Data Driven

The collector car market is bigger than you think

by Tim Weadock
18 November 2020 4 min read
Photo by Neil Jamieson

Just about everyone in the collector car world—and more than a few investors outside of it—has opinions on what classics are worth and what impacts their values. Far less thought has been given to a question that is arguably more fundamental: How big is the supply? In other words, how many collector vehicles actually exist?
A multiyear study by the Hagerty Valuation Team sought to determine just that. Our conclusion is that there are 31 million collector vehicles in the United States. Turns out this little hobby isn’t so little.

How we got here
Zeroing in on the size of the collector car market is no simple task. Most sales are conducted privately, not all classic cars are registered, and some have decayed to the point that they aren’t really even cars anymore. And then there’s the sticky matter of determining what qualifies as “collectible.”
Finger-in-the-air estimates have circulated through auction tents, boardrooms, and car-kindred conversations like ghost stories around a campfire, and those estimates have typically ranged from 5 million to 15 million enthusiast vehicles.

There are 31 million collector vehicles in the United States. Turns out this little hobby isn’t so little.


To come up with a more exact number, Hagerty’s Valuation Services team started with a dataset that included nearly every vehicle imaginable. It was, as you might expect, a very big, messy list, clouded by some 325,000 unique and sometimes duplicative manufacturer names (is that a Volkswagen Thing or a Kübelwagen?). Analysts relied on the Hagerty Vehicle Information Database and VIN decoder, as well as manuals and registries to eliminate airplanes, boats, buses, construction equipment, recreational vehicles, and trailers.
With the data in a usable state, the next task was to figure out how many of those vehicles are still on the road. We love hearing stories of barn finds that have been brought back to life, but statistically speaking, the inherent volatility of their condition prevented their inclusion in this study. To calculate how many of the vehicles in our database were active, we used two methods. For collectibles produced after 1981 (the year VINs became standardized), we compared Hagerty Price Guide and underwriting vehicles to vehicle-in-operation data and production numbers. For vehicles manufactured before 1981, we analyzed effective and expiration dates of full coverage insurance as well as registration transactions to estimate what is active.
Now for the thorniest question: What is a collectible vehicle? We all have opinions, but for this study, Hagerty defined a collector vehicle as a car, truck, or motorcycle that is at least 30 years old and has demonstrated a broad appeal as something more than daily transportation. We also included certain enthusiast vehicles less than 30 years old that are covered in the Hagerty Price Guide. As is often the case, the insurance side of Hagerty’s business provided context: We included vehicles listed in Hagerty’s insurance underwriting guidelines. The long list of eligible vehicles features first-ballot Hall of Famers like the Ford Model T and the Duesenberg Model J, along with contemporary exotic supercars built by Bugatti, Ferrari, and Porsche. Historic nameplates, such as the Chevrolet Corvette and the Ford Mustang, transcend eras; emerging specialty vehicles like the Subaru WRX, Mazda Miata, or Lincoln Blackwood pickup might come as a bit of a surprise.

Credit Neil Jamieson

What is a collectible vehicle? We all have opinions, but for this study, Hagerty defined a collector vehicle as a car, truck, or motorcycle that is at least 30 years old and has demonstrated a broad appeal as something more than daily transportation.


The total, nearly 31 million enthusiast vehicles in the United States, still represents but a slice of the overall car market, which is some 275 million and counting. But it’s a significant slice. For perspective, there are more collectible vehicles in the United States than there are registered vehicles of any kind in Canada (27.9 million).
The fact that there are so many collector cars also tells us there are plenty of collectors. Hagerty estimates there are 18 million enthusiast vehicle owners in the United States, meaning 8 percent of all Americans with a driver’s license have a collector car in their driveway.
The total value of these vehicles is huge, falling just shy of the trillion-
dollar mark, and they transact often. Annual auction sales total around $1 billion, collector car dealer sales amount to approximately $1.8 billion (IBISWorld), and the opaque private market ranges anywhere from $20 billion to $30 billion in annual sales.
That said, the average price of these vehicles, close to $28,500, is much more affordable than a new car (and more affordable than the cost of an average wedding, for that matter), putting to rest the notion that the term “collector car” is interchangeable with “expensive car.” Vehicles valued in excess of $249,000 make up little more than 1 percent of the American vehicle population.


Hagerty’s study also showed that the term “collector car” isn’t equivalent to “old car.” Rather than being filled with 1932 Ford Model As or 1957 Chevy Bel Airs, the market is dominated by cars and trucks from the 1970s and 1990s in particular, with 59 percent of all enthusiast vehicles in the United States having been manufactured after 1980. As regular readers of Insider know, the rise of Generation X’s buying power has brought more neon-tinged modern sports cars and SUVs into the collectible sphere.
Even so, the core interest in the market has remained largely unchanged over the years. Enthusiasts of all generations—including millennials—still chase established collectibles like the 1965–66 Ford Mustang, of which 353,000 continue to cruise today’s roads. Much older cars and trucks, though, are losing relevance. Some 1.5 million vehicles made prior to 1950 have been lost from the U.S. vehicle population since 2016, be it through expired registrations or through attrition.
The American collector car market is also mostly, well, American. Chevrolet, Ford, Dodge, Pontiac, and GMC battle for the top spots across all decades, and American marques comprise 55 percent of the vehicle population. European and Japanese marques represent 24 and 16 percent of the market, respectively, a share that is sure to grow as more vehicles from the 1990s and later enter collectible status.

Here to stay
The most important takeaway from our study is simply that the collector car market is huge. And it’s likely to keep growing. Some of the best enthusiast cars of any era hit showrooms during the past 15 years in massive numbers—think everything from Porsche 911 GT3s to Ford Mustang GT350s and Mitsubishi Evos. Those that haven’t already become collectible are poised to exit their depreciation curve soon and find their way into enthusiast ownership. So, although you may not see a collector car in traffic every day, the collector car market is big enough that it will be with us for years to come.

Tim Weadock has been collecting valuation and market data for Hagerty for two decades. He is one of the inventors of Hagerty’s pre-17-digit VIN decoder.

Comments

  • Robert L Brown says:

    I am the owner of a 2020 Ford Shelby Mustang GT 350 R Heritage Edition. This Mustang is Wimbledon white Guardsman blue stripes. An homage to the 1965 Shelby 350 R. A modern Classic with great handling and special engine. Will this be a modern day collectors car? Or did Ford make to many?

  • scott ross says:

    I also purchased a new white with blue stripes GT350 albeit a 2016 with the conv package and the production numbers for the model as a whole are way too large to fall into the “hard to find” range that drives up pricing. There is bound to be some appreciation for the R’s at some point, and when I purchased my car, assumed that would be 20 years or more but I’m fine with that with no plans to sell. The Heritage is harder to classify as the rocker stripe is 50/50 from what I’ve read but it’s smaller run as well an an R should help in my mind. Be sure to exercise it and some clear covering should keep it looking good for some time. Enjoy the steed!

  • William Pearson says:

    I was lucky enough to find a 1997 Mustang Cobra convertible a few years ago, with all the paperwork since day one. It is Pacific Green (only year for that colour) and has now racked up 46,081 kilometres (28,633 miles). Never seen a winter and rarely rain – only when caught on a drive. It still has the factory stickers and marks on the undercarriage. My fingers are crossed this is a collector car, as I’ve seen few, but similar examples climbing in value over the last few years. That being said it really doesn’t matter, as I don’t intend to sell it. Ever.

  • William Pearson says:

    Robert, I believe if you keep your car in extremely good shape, not too many miles and keep all the paperwork it will be collectable. So many people buy these cars and drive the daylights out of them until they are just an old rough shape used car. Yours however will be kept in good condition, so really doesn’t matter how many were made. What matters is how good of an example of the car it is. Enjoy your modern collectable.

  • Francisco J Briseno says:

    I have a 1965 Ford Mustang that I parked in the garage 30 years ago right after I had the engine rebuilt. I would be interested in selling it, but don’t have the foggiest of where to start. As a Vietnam veteran, I don’t have the need for speed anymore, but would be nice to upgrade to a nice Power Wheelchair, but the ones I am eyeing run around $40K. The reason I kept it was as a class car when I taught Automotive Technology to show the points, condenser, drum brakes, and generator systems as they are much easier to grasp than the computer controlled electronic systems. Even though, it is taking up valuable garage space, it looks better than a picture on the wall, I used to sit in it and listen to the A.M. radio and reminisce of the 60s when LDS was so abundant, but messes up your spelling skills, the transfer from wheel chair to drivers seat is not much fun anymore. I am not emotionally attached to it, but it is akin to a fine piece of jewelry to a tool that allowed me to take my first two kids along with the wife than my friends with their Chevy Corvettes. I was also thinking of converting it to an electric vehicle, but that would be throwing the intrinsic value for the image of originality. Great article. Thank you

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