In the collector car world, January is Arizona time. Last year, in an economic atmosphere that seemed considerably more bleak, 1,726 cars went to new owners, and $133m changed hands. This year, I predict we'll see a slight uptick in sales, perhaps 10%. If the surprising strength of the recent Sotheby's New York art sale is any indication ($182m in sales against $163m in high estimates), collector confidence is on the rebound. Credit is still extremely difficult to get, and home equity loans are non-existent (as is home equity in many cases). That means the $50,000 to $100,000 cars that were being bought with cheap, borrowed money will continue to be a difficult sale, as their buyers simply don't have the cash they once did. If this is the case, buyer may consider getting affordable auto loans from a reputable car loan provider. Cars less expensive than that are still pocket-change purchases to a lot of people, but to sell well they have to be very nice. As we've said before, people come to auctions to buy completed dreams, not projects. At the other end of the spectrum, the cars above $1m will bring less than they did three years ago, but that's just part of a natural corrective cycle. Expensive cars that have been properly restored or preserved and have no stories will sell relatively easily. Anything that is less than wonderful will be hard to move, and will require a deep discount.

The five rules

As you get ready for Scottsdale (you are going, aren't you?), here are a few things to keep in mind. While following these maxims won't guarantee you a great car at a super price and endless happiness, ignoring them almost guarantees that your experience won't be a good one. First, these cars are toys, so buy them with your toy money. Unless you are a dealer, collector cars, like anything you collect, should bring you pleasure in ownership and use first, and financial return second. Make your initial expenditure with avocational funds, not your mortgage or grocery money. Second, buy something you have a use for. Part of the great pleasure in owning an old car is meeting other people who have similar cars, and doing things with them. If you buy a vintage Corvette and join a local club, you're sure to find other enthusiasts with cars like yours. You can tour together, go wine-tasting (okay, beer-guzzling, if it's an English car like an MG), attend conventions, join Internet groups, and invite a new group of people into your life. That is what has happened to us with the vintage Land Rover 88 we bought a few months ago. The members of the Pacific Coast Rover Club are a busy group, and they enjoy thrashing their vehicles (where else would you see a rally course description that reads: "expect light damage"). Getting to know the Landie gang and participating in their events has brought a new spectrum of classic car awareness into our lives. Third, buy the best car you can within your budget. There are options available to you, like getting a car loan for example, that will help you increase said budget. It's important to consider all factors as best you can, and make a well-thought and grounded decision. This is the rule we all break most frequently. We tend to buy a lesser example of a more interesting car and figure we will "pay as we go" and restore it. Ask yourself if you're ready for the heartache of a restoration that will take twice as long as you thought, and cost twice as much. That's not to say we are anti-restoration, but the best reason for a restoration is that you've located a rare model that you simply can't find elsewhere. Or, you restore cars yourself as a hobby and take great pleasure in making them like new. Part of the fun of buying a car at a collector car auction is the immediate gratification of driving the car away once the finances are settled. You arrive home with your new toy, with no explanations, and everyone gets to enjoy what you just bought. Fourth, decide what it is you want your car to teach you. I don't believe in buying the same types of cars over and over again, although I do have a soft spot for Alfas and would own as many Giulia GT Juniors as I could get my hands on. But the learning factor-and the fun factor-are both quite high when you venture into car types previously unknown to you. Our 1959 Mercedes Ponton is that type of car for me; it has a column-shifted 4-speed and an interesting dual-cabureted inline-6-cylinder engine. I just learned that the turn signals are activated by rotating a chrome trim ring mounted on the steering wheel, a system I had not seen before. Each new-to-you collector car should represent setting out on a voyage of automotive exploration, where you learn about the way things were done in the era the car was built. Fifth, and finally, do your homework. Find out if persimmon orange really was a factory color for a 1967 Austin-Healey 3000, or if you're going to have to wear the stupid-color dunce hat at the next Healey convention. Are the seats correct? Is the car really numbers-matching, or is that just what the seller is saying? The more value options add to a car, like having a big-block in a Corvette, the more careful you have to be. Find out everything that is wrong or bad about a car before you bid. It doesn't mean you won't still buy it, but at least you will know what you are getting. My unhappiest purchases have always been those I have made spur-of-the-moment, with a steep, disappointing learning curve afterward.

Aim for grins

To recap: Set your budget and stick to it. If you've gotten $50,000 from loans don't buy a $100,000 car and then be angry at yourself every time you look at the car. Buy a car that opens up new experiences to you. A pre-1958 car has the potential to be accepted into the California Mille, for instance. A Porsche of any kind will be your entrée into events from tours to autocrossing to track days. A Citroën will get you preferred parking at the local French restaurant, as long as it doesn't hemorrhage gallons of brake fluid and do the DS squat. Get a car that is done. Pleasure comes from use, not from visiting a shop to see if your front suspension parts have arrived yet. Let your car be your teacher. Try to introduce cars from different eras, and of different types, into your life. A vintage pickup truck will teach you different experiences than an MG TC. Collecting is about experiencing the differences between makes, models, and generations. Know what you are buying. An informed buyer is a happy buyer, which means you can adjust what you are willing to pay, based upon what you know about a car, its original and current configuration, and its condition. Be the one explaining what's right and wrong about your car. Follow these rules, and if you end up being one of the 1,726 or more people buying a car in Scottsdale this January, chances are you'll have that collector car smile on your face as you drive away across the Arizona desert.

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