The Heavy Price Paid for a Pickled Car

A 1989 Ferrari 328 GTS sold for $140,000 at the Auctions America sale in Fort Lauderdale, FL, on March 28, 2015. The car showed a mere 1,248 kilometers (775 miles) on the odometer, which was the focal point of this extraordinary transaction.

Now, does it make any sense to pay well over the odds for a rather mundane automobile — assuming we can call any Ferrari mundane — just because it has hardly been driven? The implication is that somehow, due to lack of use, this car will perform as a useful financial asset.

First, a little history

The British license plates shown in the auction catalog on this left-hand-drive car have an August 1989 to July 1990 date code supporting an original-registration-from-new history. Our subject was consigned for sale by the Cayman Motor Museum, an 80-car collection in West Bay, Cayman Islands, that opened its doors in May 2010. Known for its replica of the George Barris Batmobile, the museum appears to have a variety of celebrity-owned, Cayman Island and general-interest automobiles. We can only speculate as to the reasons for selling our subject.

The Ferrari 328 was the culmination of the 308 series of mid-engine, transverse V8 cars. Built from model years 1986 to 1989, it was succeeded by the 348, a distinctly different car with a longitudinally positioned V8 engine.

Updated with rounder front-end styling, the Ferrari 328 was the culmination of the 308 series of mid-engine, transverse V8 cars. The 328s are drivers’ cars, and get special praise for their power and handling — and their Toyota-like reliability. The market at the time must have liked this model, as 6,068 GTS targa-top versions, and 1,344 GTB “tin-top” coupes were produced, a five-to-one ratio of open to closed cars. Clearly, Ferrari knew their buyers wanted plenty of exposure at the wheel of their new cars.

Back to the present

If we consider that the going price for a decent 328 ranges from, say $70k to $110k, our buyer paid a 28% premium for a car with essentially no use in 26 years. Based on photographs, this car presents as-new. Assuming you like Ferrari Giallo as a color, it is an immaculate example and comes equipped with all the manuals, tools and accessories in equally pristine condition.

There are probably two reasons to buy a no-mileage car like this:

The first is for “investment.” The idea is that there are probably few — if any — 328 Ferraris as unused as this one. The “best in the world” bragging rights and impeccable originality are the motives behind this approach. Clearly, the best of the best will financially outperform lesser examples, or so the thinking goes.

The second possible reason to buy an unused car like this would be the desire to drive a new 328 Ferrari 25 years later. The new owner could enjoy an essentially brand-new 25-year-old car, thereby experiencing the model exactly as it would have been in 1989 when it left the dealership. If I had to guess, I’d place my bet on the first rationale rather than the second.

Pickled often carries a premium

We have all seen undriven cars sold at auction for major price premiums over conventionally used versions.

The archival, reference-example idea seems to resonate with the market — perhaps in ways similar to the desire for uncirculated, mint-quality coins in the field of numismatics. The difference, of course, is that cars aren’t coins.

Automobiles are extraordinarily complex assemblages of hundreds of components pieced together just so in order to perform their transportation function. While the “uncirculated” automobile is indeed “mint” and perfect cosmetically, such may not be the case beneath the skin.

Our subject Ferrari has been averaging approximately 30 miles per year under its own power. I would hazard the guess that those miles were not accumulated equally every year, but were front-end-loaded back when the car was new. Bottom line, this car hasn’t run a lick in 25 years. Complex aggregations of parts like an automobile, especially ones with cooling fluids, air conditioning and fuel injection, do not do well when forced to sit. The auction write-up is silent as to whether this car was prepared for unlimited static display through a “pickling” process, or whether it was just shut off and parked. My money lies on the latter.

If so, this car has sat for years with old gas, old coolant, old brake fluid, and, by now, no air conditioning refrigerant. While it presents beautifully, we don’t know what storage conditions it experienced over the years. The Cayman Islands are humid and the air is loaded with salt. I would infer from the car’s appearance that the museum was air conditioned, which would go a long way to keeping visible, but not internal, corrosion under control.

Lack of driving equals decay

Based on the condition of long-term-storage cars recently sold from the Violati Collection, I would expect substantial cooling-system problems caused by the loss of anti-corrosion properties in the coolant, and extensive brake corrosion due to the hygroscopic nature of brake fluid. The fuel should be well on its way to turning into an epoxy-like varnish despite the sealed nature of fuel injection.

The fuel, brake and coolant hoses would be suspect, and we would probably find age-related deterioration of timing belts. No doubt this car was started and run at the auction, perhaps even test driven. Nevertheless, the cooling, brake and fuel issues can lie quiescent until a little mileage is accumulated and then appear as problems. Seals, belts, electronics and instruments: Everything goes bad after too much sitting.

A low-mileage garage queen isn’t much fun

Perniciously, quite a lot of this stuff seems to be on a time fuse after recommissioning, and the problems only show up after a few thousand miles of driving. But, of course, our buyer won’t plan to drive this car, because using it will kill the biggest asset it has: no mileage.

Is low-to-no mileage really an asset for this or any car?

We get the new, unused-in-a-box and shrink-wrapped mentality, but what does it get the buyer in the end? Consider a similar 328 Ferrari with, say, 25k miles that has been immaculately maintained and sympathetically driven by a skilled and caring owner.

This car will also present as-new, or virtually so, and will offer the prospect of being ready to go with no hidden disasters in the making. It has few enough miles to retain the new-car feel, but has been used enough to be in fine operable shape.

The new owner need not worry about a few thousand, even 10k or 20k more miles. He or she will be able to really enjoy the car and do with it what it was intended for — spirited open-top driving on some sinuous back road through the dappled shade of 100-year-old maples.

The 328 was neither built in limited quantity nor represents anything particularly interesting in the trajectory of Ferrari to have much hope of performing as a collectible any time soon. It does offer the prospect of mighty fine driving now. Our “preservation, mint and boxed” owner is missing the whole point. Well sold. ♦

 

Miles Collier

SCM Contributor

Miles is a retired business executive, practicing artist, investor, philanthropist and noted authority on vintage automobiles. He nurtured his interest in art at Yale University, where he received a B.A. in Painting. When family business intervened, he received an MBA from Columbia University. He retired as Managing Partner of Collier Enterprises in 1995 and returned to painting, which he does professionally. Collier maintains a significant automobile collection in Naples, FL. He recently hosted one of his prestigious symposiums on automobile connoisseurship.

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