Stop Kidding Yourself. A Classic Car Is (Almost) Never a Good Investment

Why Ferrari-nomics can be a dismal science.

Source: Mathieu Heurtault/Gooding & Company

A Ferrari 365 from 1972 is expected to fetch somewhere around $450,000 during the annual Pebble Beach Concours d'Elegance in Monterey, Calif. this weekend. When it was last bought in 2008, the car was worth $160,000. For the investment, the lucky owner may receive roughly triple his money and a few memorable – albeit nerve-wracking – road trips with 8-track theme music.

The 1972 Ferrari comes with a mouse-hair dashboard and an 8-track stereo.
The 1972 Ferrari comes with a mouse-hair dashboard and an 8-track stereo.
Source: Mathieu Heurtault/Gooding & Company

So should you be trying to get into the vintage-car game? In a word: no. No way. Absolutely not. Here's why:

1. Lots of Idling

The Pebble Beach sales, like most marquee car auctions, are an exception. Only about 3 percent of vintage cars sell at auction and they are the best of the best. It’s like watching a super-cut of holes-in-one and deciding to try your hand at golf.

In reality, values for scads of vintage cars have been relatively stable for years. Detroit classics from the 1950s, for example, have mostly idled in the past decade, according to Hagerty Insurance, which tracks the values of the various old rides it underwrites. The same goes for muscle cars and so-called affordable collectibles like the Triumph TR6 and the Volkswagen Beetle.

 2. A Tendency to Stall

Rolling assets are not in any way recession-proof, no matter what the exotic car dealer tells you. In the 2008 downturn, the only upside to owning a vintage Mercedes 300 with gull-wing doors was feeling slightly less frightened to actually drive it. From the third quarter of 2008 to the third quarter of 2009, the value of “blue-chip” collectibles like "the Gullwing" slid by 19 percent, according to Hagerty. That’s more than twice as much as the Standard & Poor’s 500 Index. A sampling of vintage Ferraris in that window fared even worse, plummeting 25 percent.

 3. Running Hot

Post-recession, the rebound was swift. A lot of vintage-car gurus believe that the run-up in prices since the recession is officially in "frothy" territory. A Hagerty monthly index of expert sentiment on the market has dropped 9 percent in the past year.

Rick Drewry, senior claims specialist of collector cars at American Modern Insurance Group, said the auctions are starting to attract investors who don't know much about cars at all. "I'm starting to see cars that weren't ever that good go up in value," he explained. "For the longest time, they were throw-aways." In short, we may be approaching peak Porsche.

4. Slow and Saggy

Here's an uncomfortable truth: Classic cars are kind of awful -- at least relatively speaking1. Sure, they are moving time capsules of miraculous engineering and most of them have swoon-worthy looks. But would you race a 50-year-old road bicycle or do your taxes on a computer from 1965? In terms of going fast and handling the curves, today’s most pedestrian vehicles are far more capable than almost all vintage rides.

Ford's Focus offers vintage Ferrari performance for $17,000.
Ford's Focus offers vintage Ferrari performance for $17,000.
Credit: Ford Motor

Take that Ferrari 365 from 1972. It gets to 60 miles-per-hour in about 7 seconds and has a top speed of 163. Today’s sportiest Ford Focus puts out similar numbers with eight fewer cylinders, a bunch more airbags, and a back-up camera to boot. Sure, it doesn't have an 8-track, but it also doesn't have six separate carburetors to tune.

 5. If You Must Buy…

If absolutely none of these facts sway you, at least go for the German and Italian brands. Avoid anything manufactured by the Americans or the Brits. Sure, they are hot at the moment and tend to crash harder, but the economic magic behind companies like Porsche and Ferrari is on the supply side. They simply didn’t make that many cars, which means that when markets get hot they have a bit of a turbo effect.

When shopping for your dream car, consider models from the 1980s and 1990s. They were the ones on bedroom posters of Generation Xers who are entering in their prime earning years and they are just now starting to appreciate accordingly. A Lamborghini Countach from 1989 is the perfect example. "For a kid in the '80s, that car was like a unicorn," Drewry said.

A 1989 Lamborghini Countach, the stuff of Gen-X school-boy fantasies.
A 1989 Lamborghini Countach, the stuff of Gen-X school-boy fantasies.
Photographer: Mike Maez/Gooding & Company

Finally, if you're bent on buying old cars, get as many as you can afford. Classic vehicles are like tiny tech companies: it’s very difficult to tell which ones are going to take off. Just don’t forget about the management fees (read: mechanics).

 

 

Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal. LEARN MORE
  1. 1 Yes, I am trolling collectors here. And yes, I would much rather have a 1970s Ferrari than just about any current vehicle.