When the hammer came down on the black Ferrari 250 GT California, the rise and rise of the celebrity classic car was confirmed.
Once owned by James Coburn – famed for his tough-guy appearances in such all-time classics as The Great Escape, The Magnificent Seven and Our Man Flint – the gorgeous black convertible had passed across the auction block for the stratospheric price of £12 million.
Better still, there was another celebrity in the mix . Ginger-headed radio and TV star Chris Evans, a man of serious financial means and no little obsession with Ferraris, had bought the car. If nothing else, it was going to a good home.
So, how much difference does a celebrity name in the logbook make? If a car is already staggeringly valuable, as was the case with the Coburn Ferrari, how much extra difference does the Coburn bit make? And what if it had been Ronnie Corbett instead?
"This is proving once again and more than ever that the world of people who are collectors who are well-heeled are realising there is a limited number of these types of cars," said McKeel Hagerty, CEO of Hagerty Insurance, speaking to Forbes magazine. "People are just willing to do it."
Collectors have started to realise the exquisite rarity of the few automobiles in such elite echelons, he said.
“Buying one is like waiting for an iconic piece of art or real estate to finally become available. This is not a bubble. These kinds of numbers have been a patient build over a number of years. There’s nothing else explaining this.”
Nothing except perhaps finding rarity within rarity. While so-called “barn finds” are still turning up the occasional lost and forgotten classic (such as the Ferrari once owned by French movie star Alain Delon which was recently auctioned), the fact is that we are now scraping the barrel of the classic car world.
The superstars of the pre-1975 world are well established now – few Ferrari 250 GTs or GTOs remain undiscovered, for instance – so finding a car with a celebrity connection can add both an extra whiff of glamour and an extra zero on the reserve price.
Mind you, you have to be careful exactly which celebrity filled out the original registration papers. James Elliot, group editor of Classic & Sports Car Magazine told The Irish Times, "I think it depends more on who the star is and how famous the car is as 'theirs'."
For example, when Elton John offloaded his collection, there didn't seem to be much premium for owning a car driven by the man named Reg, but then he wasn't well-known or famous for being a classic car collector and the cars themselves were pretty standard fare.
“But try and buy John Lennon’s psychedelic Rolls or Keith Richards’s well-documented
, The Blue Lena, and you are definitely going to have to pay a huge amount more than you would for a run-of-the-mill model.” says Elliot.
"I would say that in most cases, it is a bit of a novelty and may have a small bearing on value – without the state of health of the celeb mattering that much – but the car itself is far more important. For example, at the top end, I wouldn't think the fact that Eric Clapton owned a Ferrari 250 GT SWB is going to mean half as much to buyers as the condition of the car.
"It is also important that the celebrities owned the cars or were photographed with them in their heyday. Lots of celebs have collections of cars, but that in itself does not give them value. I only really see the celebrity element making a big difference when it is either a car that has plenty of cachet for itself such as the Alain Delon California, or a car that is inextricably linked to that celeb such as the De Tomaso Pantera that Elvis shot or a normal car with an ex-owner who is idolised, maybe the pope or Princess Diana.
"Certainly, Winston Churchill connections seem to have helped in recent years, but we often find that what a car has done itself , such as The Persuaders! Aston Martin DBS6 that made half a million quid, can be as important, or more so, than who has owned it."
The downside to the equation of course is having the “wrong” celebrity name on the car’s history.
“A few years ago some people paid a lot of money for Jimmy Savile’s old cars expecting them to be the foundation for a business,” says Elliot. “I don’t reckon they’ll see their money back. Anyone else tainted by a similar scandal would be in the same boat. That said, there is a very small but wealthy market for cars with Mussolini or leading Nazi connections.
"As for your modern celebs, I am the wrong person to ask: I was flicking through one of my wife's magazines the other day and got to page 36 before there was name I recognised, and that was David Cameron. "
There are some good old "bankers" in this world, of course. Nick Mason, Pink Floyd's drummer and famed petrolhead, has an astonishing collection of classic cars and his name and provenance would probably be sufficient to add a significant premium. Mason also owns some ex-celebrity cars himself, including an F1 Ferrari raced by Gilles Villeneuve – presumably that would make for quite the superstar double-whammy.
Racing driver connections are always good for an extra dollop of value, and anything with a connection to the likes of
Juan Manuel Fangio
would be worth far more than an equivalent car driven by a mere journeyman.
Values don’t always follow logical paths, though. You would assume that a Beatles connection would ensure extra cash, but Paul McCartney’s Aston Martin DB5 sold for only about as much as you’d expect any well-restored DB Aston to go for: about £300,000.
One name towers above all others, though, when it comes to inflating the value of car. Whether he drove it, raced it, owned it or probably just touched it briefly, Steve McQueen’s name still gets above-the-title billing when it comes to classic car values.
“If you get dealt the Steve McQueen card in Top Trumps, you’ll clean up,” says Elliot. “For a start, pretty much everything he owned was a rare and highly desirable car anyway, but if anyone is guaranteed to sprinkle stardust on a car’s history – and make its price go stratospheric – it is the King of Cool.”