Photographer: National Motor Museum/Heritage Images/Getty Images

Forget the Vintage Porsche, Everyone Wants an El Camino

American muscle cars are outrunning European sports coupes in the classic automobile market.

As the Dow finally crests 20,000, some gutsy investors are shifting assets to 30-year-old Pontiacs. Call it the Burt Reynolds trade.

Almost 4,000 vintage cars are crisscrossing America, headed for new homes after a string of classic-car auctions in Arizona. Precious Ferraris often make headlines for garnering staggering sums, but the vehicles that fetched the highest premiums this year were relatively cheap American machines from the 1960s through 1980s.

Burt Reynolds with his 1978 Pontiac Firebird Trans Am.

Source: Barrett-Jackson

A 1971 Oldsmobile 442 commanded $95,700. A 1989 Ford Mustang, despite its “Cabernet red” exterior clashing with a “scarlet red” interior,  fetched $71,500. While Magnum P.I.’s 1984 Ferrari 308 got an unremarkable $181,500, a 1978 Pontiac Firebird Trans Am owned by Burt Reynolds himself flew off for a handsome $275,000. A similar version without a celebrity connection fetched almost $73,000.

For that kind of money, a driving enthusiast can get a brand new, 21st century Chevrolet Corvette (although it won’t have the glorious, mythical bird airbrushed on the hood).

The Hagerty Group, which underwrites much of this vintage metal, said the 40- to 60-year old American models are now the most likely to sell “above condition-appropriate prices.” Translation: Why on Earth would anyone spend six figures on a Pontiac that smells like their father’s mustache oil?

When it comes to buyers, though, that shade is falling on ears deafened by eight cylinders. The V-8, common back in the day, is a big part of the draw and perhaps helped by cheap gas prices. Meanwhile, smaller, lighter, more delicate machines hand-tuned in Germany and Italy sputtered on the auction block. Even Porsche, the paragon of a pure driver’s brand, has gone a little soft.

The depreciation, however, isn’t happening at the very top of the market. Those with assets tied up in a gull-wing Mercedes need not worry. Those vehicles are still worth millions of dollars and have appreciated quite nicely in the past year. It’s the machines in the middle–the ones valued between $250,000 and $1 million, that are struggling. Prices for vehicles in that range fell by 12 percent at the Arizona auctions this year, according to Hagerty.

“It’s not that these cars aren’t worth anything anymore; they’re just finally getting some breathing room,” said spokesman Jonathan Klinger. “These are highly desirable vehicles, but there are lots of examples that exist.”

Make no mistake: A Porsche 911 with three wheels is still a far better car than a Pontiac. The problem is that Porsche fever got a little too hot in recent years. It’s the same story with older BMWs, Mercedes, and Ferraris. As prices for these Continental machines surged in 2014 and 2015, simple economics kicked into gear. The market flooded a bit with supply as collectors who vowed never to sell finally saw values they couldn’t refuse; and as all the best cars got snapped up, slightly shabbier versions found their way to the block. Finally, when professional investors cooled on the hard-asset category, there were no longer any suckers around to overbid on under-impressive examples.

While that was happening, younger buyers were finally getting into the car-collecting game. Klinger said Gen Xers and older millennials are driving much of the recent buying—and they aren’t interested in Model As from the 1920s. They want Americana from the disco ‘70s and the Atari ‘80s. First generation Ford Broncos are on a tear, as are boxy, “fox-body” Ford Mustangs from the 1980s. Buyers in their twenties and thirties are especially keen on vintage trucks and SUVs, which may explain why someone in Arizona forked over almost $43,000 for a 1965 El Camino last week.

A 1968 Chevrolet El Camino SS

Photographer: Eric Dahlquist/The Enthusiast Network/Getty Images

The classic-car market has always been an exercise in irrational exuberance, a field day for a behavioral economist. The brilliant thing about crappy Cold War-era cars is that they don’t have to make much financial sense. The decent ones cost about as much as a new car, and may appeal as an investing experiment to anyone who’s had a good run in the stock market.

“It takes little justification,” Klinger said. “You’re not going to lose your shirt on it. And it’s not like buying new vehicles where you immediately take that depreciation hit." Similar to Tesla shares, these vehicles occasionally do burn-outs.

Even Justin Bieber is cleaning out his garage a bit. In Arizona last week, the pop star sold his 2011 Ferrari 458 for $434,500. Maybe he figured out he’s an El Camino guy. I mean, deep down, aren’t we all?

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