2 March 2006

Muscle Madness

A Plymouth convertible worth 432 times its original price? That’s appreciation!

All that high performance, combined with microscopic production totals, guaranteed immortality – but nobody could have predicted the prices collectors are paying today. At Barrett-Jackson’s Scottsdale extravaganza in January, an automatic-trans 1970 Hemi ’Cuda ragtop (one of nine built – five others had four-speeds) sold for $2.16 million. Think that’s high for a 35-year-old Plymouth? Well, at the same auction, $1.242 million bought a 1970 Chevy LS6 Chevelle SS 454 converible, and a 1968 Ford 428 Cobra Jet Mustang fastback went for $513K. Another ’70 Hemi ’Cuda – a coupe – went for a wallet-wilting $702,000. Or consider recent auction prices for lesser muscle: $86,400 for a 1967 Olds 4-4-2, $81,400 for a 1970 340 ’Cuda convertible, $55,080 for a 1967 Impala SS 427 hardtop. How about $143K for a Hemi ’Cuda that isn’t even real? Clones, tributes, replicas, recreations – whatever you call them, they, too, bring big bucks.

“It’s simply the muscle car’s time,” says Dana Mecum of Mecum Collector Car Auctioneers. Classics, foreign exotics, even Henry Ford’s Model A, had their moment. It’s American high-performance iron’s turn.

But Roger Gibson sees a more personal explanation: “Muscle cars make people feel good to own them; they bring back so many great memories.” In business since 1980 in tiny Kelso, Missouri, Roger Gibson Restorations has been a one-stop shop for some of the biggest muscle-car names, including Otis Chandler, who started buying muscle around 1986. Late in 2003, a ’71 Hemi ’Cuda he restored went for $215,000, then re-sold for $500,000. The current owner wants $800,000 and just might get it. Gibson just shakes his head. Meanwhile, a longtime Gibson customer, looking for a Shelby convertible, decided $230-$250K was too much. “I turned to the next best thing, a Boss 302 Mustang,” Gibson says, “and just like that, Boss 302s went from 40 grand to 80 to 100 and 120.”

Veteran muscle-car collector Floyd Garrett, who runs a shouldn’t-miss muscle-car museum in Sevierville, Tennessee, began collecting in the mid-70s. In 1989, he sold his “Old Reliable” ’63 Chevy Z11 drag car for a then-unheard-of $300,000. Today he’s preparing to take a fully documented ’63 Super Duty Pontiac, the last of its breed, to Barrett-Jackson. He’s been told to expect from $250,000 to $1 million.

Even some sellers admit today’s numbers are over the top. “A little bit of insanity” is how Mecum describes it. But he believes muscle cars are so strong because they appeal to more than one age group. “On one hand, you have what I call ‘nostalgia buyers,’ guys who remember them when they were new. On the other are ‘legend buyers,’ the younger guys who know these cars from what they read and are told by nostalgia guys.” Mecum believes legend buyers are pushing muscle-car prices up. “They are one generation away from the Great Depression, and they’re not afraid of going broke.”

Drew Alcazar, president of Russo and Steele Collector Automobiles, agrees. “The attitude is: You’ve arrived, you need 6,000-square-foot homes, boats, exotic vacations, aircraft – and, oh, by the way, a collector car in the garage.”

But besides being rich and plentiful, today’s muscle-car hunters are well educated due to the Internet and television coverage. Barrett-Jackson senior executive vice president Steve Davis says, “It’s all about awareness. Awareness equals demand: More awareness, more education equates to more people in the hunt.” Knowing how rare Hemi ’Cuda or LS6 Chevelle convertibles are, buyers flock to them. But rarity must be backed by full documentation. Hemi Mopars are probably the best-documented vehicles in the market, which explains their record prices. Buyers know they’re getting something truly scarce.

Nearly all involved feel these cars are going to good homes. Like Davis and Mecum, Alcazar thinks today’s market is driven more by enthusiasts than speculators. “People previously thought collector cars were commodities; some who bought and sold them never actually set eyes on them,” claims Alcazar. “We’re not seeing this today. Genuine enthusiasts are buying them, enjoying them.”

Soaring values make auctioneers happy, but what about average collectors?

“These record prices are good for the people who own and sell these cars but bad for those buying them,” chuckles Garrett. Alcazar says, “Fifteen to 20 grand could’ve bought a really neat car just a couple years ago.”

But Davis says Average Joe is still in the game. “There are still very affordable muscle cars left out there. As an example, a ’68-1/2 Cobra Jet Mustang is a high-priced car, but a 428 Cobra Jet Torino sells for a fraction of [the Mustang]. In the Mopar group there are 340 Dusters; over at GM, there are plenty of Chevelles and Impalas.” And with muscle cars gaining value, driven by the elite machines, more models will be worth restoring.

By many accounts, the muscle-car market is slowing, but most agree values will remain strong. “Short of an economic tragedy, I don’t see things cooling off a lot,” Alcazar says.

And some collectors will simply keep on keeping on, purchasing the models they know and love. “When it comes to buying, I’m a car person,” Garrett says. “I worry about the money later.”
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To see this article in its original format, view the pdf version of the Spring 2006 issue of Hagerty magazine.

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