If ever we needed a respite from being pummeled by bad news, it is now. Scarcely a day goes by without a headline about an investment firm failing, a newspaper declaring bankruptcy, or a car company down to its last few billion dollars.

The Dow continues to swing unpredictably like the needle of a magnet exposed to lodestone; nearly 40% of its value has evaporated. And the U.S. market rates a winner compared to that of most European and Asian stock markets, some of which have losses in the 80% range. Even the weather seems to be colder, wetter, and darker than usual.

However, despite all this, we haven't heard of any Ferrari F40s selling for half price at $300,000, or Shelby 289 Cobras going for $250,000. If you recall the last slump in 1991, Dinos fell from $250,000 to $60,000 and stayed there for a decade. This time, and at least for now, Dinos are still above the $200,000 benchmark they cleared over a year ago.

The GTO benchmark

A week ago, I had the chance to sit with three experienced collectors-Bruce McCaw, Miles Collier, and Eric Zausner. They've all been around the car market for a long time and have demonstrated acumen in their non-car business dealings.

As you might expect, our conversations eventually devolved into thoughts about values. Of course, the favorite benchmark car for these types of roundtables is the Ferrari GTO, with just 39 built.

In their collective opinion, nearly every one of the current GTO owners is fairly well insulated against the current market, so we are unlikely to see an auction headline calling out, "Five GTOs, Your Choice, No Waiting," unlike 1988-91. Back then, some GTOs were leaving the hands of original owners and beginning the rapid broker-to-broker climb up the value chain (aided by easy money-not so easy to come by now). Today, most GTOs today are in secure, mega-wealthy hands. You know the type; they walk around proclaiming, "I got heavy into cash two years ago so I don't care what the market is doing."

However, as the production number of a collectible model increases, so do its chances of seeing a change in value. Another favorite for market watchers is the GTB/4, and they've zoomed from $300,000 five years ago to the $1m-$1.5m range today. Yet with 280 built, nearly eight times the number of GTOs, it is likely that some of them are owned by collectors with a precarious resource base, which in turn can lead to several coming to market at once and being priced at "what the market will bear."

But as I write this, though we have seen some softening in most segments of the collector car market, there's been nothing to indicate that an investment banking-style collapse is in the works.

Some desperate sellers

However, that doesn't mean that collectors aren't worried. In fact, for the first time in over 20 years of reporting the market, we have seen emails threatening actual bodily harm to an SCM columnist if he doesn't "start saying good things about the market." These emails say, in effect, that "some of us have a lot of money invested in expensive cars, and it is very important that the market be sustained until we are able to sell them. Anything said or done to the contrary personally affects us, and we won't take that kind of action lightly."

Well, well.

Frankly, if killing the messenger would solve a market problem, there would be no reporters left on any business news desk in the country. It is sheer folly to think that the actions of any single journalist, or even group of journalists, can materially affect a market.

Part of the reason that SCM has been and will remain primarily reflective rather than predictive, is that we continue to marvel at how the market unfolds, one auction at a time, and the trends it reveals through its results. Would anyone have predicted that a McLaren F1 would bring twice current market at $4 million, as one did recently at the RM London sale? Or would anyone have thought that a brilliantly restored and documented 1970 Hemi Challenger R/T coupe would change hands for a paltry $135,000, as we watched happen at Silver in Portland last September?

If we had forecast either outcome, we would have been termed naively optimistic, or hopelessly negative. The market is made up of tens of thousands of collectors and hundreds of thousands of cars, and each owner makes his own decision about the value of the machinery in his garage.

The collector car market is in flux, there's no doubt about that. And as we wait to see what directions it will go, we are reminded of the words of poet Matthew Arnold: "And we are here as on a darkling plain / Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight, / Where ignorant armies clash by night."

Ain't life grand

For the second consecutive year, I had the privilege of participating in the Colorado Grand. Last year, it was as the guest of Premier Leasing's Mitch Katz, driving in his 1965 Alfa Romeo Giulia Spider Veloce. This year it was a completely different experience, as I was co-pilot with Miles Collier in his ex-Eddie Hall, 1934 4¼-Liter sports special, s/n B35EA. The only Rolls-Royce Bentley officially prepared by the factory, the car raced successfully in the TT in 1934, '35, and '36, and incredibly, 14 years later was entered at Le Mans, where it finished 8th, just 20 laps behind the winning Talbot-Lago.

Collier has a reputation as both a thoughtful collector and a consummate driver, and he insists that all his machinery be in top usable shape. So it was no surprise to find that the Bentley proved to be powerful and predictable, with even the mechanical brakes capable of stopping the car in impressively short distances.

Unusually, the weather was clear and warm for all five days of the Grand, and Collier graciously allowed me considerable time behind the wheel. Adapting to a right-hand-drive car in the U.S. always takes a bit of doing, especially as passing on two-lane roads involves sliding over the center line until your navigator can either wave you forward, or, ashen-faced, frantically gesture for you to return to your lane before you become a hood ornament for an oncoming Peterbilt.

This being the 20th anniversary of the Grand, I saw many familiar faces, driving many familiar cars. A new-to-the-event face and car were Tom "The King of Toasted Ponies" Shaughnessy, driving his 375 MM, and his fresh and engaging report appears on page 32.

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