a fluke, either. Barrett also sold a 1970 Plymouth Superbird for $401,000, yet that same car sold at Barrett-Jackson Scottsdale 2021 for $176,000, a 128% return and double the current Hagerty Price Guide #2 value. That can’t be explained by market movement or calculated risk. That’s explained by top-shelf American muscle resonating with the wallets of a select few more than ever. There could also be some economic forces at work; we’ve noted recently that whereas most folks reduce their spending in response to inflation, high-net-worth individuals tend to spend more on assets.
This same phenomena was evident at Mecum’s Las Vegas motorcycle auction held simultaneously one state over. Happily, it seems $2000-$4000 motorcycles are back after disappearing during the pandemic. Rather than buyers saying “I can just buy that for $2k? Sure, why not” and driving prices up across the board, they are choosing to be a smidge more cautious. Yet, just like Scottsdale, you can find 1% of the motorcycles selling for shocking amounts—as in, double last year’s already-shocking prices. A 1972 Honda CL350 “Flying Dragon” sold for $71,500, stunning all observers and quickly going viral on social media. A 1973 Kawasaki Z1 sold for $55,000, a new record for the model. Cars or motorcycles, those still hungry are having a frenzy at the back of the feeding line without realizing the ones at the front are done eating.
In other respects, the January auctions offered a check-up on trends we’ve seen develop in recent years. The market for modified vehicles, for instance, continues to grow in volume but increases in value appear to be slowing. Over 700 modified vehicles sold through Saturday at Barrett-Jackson, amounting to nearly 40% of their run-list. While this is a volumetric increase this year, the average sale price fell 7% from last year’s $115,500 to this year’s $106,900.
That said, significantly modifying a car usually proves quite expensive, financially risky, and often time consuming. A 1963 Cadillac Eldorado Biarritz convertible with an electric powertrain conversion sold for $154,000 just before 8 PM local time on Saturday, whereas the condition #1 value for an unmodified ‘63 Cadillac Eldorado convertible is just a couple thousand less. Despite its prime-time slot, and a growing interest in modified vehicles, it shows the market for EV conversions is not yet ready for a wider audience. Meanwhile, a 16,000-mile Ferrari 599 that had been converted from an automatic to a manual transmission sold for $209,000, which is right on the money for a 599 with an automatic transmission. A 599 with a factory six-speed would normally command another $150,000.
Unpredictability is part of the fun at the January auctions—it’s the reason they’re great spectacle in addition to important measures of the market. Time and time again we see sales that make us scratch our heads, both up and down, and today proved timing the market is impossible and buying for the right reasons is most important motivation of all.
Sunday is quieter with only Barrett-Jackson auctioning cars, but we’ll use the time to take an overview of the activity we’ve seen this week, look ahead to next week’s Retromobile auctions in France, and the Amelia auctions of early March.
- John Mayer’s 2006 Ford GT Heritage Edition sold for just less than condition appropriate value at $594,000. Celebrity owners rarely add to a car’s worth – unless they’re famous as car enthusiasts.
- The modified vehicle market shows growth in volume if not in value. Is it falling behind again?
- 2024 Ford Mustang GT Fastback VIN 001 sold for $490,000 as a charity lot benefiting Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation