As far as time-travel fantasies go, buying up used cars before they became collectible may not seem quite as clever as betting on the World Series or investing in Apple when its stock was trading at $15. But to most car enthusiasts, there’s no question that being able to easily acquire high-quality examples of desirable models trumps any other going-back-in-time get-rich-quick scheme.
I might head back to 1997, a time I remember fondly. I had my first “real” job, and there were still so many cool cars I loved while in high school and college that were just sitting on used-car lots. I imagine buying and stashing them, carefully drained of all fluids, suspended on blocks, in a climate-controlled and secure warehouse to be safely resurrected upon my return to the present day.
Time machine not needed
A number of collectors have pretty much achieved this same result — without the need for the time machine. Cars that were considered just nice “used cars” not long ago have recently become desirable as collectibles and seen a dramatic appreciation in value. Those clever — or lucky — enough to have sought out examples of these models, in excellent condition and with low mileage, have been rewarded with substantial returns on their investments, both in ownership experience and monetarily.
Who would have thought that a pristine, 5,600-mile 2000 Honda Civic Si would ever sell for $52,500? It happened in a Bring a Trailer auction in June 2020. And in a case of a rising tide lifting all boats, a one-owner 41k-mile example sold for $38,325 in May 2022. Ten years ago, these cars were just sub-$10k used-car bargains for those wanting a sporty 5-speed for little money.
Numerous such models have nudged their way from being merely highly desirable used cars into genuine collectibility. This includes a number of German-built sedans and their station-wagon counterparts. One such example is the Mercedes-Benz W123 300TD Turbodiesel wagon. These were built for utilitarian purposes from 1981 to 1983, and almost all of them were used for carting kids, pets and cargo. Finding one of these unicorns with low mileage and in clean condition is easier said than done, which is why they sell for over $20k — even with more than 150k miles.
Sometimes a good used car just needs a “market moment” that sparks a renewed enthusiasm for that particular model. Once such a sale becomes widely publicized, which can now happen in an instant thanks to social media, the car becomes viewed as collectible. What we are seeing more regularly today is that good used cars are having more of these “market moments.”
Vehicles having both low mileage and exceptional mechanical and cosmetic condition seem to strike a chord with enthusiasts, especially when those vehicles were rare from the factory or have become scarce. This is not surprising, as these are the same criteria that have always stoked collector interest, just applied to a new generation of vehicles.
Built truck tough
We have seen this transition from used car to collectible happening frequently in the truck and SUV segment, particularly those from the 1980s through the early 2000s. This may seem counterintuitive to those with sports-car sensibilities, as these vehicles are not known for being fun to drive. Yet it reflects the growth of public preference for utility vehicles over the past few decades. That trucks and SUVs offer so much practicality and are generally thought of as durable has not hurt their fortunes. Many bidders are previous owners who want to relive their experience with a much-loved model that they simply used up.
One example is the 2000–05 Ford Excursion. This was Ford’s largest mass-produced SUV, built on its Super Duty platform. It could be had with a massive 6.0-liter V10 gasoline engine as well as V8 and diesel options. The Excursion was enormous, comfortable and had a great towing capacity, but it had a short production run after it led to Ford being demonized by the Sierra Club. The Limited Edition 7.3 Powerstroke diesel V8 version is by far the most desirable today, with a top sale of $105,000 on Bring a Trailer in December 2021.
Another newfound candidate for collectibility is the 2006–14 Toyota FJ Cruiser. The base price for this SUV was about $27k before options, but it has caught fire in the used-car market, where clean, lower-mileage examples seldom sell for less than $30k. Two recent sales demonstrate that collectors are interested: An in-the-wrapper 2014 Trail Teams Ultimate Edition with just 250 miles sold for $108,000 in August 2022 on Bring a Trailer, while a 7k-mile example brought $68,775 in October 2022.
Neither of these models are likely to depreciate again, as their popularity has clearly now intersected with their more limited availability in the used car marketplace.
In this same vein, last year I purchased a one-family-owned Mercedes-Benz SUV that would be considered a good used car. I owned that same vehicle back in 2003. While this model has not yet had a market moment, I also did not pay a market-moment price. I did, however, recondition it to a standard that most would not invest in a 20-plus-year-old used car. Call it nostalgia (or just frustration with the new-vehicle market), but I had a strong desire to re-create the ownership experience just as I remembered. ♦