SCM and the Alfa Market Letter

In 1988, 26 years ago, I put an ad in Hemmings Motor News that said, “Subscribe Today to the Alfa Romeo Market Letter. Hundreds of Alfas for sale in every issue. One year, $33.”

I had just left my job as a sales manager at Ron Tonkin Gran Turismo, a dealership offering cars from Ferrari, Maserati, Alfa Romeo and Lotus.

The collector car market was reaching a white-hot boil, and I was very active selling cars to European and Japanese collectors. Both Japan and Europe had been in economic straits following WWII, and consequently few of the sports car from the 1946-1967 era were sold new there. By 1988, their economies were in fine shape.

Collectors were buying up their dream cars of that era from the U.S. and taking them back across the oceans. I got very good at putting six cars into a high-cube 40-foot container, and I sometimes shipped as many as eight containers a month from Portland.

There were several newsletters then, including the Maserati Market Letter, the Pantera Market Letter, the Tower Report and the bible, Gerald Roush’s Ferrari Market Letter.

I was hired to become the editor of “Automotive Investor,” a newsletter we later purchased. A year or so later I decided I really wanted to create a market letter for Alfa Romeos. At the time there wasn’t one, and I didn’t want someone else to start one before me.

Hence the placing of the advertisement. I had no formal training in journalism or production or newsletter economics. But I had owned Alfas since I was 17 years old and worked on them and been involved with racing – what more did I need?

Soon enough, I had about 100 orders, which meant I actually had to produce something. The Ferrari Market Letter had a distinctive look, as its cover was printed on yellow paper. I decided the Alfa Market Letter would be printed on blue paper.

I focused on auctions because they were highly entertaining and theatrical events. I had been involved with professional performing for many years, studying modern dance with Charles Weidman and Martha Graham in NYC, and attending the Juilliard School. I founded Keith Martin Ballet in Oregon, and we performed and toured for a decade.

For our first formal issue, in June of ’89, we presented a report on the Al Guggisberg’s Geneva Auction, held in Geneva, Switzerland. There were five Alfas in the auction: a 750 Spider Normale, s/n 03030, that brought $23,320; a 2600 Spider, s/n 191064, that hammered at $29,150; a Giulietta Sprint Special, s/n 00186, sold for $50,270; a 1900 SS, s/n 10169, sold at $60,390; and an SZ-2 (long-tail) that went for $143,000.

The flavor of today’s SCM was apparent in this first issue. We described the 750 Spider thusly: “This was a nice car, painted an incorrect shade of white, with carpets rather than mats, one mis-matched Veloce rim with three Normale wheels, and a 101 head on a 750 block.”

Growing into SCM

In those pre-Internet days, I paid coupon clippers across the U.S. to snip out the Alfa Romeo ads from their Sunday papers and mail them to me. We became a gold-mine of Alfa information.

Soon enough we had 600 or so subscribers, and that seemed to be about every Alfa owner in the U.S. willing to part with $33 for market information. So I decided to start a sister publication, the British Market Letter, in March of 1992.

I thought that covering so many marques, from Austin-Healey to Rolls-Royce, would surely lead to thousands of subscriptions. What I didn’t take into account was that many owners of English cars were even more tight-fisted than those who owned Alfas, which meant subscribers were hard to come by.

I grew increasingly frustrated with the energy it took to put out two magazines each month, especially as I was doing all of the writing, going to the auctions, taking the photographs and doing all of the layout myself.

To compound things, I learned that both Gerald Roush at FML and Frank Mandarano at the Maserati Market Letter printed their newsletters themselves, on presses that they owned.

So I bought a bankrupt print shop equipped with various platemaking and folding equipment, and two Multilith duplicators, and installed them in a warehouse I owned.

Like a farmer, I was now responsible for every aspect of production from writing the copy to folding and stapling the magazines, putting address labels on them, sorting them and taking them to the post office. It was labor- and time-intensive.

I tried to sell the Alfa Market Letter for $3,000 with no takers. I recall coming upstairs from my home office at midnight in September of 1993 and telling my then-wife and co-founder of the magazines, Cindy Banzer, that I was combining both magazines together, adding German cars, and calling it “Sports Car Market Letter.” The first issue was mailed in October.

To my surprise, once we began covering the entire range of sports cars, advertisers began to take interest in us, and subscriptions began to increase as well.

Art on the Cover

In November of 1995, we printed our first full-color cover, featuring a painting by Enzo Naso of a Ferrari 250 TdF in the Mille Miglia (which still hangs in my office today).

I chose art for the covers because I thought it gave us a sophisticated look, compared with the medicore photography on the covers of most small-circulation newsletters.

Our next big change came in November of 2003, when we began to put SCM (by then we had dropped “Letter” from the title) onto newsstands in Barnes & Noble and similar bookstores. To sell on the newsstand, the art on the cover had to relate to something inside the magazine, which was rarely possible when choosing art.

But I wanted to use high-quality photography. So I asked the auction companies if we could use their art. Every company responded yes, and so began the look you are familiar with today — beautiful, high-quality cover art that relates directly to what is inside the magazine.

At the same time, we went to glossy paper and full-color throughout the magazine and became perfect-bound rather than saddle-stitched. Suddenly SCM looked liked a real magazine.

We founded our second magazine, Corvette Market, in the fall of 2007. Just as the Alfa Market Letter became SCM, CM grew into American Car Collector, which debuted its first issue in January of 2012. Today the magazines have a staff of 13 working full-time in our offices in Portland, Oregon and dozens of thoughtful contributors spread all over the globe.

Executive Editor Chester Allen, now in his fourth year here, and Jim Pickering, our Managing Editor who came on board in 2006, run the editorial side of the magazine like a smoothly-oiled machine.

The magazine’s stunning appearance is due to the work of David Tomaro and Jeff Stites, who work countless hours during production week to turn thoughts into pages.

There are many others on the team, of course, recognized on the masthead of each issue as well as on the Staff and Contributors pages on our website.

What Was the Plan?

I’d like to say SCM has evolved due to a carefully though-out plan, drafted in accordance with business-school best practices. I can pretend that our budgeting process is always completed ahead of time and that we monitor our income and expenses carefully.

What I’ll say instead is that we’ve had a great 26 years and that the readers of SCM continue to delight me every month with their comments about the magazine. Further, at every event we attend, I see old friends and make new ones, all of whom have in common that they refer to themselves as SCMers.

We continue to accidentally buy cars like the 2000 Viper GTS ACR that just came into our collection, which sits contentedly next to the 1967 Volvo Amazon once owned by a college president.

I thank you, and the everyone on the staff here thanks you for your continued support of SCM, both as advertisers and subscribers. From the very beginning, we have strived to create a high-quality, thoughtful, intelligently written publication that offered insights into the collector car market.

Thank you for being a part of the gang, and see you at the next event.

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