Can we put a price on fame?

by Dave Kinney
30 January 2020 4 min read
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Photo by Mecum

The forthcoming sale of the Bullitt Mustang by Mecum in January brings up an age-old question: Can we measure the cost of fame? 

A classic car owned by someone famous is almost always more interesting. But is it worth more? Depends.

One of the simplest and strongest predictors of the value an owner will add to a car is the brightness of their stardom. Just how famous is he or she? Take the late James Gandolfini, whose 1972 Oldsmobile 442 was sold by Barrett-Jackson at Scottsdale in 2017. Gandolfini starred as a (mostly) misunderstood mobster in the HBO series The Sopranos. He was a fine actor, but he’s not quite a household name. His car was restored and was well presented with a nice color combination. I would have valued it, without considering its history, at about $45,000. It sold for $61,600.  That’s a $15,000 bonus. Nice, but not a ton of bada-bing. 

Courtesy Barrett-Jackson

At the other end of the fame spectrum, you have Elvis. Everyone knows Elvis, meaning everyone appreciates how cool it would be to own one of his cars. The 1967 Lincoln Continental Lehmann-Peterson Limousine given to Elvis and Priscilla as a wedding gift from Presley’s manager, Colonel Tom Parker, recently sold at Mecum’s Monterey 2019 auction. This 462-cubic-inch V-8 model came loaded with every option money could buy, but it was covered in dirt and in very poor condition. A Continental sedan in such condition would be worth less than $10,000. This limo sold for $165,000—way more celebrity value than car value. It’s enough to make you all shook up.

If the King isn’t famous enough for you, consider the Pope. A number of Pope-related cars have sold in the past, but one actually owned and used by Pope John Paul II while he was Cardinal Karol Wojtyla, the archbishop of Krakow, Poland, sold at Auburn in 2018. No surprise, he wasn’t a flashy fellow: The car was a 1976 Ford Escort 1100 sedan with a driver’s-side mirror and clock but lacking A/C or even hubcaps. At the local used-car lot, this 42-year-old sedan would be a decent beater for your teenager at $1000; some might even argue that you overpaid. Yet this beauty sold for the heavenly sum of $121,000.

Courtesy RM Sotheby’s

So, the more famous the owner, the bigger the value bump. Simple enough. But there are other factors. The first is the strength of the connection between the celebrity and the car. Elvis, for instance, bought plenty of vehicles, but actually used relatively few of them—he often gave them away to people who helped him along the way, like friendly law enforcement officials. It was thus very important to bidders that the Lincoln was known as the Presley family vehicle, used to chauffeur Priscilla and their daughter, Lisa Marie. Originality plays into this, as well. Or, more specifically, the faithfulness of the car to its state when owned by the celebrity.

One must also consider whether the star in question actually liked cars. Paul Newman and Jay Leno spring to mind as “car guy” celebrities. Tim Allen is up there as well. From there, though, the list gets much shorter. Reggie Jackson, “Mr. October” to millions of Americans, probably tops the list of sports stars, while, depending on your age, the music industry runs the gamut from rocker Alice Cooper to country music’s Alan Jackson, with scores more from the world of hip-hop and contemporary rock.

Then there’s the bad guy factor. A bad guy might be an actual criminal—think Al Capone—or, at the milder end, a celebrity like James Dean, whose off-screen antics attracted lots of tabloid attention. Someone you wouldn’t take to Grandma’s birthday party, in other words. These folks have a certain mystique that often rubs off on their rides.

Finally—and there’s no nice way to put it—it helps when the celebrity owner is dead. Once you escape your mortal coil, you can’t sully your reputation by, say, losing all your money and starring in infomercials to pay rent. Or by just getting old. 

A few more steps up the ladder to make it to the rare air of automotive fame: Was the car raced? Is the celebrity’s appeal intergenerational? 

Only a handful of cars pass all these tests with flying colors. That’s why the Bullitt Mustang is such a big deal. Let’s run it through our rubric: In terms of raw fame, Steve McQueen was an A-list celebrity and, nearly 40 years after his death, remains well known. He was a dyed-in-the-wool car and motorcycle guy whose love of fast machinery trickled into many of his movies. Even though McQueen never actually owned the Bullitt (not for a lack of trying on his part), it is forever associated with him. He has the bad guy mystique—he was known for taking chances on and off screen. The Mustang wasn’t raced, but was driven like a race car in what is still called the greatest chase scene ever. And its appeal extends far beyond Baby Boomers, thanks to the enduring allure of McQueen as well as Ford’s ongoing efforts to build and market Bullitt Mustangs. There is, somewhere, a fifteen-year-old dreaming about that new Bullitt Mustang. 

Even with all those important boxes checked, the Bullitt Mustang’s true worth will remain a mystery until it crosses the block next month. After all, if assessing celebrity value were easy, we wouldn’t have to discuss it. Fame adds one more layer of subjectivity to the already emotion-laden question of what a car is worth. That in mind, a word of caution: If you are paying up for the coolness factor of a famous owner, just remember that the heartthrob or hero of today might be old news when it’s time to sell. And like yesterday’s newspaper, old news is perceived to have little value. 

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Comments

  • ken tilly says:

    Is this Elvis “Bullitt” Mustang coming up for sale again or is this a repeat story from a couple of years ago where it sold for $3,4m?

  • Steve Clinton says:

    The Pope’s 1976 Ford Escort 1100 sedan sold for $121,000. All I can say is ‘Oh, Lord!’

  • Burt Harwood says:

    A car like a musical instrument is not worth more because of who played it. It is what it is.

  • Tom R. says:

    If you see something, before you get out your wallet, view the Seinfeld episode where George bought the “Jon Voight” car.

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