Data Dive

2021 is shaping up to be the best year, ever, for collector car auctions

by John Wiley
15 July 2021 3 min read
This year we've celebrated the resurgence of in-person auctions and big sales like this L88 Corvette, but the overall increase owes mostly to attainable classics selling online. Photo by Mecum

What a difference a few months can make. We saw this back in 2020, when COVID rapidly reordered practically every aspect of our daily lives and, particular to cars, brought a sudden end to most in-person auctions and concours. Now, we’re seeing the happy flip side. Although the disease has no doubt left its mark on our lives, and strains of it are still wreaking havoc in places, the economic reopening that some analysts had worried would be halting and limited has instead been fast and furious, with huge demand for everything from airline travel to 2 x 4s. You can add classic cars to that list. In fact, we think 2021 is shaping up to be the best year, ever, for classic car auctions.

This is remarkable for a few reasons, starting with the fact that in-person auctions plummeted last year and have not yet returned to their pre-pandemic size and frequency. It’s also important to remember that already in 2019, as we reported at the time, classic car auctions were sputtering. The primary driver of the growth in auction sales should be readily apparent to anyone who follows our Sale of the Week column: it’s the online auctions and in particular, Bring a Trailer.

We're also seeing continued growth in the private market, which is, as we've often noted, much larger than the auction scene. That growth will be slower, however, than in 2020, when so many people seemed to ease lockdown boredom by buying an old car.

Digging deeper into the sales numbers, it's clear that the vehicles driving the market to new heights are very different than the ones responsible for the peaks of the past. Whereas seven-figure Ferraris were the poster children of the 2014–2018 era, vehicles worth between $50,000 and $250,000 show the largest increase in the number of sales compared to 2019. This is especially true for online auctions.

However, vehicles worth greater than $1 million have actually slowed down (as have those worth less than $10,000).

Monterey Car Week auctions will no doubt reduce the slow-down in sales for seven-figure cars; however, the consignments announced as of mid-July are too few to turn 2021 into a growth year for $1 million+ cars when compared to 2019.

The changes in activity at different price levels to some degree reflect a correction at the top of the market—buyers of million-dollar cars have become more discerning and sellers are adjusting accordingly. Yet what we're seeing also points to deeper demographic shifts. Our insurance data show that the growth in participation from younger enthusiasts, which we've been talking about for a while, have continued unabated by the pandemic. In 2021, the share of insurance policy quotes from Gen–X or younger (enthusiasts born since 1965) increased from 54 percent in 2020 to 58 percent this year. Gen–X’s share of policy quotes is, by itself, approaching Boomers’ share of quotes. These younger enthusiasts remain, for the most part, interested in relatively attainable cars, whereas Boomers and older enthusiasts still tend to collect the most valuable ones.

What vehicles do Gen–X and younger enthusiasts like? A little bit of everything, according to policy quote growth from 2020 to 2021 (weighted by share).The cars you'd expect, like the BMW E30 3-series and NA Miata, make the list. But so do the Ford Model A, Chevrolet Corvettes, and the last Pontiac Firebird. Vintage trucks remain popular, too.

Our prediction for the rest of 2021 assumes online sales will continue unabated and that the season's remaining in-person auctions, Monterey in particular, will proceed as planned. Given the tumult of the last 18 months, we won't pretend either of these assumptions are certainties. Yet the market's growth, based on a broadening base of younger enthusiasts interested in a widening variety of attainable vintage cars, looks sustainable.

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Comments

  • John Gunnell says:

    Makes no sense. Money is going fast under the current administration. I have been able to buy collector cars lately for two thirds of what the asking prices were. This is auction company smoke and mirrors and fake news. Hobbyists are anxious to get out to shows, but all the sales I’ve seen lately are distress sales because people need money to pay bills and back rent. There are many cars selling, but at bargain prices.

  • Lou Salvalaggio says:

    I have to agree with John Gunnel, while viewing auction sales I really cannot believe what appears to be sell through prices for such obviously mediocre and marginally above quality cars. Goods cars will always bring good money but the inflated selling price for some stuff is just plain too obvious to believe.

  • Maestro1 says:

    I also agree with John. I seem to be on another Planet when buying because my market (the Left Coast) does not reflect in this way. I’m getting better prices, and anxious Sellers for the same reasons he describes. In the real world people are trying to catch up on rent, mortgage,medical, tax issues and so on, the divorce rate is accelerating, and the housing market is on fire.
    So cars are getting sold to take advantage of other opportunities. I’m not trying to be Hagerty. It’s just a microscopic view.
    Everybody stay well, and thank you once again.

  • Rod says:

    I see all this auction company hype and agree with John. Business is good for the auction company, but us poor regular folks that got really hurt from the shut down are loosing a lot of money letting go of our real nice cars. Now export has stopped because the shipping cost has doubled and the exchange rate is horrible. The cost of fuel has skyrocketed (I’m on the west coast) making fuel as much as $5.00 a gallon. I cant afford to take cars to events, even if an event is allowed!

  • John K says:

    It depends on what segment of the market you guys are looking at. I see cars from the 70s through the 90s setting new records on BAT almost daily. Some of the prices achieved would have been unthinkable just months ago

  • MO Better says:

    Actually, I think the Haverty analysis make sense – people want the cars they lusted over in their youth, that bring back memories. It’s only natural that many of the more modern era cars start to become more desirable, although being made in greater numbers will of course keep their value down. However the one-of-ones (super low mileage or special in some way) will start to command more. Cars and Coffee weekend events have been flourishing, and give folks a way to connect with others that share their passion.

    I do believe the run up in values is a direct result of strong stock market performance (and not wages). In the last 5 years, many folks 40+ have seen their net worth DOUBLE (or more) in their 401K’s, Schwab accounts, etc, and now they feel comfortable in making these purchases. And if you were fortunate enough to invest in crypto currency (and many of those folks were youngish), you have money to burn. If the stock market cools this will have a direct impact on the market.

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