27 September 2016

Flatliners – Cars that have been worth the same forever

In 2011, the classic car market woke up from the Great Recession-induced hangover with a vengeance. From 2011-15, we saw cars like the Porsche 930 Turbo and Lamborghini Countach appreciate as much as 300 percent year-over-year. It seemed like virtually everything was heading out of reach.

Still, surging values didn’t lift all cars. Some cars seem like they’ve been the same price since the Reagan administration. Here are five that are interesting and rare enough that they ought to have some legs, but they just haven’t caught on. Think they ever will?

1987-92 Cadillac Allanté
WHAT WAS IT? The Allanté was a Pininfarina-styled front-wheel drive, two-seat personal luxury convertible.

AND THE POINT WAS? Cadillac was miffed at the R107 Mercedes-Benz’s sales success (sold here as the 350/450/380/560SL) and stung by the fact that none of their offerings were competitive. Cadillac’s relationship with the Italian styling house Pininfarina, dating to the 1950s, made it logical for them to return for design work on the Allanté. Somehow, Pininfarina talked Cadillac into, not just the design contract, but the bodies’ actual construction in Italy. These were then air-lifted, 56 at a time, on a 747 freighter to Hamtramck for final assembly. At least one journalist at the press conference reveal asked “who gets the frequent flyer miles?” Nobody from Cadillac was amused. It’s truly amazing that they managed to build over 21,000 cars—that’s over 375 flights.

WHY HASN’T ANYONE CARED YET? The market for the Allanté has always been either the genuinely old or the old at heart. There’s nothing sexy about it. Anyone who can remember the TV show “Dallas” might recall that near the end of the show’s run, the Allanté was the ride of oil scion scumbag J.R. Ewing. Enough said. It’s also front wheel-drive and even the Northstar V-8-powered later cars are only moderately powerful. They’re also electronically complex and some parts are problematic.

WHAT’S THE PROGNOSIS? The Allanté will probably never take off as a pricey collectible. The later, Corvette-based, and quite sexy, Cadillac XLR has a much better chance of serious appreciation.

1980-81 Triumph TR8
WHAT WAS IT? The TR8 was both Triumph’s last sports car and the last popularly-priced British sports car to be sold in the U.S. It was essentially a Rover V-8 powered Triumph TR7.

AND THE POINT WAS? British sports car fans and critics couldn’t warm up to the TR7’s wedge shape, which was underpowered and built in a Liverpool plant with a reputation for the worst quality in Britain (which placed it high in the running for worst quality in the first world). Furthermore, it barely survived its first model year.

A restyle was out, but somebody brilliantly decided to shove the Rover-owned ex-Buick/Olds/Pontiac aluminum V-8 into the TR7, transforming it into the TR8. The buff books loved it, the car was raced and rallied successfully and for an instant it looked as though the TR8 might just save the British sports car franchise. But the Thatcher-era British motor industry had few happy endings. A corporate re-structuring saw the plug pulled on the TR8 after just two model years. Triumph itself would expire a few years later while shamefully cranking out license-built versions of the Honda Civic.

WHY HASN’T ANYONE CARED YET? The wedge-look fad aged quickly and few people have gotten massively nostalgic for it yet. And while it’s a bit more attractive as a convertible, there are also those huge, gray plastic 5 mph bumpers to deal with. Nearly anyone could hit Craigslist today and find one for the same $10,000 that they were selling for 15 years ago.

WHAT’S THE PROGNOSIS? TR8s are legitimately rare—Under 2,800 total worldwide, with just 400 of those being coupes. The TR8 is a scarce, historically significant car with a decent competition history. It’s also part of a small fraternity of British V-8 convertible sports cars. It’s a long shot, but it might just be the Gen-X Sunbeam Tiger.

1990-95 Chevrolet Corvette ZR1
WHAT WAS IT? The C4 Corvette ZR1 was a stab at regaining the “world class” mantle that the fuel-injected C2 Sting Ray grabbed in 1963.

AND THE POINT WAS? A pushrod V-8 seemed out of the question in the “King of the Hill” Corvette, so Lotus and Mercury Marine were brought in to engineer and build a 32-valve, four-cam V-8. The LT5 was a brilliant engine, that felt very European and certainly its approach to power delivery bore this out – peak torque of 370 lb. ft. came at a rather lofty 4,500 rpms. The ZR-1 was competitive with the Porsche 911 Turbo and Ferrari Testarossa at less than half the price.

WHY HASN’T ANYONE CARED YET? The four-cam engine was deemed unnecessarily complex by GM and the Corvette faithful. Not unfair in light of the horsepower that they would get out of the venerable 5.7L small block in the ensuing years. Few drivers ever seemed to appreciate the thrill of zinging the ZR-1 to its 7,000 rpm redline. It didn’t help that the King of the Hill Corvette looked almost exactly like the ordinary car.

WHAT’S THE PROGNOSIS? It was truly painful to watch an ultra low-mileage ZR-1 hammer sold at Russo and Steele in Monterey last month for under $30,000. Alas, the C4 ZR-1 seems destined to be the SVO Mustang of Corvettes—a technically interesting car that was never really understood or appreciated by the vehicle’s core constituency.

1966-83 Avanti II
WHAT WAS IT? The Avanti II was the original continuation car. A pair of Studebaker dealers bought the rights, the tooling and parts for the stunning mid-century modern GT from defunct Studebaker. They managed to put the car back into production just two years after Studebaker killed it.

AND THE POINT WAS? America lacked a truly bespoke GT car. And in the office of the chain-smoking Avanti Motor Corporation sales manager, Charles “Chuck” Solliday, one could find floor-to-ceiling shelves full of paint, fabric, carpet, leather and vinyl swatches, any of which could combined in an Avanti II. According to Avanti expert Dave Kinney, Solliday was legendarily fond of pushing shades of brown that matched the nicotine stains on his walls.

WHY HASN’T ANYONE CARED YET? Most of the time, the sheer number of paint and trim permutations and combinations simply overwhelmed customers’ frontal lobes and by the looks of it, they defaulted to allowing either Liberace, Elvis or Mr. T to choose for them. As a result, a good number of Avanti II interiors look like the inside of a bordello or the casket of a Gambino family member.

Most Avanti IIs were also built during the Malaise era with low-horsepower versions of Chevy’s 400, 350 and 305 V-8. Slow and oddly appointed doesn’t make for great resale.

WHAT’S THE PROGNOSIS? The first collector car auction that I attended was probably Kruse Auburn, sometime in the late 1980s. I remember that a really nice silver with red Avanti II with 500 Magnum wheels sold for about $13,000. Strangely, that’s about what it would bring today. Adjusted for inflation, the car has actually depreciated considerably. Odd, since more common original Studebaker Avantis are on a mild upswing. Any Avanti trades in a thin market and to an older demographic. Thus, the Avanti II will likely be affordable forever.

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