2 March 2009

Mr. Insider

Keith Martin covers the auction scene from the best seat in the house.

Keith Martin is one of the most respected authorities on vintage cars and auctions. His magazines, Sports Car Market and Corvette Market, are revered for their concise, objective, informative and always entertaining insights. The reason is clear once you know Martin: His magazines reflect his personality to a T. Martin’s latest venture, Collector Car Price Tracker, an online showpiece with eBay Motors, is the first real-time, real-sales price guide for collector vehicles and has solidified his impact on the hobby.

We recently caught up with him to discuss his unlikely path into the hobby, his favorite auction moment and where he thinks car collecting is headed.

You were a ballet dancer. Isn’t that an unusual background for a car guy?

I’ve got gasoline in my blood, although it took me a while to realize it. After college, I diverted into the arts, dance and ballet for about 15 years, studying modern dance at the Juilliard School in the early ’70s and then founding the first statewide Oregon ballet company.

Why did you decide to trade dancing for cars?

It became clear to me that if a ballet company was going to survive, it had to have the warhorses like “Nutcracker” and “Sleeping Beauty.” I had no interest in producing those. If you’re doing original work, you can excel to your own standards. So I went to work for Ron Tonkin, the Ferrari and exotic car dealer, in Portland, Oregon. At that time (1988-89) there were lots of market letters, including Ferrari and Porsche, but there was nothing for Alfa Romeos. Being an Alfisti, I thought there should be an Alfa Romeo market letter. I put an ad in Hemmings Motor News, got a few subscriptions and off we went.

Mary Ann Liebert (who publishes medical newsletters and had a publication called Automotive Investor) heard about me, and that became my first job editing an entire magazine. I ended up buying Automotive Investor. Our corporate name is Automotive Investor Media Group.

How did Sports Car Market evolve out of that?

With the Alfa market letter, when we got to about 400 subscribers, we probably had everyone in the entire world who cared about Alfa Romeos. Then we started the English car market letter. Producing two market letters was killing me, so I thought I’d add German cars and call it Sports Car Market. It was sheer desperation and it turned out to be OK.

Sports Car Market has become the mainstay of auction coverage. Was that your intent?

Auctions have always interested me because of my theatrical background. They are pure improvisational theater at its highest level. You never really know what’s going to happen. You put all these ingredients in – high drama, high-priced cars, the market, bidders, big catalogs, lots of publicity – and then you get to sit and watch.

How do you see the market evolving?

My relationship with old cars has changed over the years. I had a Giulietta Spyder Veloce that I was driving back and forth to Reed College from San Francisco — all the work I had to do, changing head gaskets and stuff. I wasn’t doing it because it was a classic car. I was doing it because it was the coolest car I could own at that period.

As we get older, we’re looking at the same cars. We’re fixed in time with our passions. But what we want from those cars is changing. We want these cars to provide an exhilarating escape from everyday life. We don’t want to go out in the garage and gap valves, balance tires and change tranny fluid. We’re in it now for the absolute pure joy of motoring – with a car that speaks a language to you.

I think the next 20 years will be very interesting because you’ll have a generation of people who have no firsthand experience with the cars of the ’50s and ’60s – a period I believe will be regarded as the golden age of the collectible car. It was a time when there were no federal regulations to inhibit performance or styling.

A late ’50s/early ’60s sports car can go 100 mph. It can cruise at 70 mph all day long. They have tops that work, heaters that work and they really hit their stride, like the Healey BJ8, for instance. I grew up around these cars, reading Road & Track, lusting after them. Most of today’s teens have no recollection of adjusting SU carburetors or of timing cars. The question is, when you plug in the OBD-2 sensor, what does it tell you?

And that’s OK, but I believe in the “toaster philosophy of mechanical evolution.” The first toasters were very complicated. You had to flip the bread down, and flip it back up, and you burnt the bread. Now, toasters are vastly more competent, and you’ll never open one in your lifetime. You’ll have it for 20 years. It’ll break and you’ll replace it. And that’s the way all things tend. I can’t imagine working on my new Boxster. I just take it in to Al every 5,000 miles and he fixes whatever’s wrong with it.

How will collectors’ expectations change in the future?

People will have very different demands of their collector cars. They’ll want cars to work. That’s the reason resto-mods are so popular. You’re getting a car that looks like an old car, but it has air conditioning that works, power steering, power disc brakes and a great sound system. And I get that. A resto-mod is probably the perfect entry-level collector car. Then if the person likes that car, they can move on to a more robust experience. It’s like moving from a simple table wine to a Brunello. But you don’t want to start with a heavy deal, because you have too many experiences to sort out.

The whole notion of why we have these cars is going to change because we’re going to want to use them more. I also believe that a lot of project cars won’t be brought back because there won’t be a market to support them – TR6s, MGBs, the little cars. Any of the Grand Classics that have stodgy coachwork are at risk. Because why would you go to the trouble to restore a four-door car when you could restore a convertible?

What’s in your collection now? What would you like to have?

If I could have one big old car right now, it would be a two-headlight 330 GT 2+2 Ferrari. I had a 330 America. Those cars are prettier, but they’re harder to live with. So this car would have a five-speed and air conditioning and power steering. I’m also up for a really good ’67 Alfa GTV. I’ve got a ’65 Giulia Spyder Veloce now, and an ’02 Porsche Boxster S. My daughter, Alex, drives a ’95 BMW 318i, and we’ve got a ’65 Volvo PV544, a nice two-owner car.

Does anything keep you up at night?

I sleep pretty well. The magazines are doing well. I like the cars I have and I understand exactly why I have them. I don’t think much about the current economic situation because I believe there will always be people who are buying and selling collector cars.
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To see this article in its original format, view the pdf version of the Spring 2009 issue of Hagerty magazine.

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