Market Spotlight

Confessions of a recovering flipper

by Rob Sass
3 May 2022 4 min read
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Photo by Rob Sass

At some point during the George H.W. Bush administration, I bought a 1972 Porsche 911S for the now absurd-sounding sum of $6,500. In the ensuing 30 or so years, I’ve owned roughly 50 vehicles. As Dirty Harry says, “In all this excitement, I’ve kinda lost track myself.” So, even though I don’t consider myself a “flipper”—I simply have a wicked case of automotive ADHD and insufficient storage space—I have in fact completed quite a few flips. Enough to recognize a few basic truisms about the market and myself.

Let’s start by analyzing my disclaimer. Almost no one in our world wants to be labeled outright as a flipper—that is, someone who buys and sells collector cars solely for profit. And, truth be told, very few people are just in it for the money, not even the dealers and auction company pros who do it for a living. For most of us, “profit” is just something to pour into the next car, the one you really want to keep. At least, that’s the theory. If you’re not careful, that very motivation can have a deleterious effect on enjoyment of the hobby…but more on that later. 

As much as no one wants to be a flipper, almost everyone wants to talk about their flips. At least, the good ones. It’s human nature to remember the wins and gloss over the losses. To hear most tell it, they align more with the crack paratrooper from “Band of Brothers,” who single-handedly charged a machine gun nest on D-Day, than the 4F black market profiteer. 

The locker room talk around flipping often consists of rank over-simplification. IE: “I paid $6,000 for that 944 on Facebook Marketplace and sold it for $12,000 on Bring a Trailer. Ain’t life grand?” A majority of us do little to no accounting for the 6.6 percent in taxes paid, registration fees, insurance costs, timing belt and water pump done in preparation for sale, (because that’s the kind of seller you are) or the ultimate in cost estimations: The value of your time. 

Hand in hand with the underestimation of one’s costs goes the overestimation of one’s cleverness. Most successful flips come down to something else entirely—luck. Specifically, the fortune of buying the right thing at the right time.

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Yet knowing a thing or two about what you’re buying can help. More pointedly, not knowing can really hurt. Take my brief, bruising ownership of a 1963 Buick Riviera. I always thought they were nice cars to look at. I could have kept looking, free of charge. Instead, I bought one and soon found out they’re nothing like what I’m used to driving, with pinky-light, utterly numb power-steering and tiny drum brakes that provided largely theoretical stopping power.

No biggie, I thought, I’ll just flip it. I had purchased the car out of an estate sale for what I thought was a well below market price, and it a two-owner car with original paint and zero rust.  A base 911T in that shape would sell for a significant profit.

As it turned out, Rivieras are not 911Ts. Buyers of first-gen Rivs favor GS-spec cars with fresh, shiny paint. In other words, the market had zero interest in a preservation-class base Riviera. I spent thousands of dollars toting it from auction to auction only to sell it at a loss. I made the fatal mistake of buying a car I knew nothing about.

If people have a tendency to overemphasize the upside on flips, they get downright libelous when it comes to making money on restorations. As restoration costs have spiraled in the last 20 years, even the pros have seen their margins shrink to “not worth it.” For an enthusiast hoping to put a little life back in a car and make a profit on the other end, it’s easy to get underwater fast.

About 14 years ago, I bought a sound, but slightly tatty 1967 Maserati Mistral. At the price I paid, it seemed like I was a bit of paint and seat leather away from a six-figure payoff. To maximize my chances, I did the work myself—from the paint and interior to sorting the notoriously finicky Lucas fuel injection. When finished, I toyed with keeping the car, but I already had a Series I E-type coupe that did everything the Maser did, without the potentially ruinous upkeep costs.

Alas, that whole lucky timing thing can work both ways. As it turned out, I decided to part with the car in 2008, during the worst economic downturn of my lifetime on both the micro (divorce) and macro (global economic crisis) levels. I figured the car’s presentation at a big-name Monterey catalog sale would save me. Flash forward me to excusing myself from the auction tent to get very ill behind a row of porta-Johns after the car hammered at an absurdly low, no-reserve price. 

The bulk of the loss was, you guessed it, what I spent “improving” the car. Had I simply done nothing and held it longer, I’d have made out fine. The buyer of my car certainly did. Adding some kind of twisted karmic insult to injury, he turned out to be a flipper himself, shipping the car back to Europe and selling it about a year later for three times what I sold it for. Oh, and before that, it appeared in the James Bond film A Quantum of Solace, a movie whose title I tend to “Freudianly” mangle as, A Quantum of Anguish

That last loss was probably the thing that brought about a change in my buying and selling habits. A near addiction to making money was truly taking the fun out of the hobby. It became like the bad Western movie cliché, “When you set out for revenge, first, dig two graves.”

Am I now immune to the obvious charms of buy low and sell high? Hell no, I’m as much a capitalist as anyone. It’s just that now, if I make a few bucks, it’s a happy byproduct of buying what I like, doing what I enjoy to the car, and occasionally taking advantage of good timing or a buoyant market at sale time. In other words, a successful flip is an exultant ending to a painless transaction.


Rob Sass is the Editor-in-Chief of Porsche Panorama, the official publication of the Porsche Club of America. The opinions stated are his, and not necessarily those of the Club. 

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Comments

  • Slyhook says:

    So the old adage remains true…buy what you love. It doesn’t hurt as bad if you get stuck with it.

  • McMinnow says:

    I bought a 64 Riviera at auction as one of my first classics three years ago. Needed a little rocker paint, other touch ups cosmetically, AC worked then didn’t. Big problem getting to the lines for repair. Interior was outstanding . Oh, and I have no skills, only a dutiful mechanic who charges but doesn’t gouge. Loved the car, drove it 5,000 miles in 3 years. Took it back to auction and sold for $11,600 more than I paid for it in late 2021. As author notes after reconciling taxes, repair bills, tires etc… I made a whopping $1,600 profit. While I’m pleased I was in the black more important that I drove the car a lot, enjoyed it with friends and others at shows and it never left me stranded. My other 4-5 ventures into mid 60’s to early 70’s cruisers I’ve normally lost $2,000-$4,000 while keeping them a year or two. But I drove them all a lot.

    I know those with skills like to spend the time tinkering in the garage. Some of us get hives going into Home Depot or the auto parts store. No automotive skills and no interest in acquiring any. Moral of my story is cars like the 64 Riviera were a masterpiece in design inside and out. I went back into my parents and grandparents time capsule. Loved it. Did I do a 180 slamming on the brakes when a Miata pulled out in front of me from the grocery store? Sure I did. No locking up those drums in a swerve. It would really move from 50-80, but who in their right mind drives that car in that fashion. Like a older Harley – heavy, won’t turn, dubious suspension and sketchy power assist brakes – but they look great.

    Here’s to the current price structure gaining some sanity in the next year or two. The skyrocketing has priced me out of future potential acquisitions. A $25k vehicle two years ago is now $35k.

    Keep driving. Hagerty is the king. Their folks are super easy to deal with. The internet content is good, so is their magazine. Jeff Peek’s online article from Hagerty helped me find a family heirloom 65 C10 my grandfather sold originally at his dealership.

  • Hector says:

    Front wheel Riviera is my favorite car as well as Cadillac, Don’t know as well as Oldsmobile share the same chasis and front well drive, probably so, with air conditioning will be my best. original as we speak

  • Charles F Fatseas, MD says:

    Just like the stock market, the car market has it’s ups and downs. But there are also idiosyncrasies in the car market (also just like the stock market) where there are ‘fads’ such as first generation Bronchos and vehicles that go in and out of favor that have become outrageously priced without justification; they just seem to be popular; many get on the band wagon to own one through the example of others owning a first generation Broncho for example. Envy plays a huge role in material acquisitions. Many ordinary cars go through this fanatic period rather than given priority to rarity or significance to the auto industry. The literature on the Hagerty website has also changed from emphasizing the hobbyest years ago to a weekly emphasis on what particular cars are worth whether C10’s Porsches, muscle cars, prewar, postwar, etc. Remember Hagerty’s top 20 lists? As a person that purchases vehicles that ‘mean something to me and are significant to the auto industry,’ without regard to profit, I love the hobby. The hype of making money on any car, collectable or otherwise, does affect many true collectors and hobbyests that simply love the hobby but who simply cannot afford the inflated prices of today.

  • Robert Wingerter says:

    Did I write this article? Some of the details we’re wrong — I’ve only owned 35, not 50 cars and it wasn’t a Maserati Mistral, it was a 1952 Lincoln Capri convertible, a one of 12 known left to exist (plenty of ’53s & 54’s). I bought it because the only way the seller would sell the 442 Convertible was a package deal that included the Lincoln. In hindsight, it was brilliant on his part. I knew nothing about the Lincoln markets, models, demand, etc… except production numbers. But the rarity and (relatively) “cheap” price made this deal a no-brainer (HA!). The 442 was gone in 1 week with a solid 20+% profit. Now, let’s sell the real money maker – the Capri! Let’s just say…. of the 35 cars I’ve owned, it was the only car that kept me awake at night and sick to my stomach during the day. I learned of the few people or museums that wanted that car, already owned one. I quickly went from thinking massive profit to “OK, can I just break even?” to “If I can break even between the two cars, I’m good.” to “OMG how much is this going to cost me?”. It took over 4 months to sell that car. 3 months of that being hell. I actually did “ok” once I found the right buyer. Don’t get me wrong — I lost money, but it wasn’t as bloody as I expected. Lesson learned and pointed out in the article – BUY WHAT YOU KNOW! Haven’t strayed from that since.

  • jane don says:

    Ahhh-flipping cars/houses ect— Not an easy way to make money Most of the time– Real estate has been a good bet up until recently—Automotive has always been big time Gambling– I don’t know how many cars in total I’ve “Flipped” in my lifetime but it was a lot–But if I include them all–I’m betting I didn’t make $10.oo per hr on my labor– but–It was Fun–

  • Danny Tuel says:

    I’m 70 years old and have been buying and selling cars since I was about 25 years old. I never considered it flipping, Which is a bad word these days. I mostly bought Muscle cars I dreamed about in High School and couldn’t afford then. At that time used Muscle Cars were sitting on all the car lots and were relatively cheap. You could buy a real nice Super Bee or Road Runner for $1000 or less. I would buy them do any work that needed done and play with them for 6 months or a year and hopefully make a little profit to use towards my next car. I get upset when guys call people like me flippers. I have never done it hoping to get rich and I was always honest about any problems I knew of with any car I sold. I imagine I have owned about 50 cars. Everything from a Hemi Road Runner to a 1950 Shoebox Ford. As I get older the later is more in tune with my lifestyle and I own one now.

  • Richard Banks says:

    Shame you had a bad experience with the Riviera. I have a 65 Riv with 55,000 miles and it’s great. The brakes are pretty good for drums and the handling is much better than expected, it corners flat and is stable. Yes, the steering is feather-light but you get used to it and it’s a great highway cruiser, not a sports car, but I never expected it to be. But it looks great, has a gorgeous interior especially at night with all the interior lights on. It’s the first American car I’ve owned, me being more used to classic Mercedes, currently running a 67 250SL as my daily driver for the past 20+ years. My SL is a keeper, but so is the Riv, it’s so “Mad Men” it makes me smile every time I drive it.

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