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Which classic car is the best match for me?

October 24, 2022

reading time: 6 Minuten

by Jürgen Lewandoswki, guest author

Concorso d'Eleganza

Anyone looking to buy a classic car should be clear about what they intend to do with it. Classic cars are not a particularly good investment.

People collect all sorts of things. Some, for example, are prepared to spend a fortune on a signed first edition of a book by James Joyce. Others buy a Patek Philippe Ref. 1518 at an auction, or finally get their hands on a rug by Eileen Gray after searching for one for years. For the past forty years, I have I have seen classic cars shine at concours events and win races, and seen them live a lonely existence in little-known private collections with security that is tighter than at Fort Knox.

Concorso d'Eleganza
Beauty contest of the elderly: The Concorso d'Eleganza at the Villa d'Este. © Aleksander Perkovic/laif

What I am trying to say is that there is no one type when it comes to car collectors – everyone lives their passion for cars differently. Some take an extroverted approach and like to show their treasures off in front of an audience – others prefer to enjoy their cars alone or by going on outings with friends.

Then you have the men – and sometimes, but more rarely, women – who want to let off steam on a racetrack or at a rally. And yes, some collectors are also talented craftspeople who like to restore their treasures themselves. They are in the minority, however, because you can only tinker with cars manufactured during a certain period. Why? Because there are no more parts for the really old vehicles – you have to build them yourself – and the newer models are so packed with technology that you almost need a degree in computer science to work on them.

Collecting cars is like collecting memories

Collecting automobiles has a lot to do with memories – memories of important first encounters and experiences.

Bugatti Type 57C
Washed and polished since 1939: the Bugatti Type 57C Aravis. © KEYSTONE/Laurent Gillieron

This could be, for example, a memory of listening to My Generation by the Who, or to Jimi Hendrix, the Doors, the Stones, the Beatles – you name it, for the first time on the radio. Or memories of Goldfinger with Sean Connery and his Aston Martin DB 5. I saw my first Ferrari in the summer of 1965 in Meersburg, it was a silver 275 GTB. But the memory could also be of driving at over 200 km/h for the first time in a friend’s 914/6 – their first car. Or of your first sports car. You see cars, you hear them and yes, you can also smell them. If you want to know how good a car can smell, I recommend taking a seat in a well-maintained 1963 Bentley S 3 Continental sometime.

Some collectors fill their garages for investment purposes only. But that’s a different matter altogether, because investing in cars can also result in financial losses. Generally speaking, collectors are fulfilling a childhood dream – there comes a moment when they realize they should treat themselves to something, that they can finally fulfill a desire that dates back to their youth.

How to find a classic car

And that is when things start to get complicated. These people either wake up convinced that, depending on their financial situation, it’s time to buy the Beetle convertible, the 911 or the Lamborghini Countach featured on the poster that hung over their bed when they were a child. Or – if they prefer more modern cars – they decide they would like to let off steam on a racetrack in a 911 Carrera GT 3 RS, and so they add it to their to-do list.

Mercedes 300 SL
Too beautiful for the garage: a red Mercedes 300 SL Coupe. © KEYSTONE/LAIF/THEODOR BARTH

But before buying a car, they should probably take some time to become acquainted with the scene, go to events, get a feel for the vibe – and if they fall in love with something exotic (A 1969 Maserati Ghibli? A Porsche 356 Carrera 2? A 1965 Jaguar E-Type? A 1963 Corvette Sting Ray?), they should join a club that is familiar with the strengths and – more importantly – the weaknesses of the specific model and can thus save them a lot of money and energy.

Because one thing is clear: the more familiar a person is with the object of their desire, the less likely they are to be taken advantage of when they buy it. And not every seller – be it a private individual or a dealer – will explain a car’s weaknesses in epic depth to a prospective buyer. In fact, they might not even be aware of them.

Doing research on the internet about the literature available on the dream car in question is also advisable, as it enables the prospective buyer to understand the differences between the various years of construction, special series and engine variations. Clubs, which (generally) have excellent websites, can also help people gain an understanding of whether, for example, the most powerful engine is really the best choice. This is not always the case, because more power also leads to significantly greater wear and tear of components in the hands of careless owners, which can result in higher restoration and maintenance costs. Often, models produced during the first year of manufacturing are sold at a higher price, despite the fact that after three or four years of production, manufacturers have usually eliminated any design flaws, incorrect dimensions of components and other weaknesses in the series.

Classic cars
They look almost as good as they smell. © Shutterstock/Standret

The good news is that almost all manufacturers now realize that well-maintained classic cars that come from their factories are great advertising and reflect positively on their brand. Many therefore supply the classic car scene with original spare parts. They are, however, not cheap.

And things get more complicated if a person falls in love with a rare car body that was manufactured by a top-tier brand. For example, restoring a Mercedes Kompressor with an Erdmann & Rossi body, a Ferrari 375 MM with a body by Carrozzeria Ghia or a Rolls-Royce Phantom VI with a James Young body can lead even solvent classic car owners to question whether or not they made a wise investment. For models such as these, everything is handmade and replacement parts are not readily available. What is even worse is that there aren’t many specialists left who dare to take on such work and are truly masters of their craft. And the ones who meet these criteria charge a steep price for their knowledge.

Checklist for a classic car adventure

Rolls Royce Phantom II
A Rolls Royce Phantom II from 1929 at the "Concours d'élégance" 2010 in Basel. © KEYSTONE/Georgios Kefalas

This also explains why many of the vehicles that were so numerous just a few decades ago have disappeared. Experienced coachbuilders and their colleagues who specialize in engines don’t care whether they work on a Jaguar XK 120 or an Opel Kadett – the hourly wage is the same in either case. Having said that, the Jaguar can later be sold for a price that will (hopefully) cover the restoration costs, while the Opel Kadett owner will never get their money back for their investment. You would be hard pressed to find a Borgward Hansa or a 1952 Ford 12 M station wagon for a concours – there are probably only three or four of these left in the world, if any. But if you are looking for a Jaguar E-Type, there are tens of thousands of cars to choose from.

Anyone embarking on a classic car adventure should know what they want to do with their car, and should therefore consider the following:

  • Will it be put on display, or used to relax, race or tinker with?

  • Should the car have ABS and air conditioning?

  • Where is the nearest specialist for this brand located?

  • And the most important question of all: Is your bank account resilient enough to finance the incalculable factors and surprises that inevitably arise at the most inopportune times – without exceeding the annual budget and risking peace within the family?

Title image: © KEYSTONE/CuboImages

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