The Wiley Report

The collector car market in 2020: Looking back on the year we'd all rather forget

by John Wiley
4 December 2020 4 min read

Like all of us, John Wiley loves cars. Unlike most of us, he also loves
math, which is why he’s senior data analyst for the Hagerty Valuation
Team. He takes a statistics-minded look at the collector car world for Insider. Warning: Charts ahead.

The last year has been a wild ride, to put it mildly. We’ve faced a pandemic and a recession, with a hotly contested presidential election thrown in for good measure. The effects have radiated everywhere, including the collector car market. By far the most visible effect has been the cancellation of most large, in-person auctions since the Amelia Island Concours in early March, with online platforms old and new rushing to fill the breach.

2020 kicked off with big crowds and big sales, like the Chevrolet Corvette Stingray that brought $3,000,000 for charity at Barrett-Jackson’s Scottsdale auction. Six weeks later, most of the country was in lockdown. (Photo by Brandan Gillogly)

Throughout 2020, we at Insider have been following the changes with two major questions: Could the online auctions really make up for the missing land sales? And how would the changes in the auction world impact classic car values overall?

To answer those questions, it helps to have a sense of how these pieces fit together. From 2017 to 2019, classic car auctions averaged about $1.3 billion in sales. Online platforms accounted for something like 12 percent of those dollars, with in-person sales accounting for the rest.

Both were eclipsed by the private market, which includes classic car dealers as well as peer-to-peer sales. It’s difficult to put a dollar figure on this market, but it’s safe to say it’s huge. Data from the insurance side of our business tell us at least seven cars are purchased privately for every one bought at auction.

Those who are accustomed to associating the classic car market with in-person auctions would be forgiven for thinking 2020 was apocalyptic. Many headline sales, like Techno Classica Essen in Germany, were cancelled outright while others converted to online affairs that moved far less metal. For instance, the online sales that filled in for Monterey Car Week were down some 50 percent from August 2019.

Yet such stark comparisons ignore the fact that online selling platforms don’t operate solely when in-person sales are on the calendar. In 2020, we saw a quickening drum beat of daily auctions. The most prominent example of this growth is Bring a Trailer, which has gone from offering fewer than 5000 lots in all of 2017 to offering more than that every six-months. Despite this increase in the number of lots offered, Bring a Trailer’s sell-through rate is better than it has been in the past two years. Other online platforms, like Porsche-focused PCARMarket, have likewise expanded their offerings even as new competitors, like, join the fray.

Traditional auction companies, meanwhile, have mostly continued to cluster their listings into discrete events but were able to pack many more of them onto the virtual calendar than they’d have been able to in an in-person format. RM, for instance, was able to stand up nearly half a dozen online sales in the dog days of summer, when normally it would have been concentrating its firepower on Monterey.

Overall, online platforms’ share of sales grew from less than 12 percent of all auction dollars at the beginning of 2020 to more than 68 percent since the beginning of April. As a result, total auction sales through October 2020 were depressed but not catastrophically so, down some 13 percent compared to years prior.

Then we have the private market. In contrast to the auction world’s contraction since April, transactions in the private market have increased over the same period.

All this might lead you to believe the changes in the in-person auction world are a tempest in a teapot. However, when we look at sales—both auction and private—for specific eras and segments, we begin to see their imprint. For instance, sales of several 1960s-era classics have slowed considerably. First-generation Camaros and Mustangs still sell at a rate of thousands per year, but their numbers have slowed by nearly ten percent compared to 2019.

The 2005–06 Ford GT, a modern classic that typically has very low miles, is the sort of car that performs well online. Indeed, its sales have increased more than 20 percent in 2020. (Image courtesy RM Sotheby’s)

In contrast, vehicles of the 1990s are having a moment: Gen-Xers and Millennials have bought more $100k+ vehicles from this decade in the past several months compared to the 2017–19 period.

These differences in fates can be explained at least in part by how reliant particular cars are on in-person auctions and the degree to which they’ve migrated to online platforms. To wit: Big land sales accounted for more than 10 percent of first-gen Camaro sales in 2019. In 2020, that figure dropped to 0.1 percent, yet the remainder of those cars didn’t find their way to the internet, which made up 4 percent of the model’s sales this year. In contrast, online auctions accounted for over a third of all sales of Lotus Elises and sixteen percent of sales of Ferrari 550 / 575s.

The correlation between a car’s online popularity and overall sales seems to hold no matter the price range. For instance, several Porsches that typically sell in the six-figures have slowed to varying amounts, while sales of two big Ferrari models—the Ferrari 512 BB and Dino 246 GT—have picked up their pace this year. Notable interlopers are the Mercedes-Benz SLR McLaren and the 2005–06 Ford GT, which are both selling more briskly in 2020.

In the heart of the market, even as sales of muscle and pony cars have slowed as if someone added smog controls, vehicles less reliant on in-person auctions, like rear-engined Porsches, have been hurt much less, and a few drivers cars have sold faster.

You would expect antique cars like the Model A to sell like hotcakes online and, well, they haven’t. Activity is down nearly 35 percent from 2019.

At the entry-level side of the enthusiast vehicle market, there is a more consistent direction: down. Sales of the first-generation Miata—another favorite of online platforms—have picked up, but many other vehicles, from fourth-generation Corvettes to Ford Model Ts, have slowed considerably. An overall slowdown in the economy is likely playing a role here, but it also doesn’t help that such affordable classics vary greatly in condition and thus don’t lend themselves to sight-unseen purchases.

What we have, then, is a collector car market that is relatively stable overall but is, upon closer examination, remarkably different from just a year ago. Online auctions have effectively taken the place of live auctions for many vehicles, and have left other popular models out in the cold.

Note that all these changes in sales rates have not yet translated into movements in price. If in-person auctions are able to return safely in a big way next year, it’s reasonable to expect they’ll draw plenty of muscle cars and the people who love them. For now, buyers and sellers of these sort of classics are hoping that the situation we’re facing now, daunting as it may be, is temporary. That hope is something we can all toast to for 2021.


  • William Berry says:

    What are the stats for ’55-’57 Chevrolets, T-birds, Chryslers?

  • GiGi Carleton says:

    Very interesting and well written and the graphs are understandable. This is a good addition to the Hagerty Media and
    helpful to read.

  • Denny and Pat Pillar, Newberg Oregon says:

    About 4 years ago I bought a 1936 Ford Roadster. I had been looking for one since I sold the one I bought in 1952 for $350. I drove it on our 1st date to the drive- in movies, I was 16, my girlfriend was 14, (I can’t believe her Dad let her go with me!), We got married in 1956 while I was in the Army, stationed in France, we traveled all over Europe and had a great time. OK back to the 1936 Ford Roadster; I had probably looked at more than 50 of them but something was always wrong, too nice, too bad, too much money that I didn’t have. I found this one at a place that sold classic cars and hot rods, so I asked my wife if she wanted to go look at a 36 Ford Roadster; she said “no, I want to buy it”. I didn’t want to miss an opportunity, so I said get your checkbook and went and and bought it. We enjoyed it for about 4 years and at 84 and 82 years old, we decided we had too many cars and not enough kids that were interested in cars. The dealer who I have known for more than 50 years has a policy that he will buy the car back for about 85 or 90% of what you paid for it. The cars are usually better than when you bought it, so thats what we did. We drove down and he already had the check made out and in his desk drawer, so we went home happy. Just a side note, Ford only made about 3000 of these cars 84 years ago, the same age I am!

  • John N. Gust says:

    As a numbers guy, I enjoyed this take on the market. There were a few areas, and I am sure more that I don’t pay as much attention to, that you missed. Japanese sports cars have seen a large increase with the NSX and the Mark IV Supra leading the way. 90s German has also blossomed with the BMW 850CSI, M5 and non traditional(911) Porsches leading the way. Clearly 3 pedal cars doing very well across all markets, doing well, as they continue to go the way of the dodo….Italian V12 3 pedals are of course part of that picture…

  • John Wiley says:

    I appreciate all the comments and questions on the latest report on the new website. One potential advantage of the new website will be interactive data visualizations, so rather than picking a mostly representative sample, anyone can look up numbers for a particular vehicle.
    Until then, though, here are stats for some vehicle groups asked about
    1955-1957 Chevrolet Bel Air -11.8%
    1955-1957 Ford Thunderbird -13.1%

    John N. Gust, while values of those cars have accelerated ahead in the market in the past couple of years, not all of those were selling as quickly in 2020:
    1997-2005 Acura NSX -6.2%
    1991-1996 Acura NSX -9.8%
    1993-1998 Toyota Supra (all types) -43.8%
    BMW 850CSi +3.0%

  • Spudsly says:

    Very interesting stuff. A boatload of info to digest and use. One category which needs more attention is the American fifties, stock and custom. Give it to us. If it’s bad news we can take it…

  • Dave N Noble says:

    I really like the graphs showing what cars are moving up vs moving down. I have a 1993 40th Anniversary ZR1 that I will keep until the market improves. I hope that with in the next 10 years the Corvette values improve from today. Meanwhile I find the charts very helpfull

  • Anthony White says:

    I got a 65 Chrysler Imperial for sale .

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