"I’ve never owned a collector car, and I’d like to get into the hobby. How should I start?”

It’s a question we hear often. The path to collector car happiness is relatively straightforward; regular readers of SCM are familiar with our maxims. But this, our first issue of the new year, is a good time to revisit them.
Here are three things to keep in mind as you start your search for your first collector car, and to revisit if you already have a garage full and are looking for your next one:

First, as Yoda would say, “Trust the Force.” Each of us has a different vehicular hot spot, as cars from the past resonate with each of us for different reasons. Often it is the emotional relationships we have with cars of our youth that determine what our first collector car will be.

My grandfather had a bumblebee yellow-and-black 1956 Mercury Montclair coupe, and it’s the only Mercury I would ever have in my collection. Not for its importance to automotive history, not because of its performance, not even for its rather attractive styling — but simply because I have memories of scrambling around in the back seat of one — and of sticking my feet out the side window on a family trip to Disneyland (no seatbelts in those days). It would have to be in that exact color scheme or the memory-satisfaction wouldn’t work.

The other car that imprinted on me was the 1965 Mustang my spunky grandmother bought after my grandfather passed. It was white with a blue bench front seat, 200-ci straight-six and automatic. I installed a rear speaker to give it “big sound.”

Oddly, if I owned another first-gen Mustang, it wouldn’t have to be white, or a six-cylinder, or even a coupe. Perhaps because Mustangs come in so many flavors, and my grandmother’s car was so basic, the appeal is not in the particular car but with Mustangs in general.

The nostalgia gene is generally strong with car collectors, and if your first collector car is one that reminds you of years long gone by, it’s a good way to start.

Don’t Buy a Hateful Car Because It’s Cheap

Second, the most common mistake I — and many other collectors make — is to buy a car because it seems inexpensive. “That’s a lot of car for the money” is an oft-overheard phrase. “You couldn’t replicate it for the asking price” is another one.

What you mean is that the subject car is one you really don’t want in your garage, but there is a certain fun factor to buying any collector car, and “value per dollar” as a reason to buy rises to the surface when “affection for automobile” is absent.

Often, when I attend a multi-day collector car auction, I’ll decide at the end of my first walk through the field that there just isn’t anything there that hits my hot button. But after a few hours of watching other people buy cars, I start drinking the Kool-Aid and decide that if they can buy cars, I should be buying one too.

Since I’ve already decided that there isn’t any specific car being offered that really excites me, I start looking for cars I think will sell cheap. Hence my recent fascination with four-door Corvairs (luckily, that phase passed before I could hurt myself).

What will invariably happen when you buy a collector car as a value-based decision is that when you get it home, you won’t like it sitting in your garage, you won’t like telling your friends you bought this goofy car because it was cheap, you will hate spending any money on it if things break, and you will be glad when it is out of your life.

Remember this the next time you are at an auction and you’re looking at the world’s best AMC Pacer, which has stalled on the block at $10,000. You may be buying a car that has had a $50,000 restoration, but you will still have to explain to your friends why you have a Pacer in your garage.

Don’t Be Cheap

Third, start out with the finest example you can afford. This is perhaps the most important rule of all, especially for new collectors. Recognize that every collector car will have problems, as they are all at least 30 years old, and many are over 50. If you buy a 1980 Ferrari 308 GTSi that has ratty paint and needs belts, do you really think the rest of the car will be perfectly maintained? Do you believe the a/c is charged, that the brake linings are good, the wipers and washers work and the heater is up to snuff?

Unlikely. For every problem that is immediately apparent, assume there are ten more lurking unseen. So if a really good 308 GTSi is $25,000 and your ratty one cost $15,000, did you just get a screaming deal? Chances are that before a month of ownership has gone by, you will have spent the $10,000 and more, and your list of needs will still be long. Especially as a first-time collector, you’ll be frustrated and aggravated by all the work that is still ahead of you. A collector car is not a five-year-old Lexus, where annual maintenance consists of having its washer fluid reservoir refilled.

The sooner you realize that there is no such thing as a free lunch in collector car ownership, the sooner you’ll find that paying ten or twenty percent above market for a brilliant, well-cared for example will turn out to be a bargain.

My Guarantee

Owning a collector car is the same as being involved in any hobby. If you take up coin collecting, you’ll find yourself examining your pocket change with a different eye. If you collect kitchen mixers (as I once did), you’ll be able to spot the desirable ones much more quickly after you’ve been to a few meets. (Early Hobart KitchenAids with the citrus juicer and food grinder attachments were my favorites.) There’s a learning curve to collecting of any kind.

If your buy your first collector car because it is a model you have always wanted, and you buy one in excellent condition, I guarantee that your entry into the world of car collecting will be a satisfying one. If you’re buying your fourth, fifth or hundredth collector car, you already know that buying a car you don’t really like just because it is cheap is jumping on the path to disaster. And buying a car with lots of needs is like getting yourself pecked to death by ducks.

Lead with your heart, but finish with your brain. That’s the path of the successful car collector. ?

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