In 1988, I had just finished a stint as a sales manager for Ferrari dealer Ron Tonkin at his Portland Gran Turismo store, and was beginning to sell collector cars, by the container-full, to the then-hot European market.
While at the GT store, I had discovered Gerald Roush's Ferrari Market Letter, the grandfather of all collector car value publications. Later, a Maserati Mistral I bought and sold had some correspondence in it from Frank Mandarano and a copy of his fledgling Maserati Market Letter. I became aware of the Porsche Market Letter as well.
As an Alfa guy, it seemed odd there was no publication that focused on the market values of these cars. Then again, who wanted to read about the current prices of an impossible-to-tune 1979 Spider, a leaking-head-gasketed GTV-6, or a dreaded Milano automatic? Not letting logic stand in the way, in a fit of entrepreneurship I tore the "Write your ad here" page out of Hemmings.
"Subscribe Today to the Alfa Romeo Market Letter. Hundreds of cars for sale in every issue. Accurate Market Reports. Price Guides. Just $33 for one year."
A month later, I had 30 subscriptions. I also had an obligation to produce the first issue of ARML.
It featured a review of Al Guggisberg's Old Timer Auction in Geneva, and the description of the paint on a cast-iron 2000 Spider read, "Orange peel so deep that Sunkist would be proud," thereby establishing the tradition of call-it-like-you-see-it auction reporting.
A couple years later I started a sister publication, English Car Market Letter. Our staff numbered two-me, doing all the writing, editing, and graphic design (I taught myself Pagemaker), and my then-wife Cindy Banzer handling the copyediting and subscriptions. My preteen stepsons, Eric and McKean, folded, addressed, and mailed each copy.
By 1992, times had become difficult; the collector car market had collapsed, along with both overseas car sales and inquiries about subscriptions. To make ends meet, I started reviewing new cars for the Oregonian, partially filling a position created by the departure of Paul Duchene, who many years later has become SCM's Executive Editor. Additionally, I began hosting a weekly television show in San Francisco, "SF Car News," backed by Martin Swig.
I was also the editor of a publication called Automotive Investor, which was making a valiant effort to track the entire collector car market in a thoughtful way. Overwhelmed by the burden of putting out my two market letters, I offered them to the owner of Automotive Investor for the princely sum of $500 each.
She declined, and I recall going into my basement office and designing the first cover of Sports Car Market Letter, which featured a Porsche 356, an Alfa Giulietta, and a Jaguar XK 120. I created a German car section to complement the English, and I added Italian to the Alfa mix. The first issue was mailed in October 1993.
Auction companies showed interest in advertising in SCML because it covered the entire market. Our first outside back cover advertiser was Rick Cole, Don Williams, and Richie Clyne's World Classic, touting its upcoming "The Auction" in Las Vegas.
We dropped "Letter" from the title when we went to four-color format and newsstand sales. My writing expanded to include the New York Times, Automobile, AutoWeek, and Road & Track, and my television work evolved into being an analyst for the Barrett-Jackson broadcast on Speed, and now the host and co-host of collector car shows on ESPN, ESPN2, and Discovery's HD Theater.
Through all of this, we have been sustained by our loyal subscribers and their remarkable renewal rate, and consistent advertisers, who have found value in presenting their products to our readers.
After two decades and over 200 issues of market commentary and insight, the constant theme throughout the history of ARML/ECML/SCML/SCM has been a focus on price. We have long believed that market value is a significant determinant not only in the collectibility of a car, but also of its perception by the market at large. Alfa SZs hold a different place in the collector car universe at today's $300,000 (and "I'll pay more if you can find a great one") than they did at 1998's $50,000 ("It's just a reskinned Sprint with a tiny engine").
The next twenty
If we look forward to the next 20 years, collector prices will go up, and they will go down, and they will go up again. But each dip will not go as low as the previous one, so over time cars will increase in value. In five years, we will look back upon today's bubble with bemusement, but Dinos will sink only from $250,000 to $150,000, not back to the $85,000 of 1996.
Land-based collector car auctions are here to stay. They will be augmented by Internet auctions, but there is no substitute for a qualitative evaluation done first-hand. And the social aspects of the auction community cannot be understated.
We will see continued sophistication on the part of collectors as they realize that a car can be restored many times but is only original once. Miles Collier and David Burroughs have been the valiant pioneers here-Collier dedicated to bringing the imprimatur of fine art connoisseurship to collecting, and Burroughs working to standardize just what constitutes an "original" car.
Car collecting is a young field, so the emerging introspection and thoughtfulness about the objects we collect is no surprise. For the sake of perspective, look at a Duesenberg SJ that has been restored, rerestored, and "reidentified" so many times that no one can remember just exactly what its original configuration was. Ask yourself how you would feel if each successive owner of the Mona Lisa had tweaked the painting just slightly, updating the colors to fit the then-current tastes. Great cars, like great paintings, have the right to be left as their creators made them, and they deserve our caretaking, not transmogrification to suit our personal whims.
The melding of the print, live, and Internet auction worlds is upon us. To that end, SCM will be announcing at the Pebble Beach RetroAuto the results of a partnership with eBay Motors, which has led to the development of the first real-time, online Price Guide based solely on actual sold transactions. Called the Price Tracker, and directed by my wife Wendie, it will launch with value guides based on over 500,000 transactions and will feature sophisticated graphing capabilities that will show you price trends, specific transaction information, and information concerning which cars sell best, for how much, in what months, and in what areas of the country. It will be a formidable tool to analyze the most numerically active segment of the market. Watch this space for details.
As for the next 20 years, SCM will continue to provide a forum where our contributors, all of whom are experts in their fields, offer thoughtful opinions on the market. We will continue to present this information with first-rate art direction, and we will continue to have a staff of inquisitive, knowledgeable gearheads who work in unison each month to create your SCM.
And I promise we won't forget that we're fortunate to be able to spend so much time huffing, puffing, and otherwise pontificating about cranky old cars, and having fun while we're doing it.