Prices of classic cars are being driven ever upwards

Owning a classic car is rapidly becoming out of reach for average enthusiasts

In the past, buying a usable classic car made some financial sense. For example, you could go out and pick up a nice mid-1960s Mercedes-Benz SL for about the same price as the cheapest Ford Focus.

“Classic” motor tax and “classic” insurance kept your running costs down and membership of various clubs gave you access to a steady supply of the necessary spare parts. With a bit of effort and a Haynes manual, you could even contemplate keeping up with all your servicing and repair requirements in your own driveway.

Things have changed somewhat. Prices for classic cars have gone through the roof and are now threatening low-flying aircraft. Much as happened in the 1980s, a boom in prices at auction for true exotics has become a rising tide lifting the value of all.

Even relatively humble cars are now starting to inflate wildly in value and old-school classic car enthusiasts – those of the shed replete with the smell of old oil, the flat cap and the perennially grease-stained fingers – are being priced out of the market.


That 1980s boom came to a grisly end as speculators deserted the classic car market in the face of recovering property prices. The money being asked for even seriously rare stuff tumbled.

While it is worth remembering that the nature of all markets is to talk themselves up, that seems unlikely to happen this time around because the nature of those buying the cars has changed. In the 1980s, it was all about investment: buying a car, waiting for its value to rise and then rolling it over for a fast buck.

Now though, the speculators have gone and the market is being driven by a new breed: acquisitors.

‘Goodwood effect’

"The initial tipping point for the current price boom was definitely 2008," says Chris Routledge, managing director of classic car specialist Coys Auctioneers.

“Money was still about but it had nowhere reliable to go. Did it go into the stock market? No, that was on its knees. Did it go into an apartment in the Docklands? No, property was tumbling. Or did it buy an old Ferrari? Yes.

“Fine art, fine wine and fine motor cars became seen as something of a safe haven because every other option was dead.”

So far, so 1980s. As bricks, mortar and shares shed their lustre, so the shiny coachwork of an old car became a safe bet for anybody seeking a new way of making more money. Then something changed, something that Routledge calls “the Goodwood effect”.

"Russia, South Africa, Bulgaria, South America – a decade ago these markets, in classic car terms just didn't exist but now, thanks to the clients coming from those areas, the market for old cars has quadrupled in size in the past five years. It's these 'super-rich' people that are driving up the market, with the old-style speculators being sidelined," Routledge says.

“A big part of the appeal is the event culture that has grown up around classic cars. People like to buy these old cars and then take part in great events such as Goodwood, Pebble Beach and Monterey.

“It’s an ‘instant-in’ market. Fine art, as a market, has been seen as ‘up’ for 200 years and you have to work your way into it slowly. But classic cars? For €10 million you could build up a terrific stable of classics and suddenly you’re in – you can enter the lifestyle with a cheque book.”

Thankfully, for those of us who like to see great cars being used as they should be, many of these new entrants to the classic scene seem to like getting out and using their cars.

Andrew Pollock, editor of Irish Vintage Scene magazine, says: "There's a clear cohort that only buy classics to mothball them, only to run them out onto a manicured lawn, if that. But there's also a huge number of classics being used as they should, be it racing in classic series or taking part in classic shows and road runs.

"Here in Ireland there are still lots in regular use, with only the cost of living chipping away at that, not the fear of damaging a precious financial asset, thankfully.

"It's amazing to see what cars have shot out of the stratosphere price-wise. Obviously, stuff like the Porsche bubble' is grabbing headlines, but a 1963 VW split-screen minibus made $217,800 (€175,200) at a Barrett-Jackson auction in 2011. This drove all split-screen prices through the roof to such an extent that the later 'bay-window' buses are now making very strong money too.

“Pre-war car values are also very strong at the moment, especially anything with sporting or racing credentials, as are certain desirable American classics such as factory top-of-the-range big-engined models with matching numbers.

“Closer to home, from talking to anyone involved in buying and selling classics professionally, really good examples of most classics from the 1960s back are increasing in value, except perhaps for the most mainstream stuff like Morris Minors and VW Beetles. It has to be a really good example though – tatty cars aren’t worth any more than they ever were.

"Don't forget the classic sporting Ford Escorts and Lotus Cortinas either, which continue to amaze with their asking prices.

“I’ve seen several Mk1 Escort RSs and Lotus Cortinas at UK shows with for-sale notices north of £50,000 or £60,000 and that was at least a year ago so are probably more again now.

“A lot of Japanese 1960s and 1970s performance cars like the really early Skylines – 1960s coupé models, not the turbo stuff – are much sought after now too.

“Investment-wise I’d advise anyone to do their homework on values and trends carefully, get themselves a really good 1960s or older car that genuinely has no outstanding issues and that will stand up to scrutiny when time comes to sell again and to look after it. Restoration costs will quickly kill any investment potential for the vast majority of cars.”

Good deals

It still pains your correspondent to recall the day he was offered an immaculate 1965 Mercedes SL "Pagoda Roof" for £10,000 – a chunk of money back in the 1997 of my youth, but not insurmountable. Being a poor new graduate, I laughed the offer away only to see, in the intervening years, prices for identical cars break the £100,000 barrier. Probably best not to take investment advice from me.

Routledge, though, reckons there are still some deals to be found.

"What makes a car a classic? A car that makes you think of the last time you thought of one, that wistful feeling – that's the beginning. If I were going to 'lay down' a car for future classic status, then I'd be looking at a good original Audi Quattro or maybe a Lancia Delta Integrale. Or best of all, an early 1990s Mercedes SL. They're made out of solid rock, indestructible, yet you can pick up clean, one-owner examples for under €10,000.

“And the model before that? The ‘Bobby Ewing’ R107 SLs are now going for north of €80,000.”

Investing in Merc SLs? Isn’t that where we came in?

Neil Briscoe

Neil Briscoe

Neil Briscoe, a contributor to The Irish Times, specialises in motoring