Watching an Austin-Healey 3000 sell for $90,000 is both exhilarating and bewildering. The bidding in the crowded auditorium at the DoubleTree, for the brilliantly restored blue BJ8, started at $30,000 and sped quickly to $60,000.
RM's auctioneer, Peter Bainbridge, was enjoying himself. And why wouldn't he, when he's got real bidders, a good product and a healthy sum displayed on the screen? As the bidding continued, to $65,000 and then $70,000, the room began to go quiet as both punters and lookie-lous stopped their chatter and started paying attention to the block.
The final bids were in small, thousand-dollar increments, as in typical American auction-house fashion, Bainbridge worked to get every last penny from the two players. Both obviously had to have this car in the worst way.
When the final hammer fell, leading to an all-in price of $90,201, possibly a new record price for any Big Healey, the room erupted in applause. High-fives were the order of the day for the seller.
Did the buyer pay too much? Will Hemmings suddenly be filled with adverts for $90,000 Healeys? Are these agriculturally-engined British machines really worth more than 12-cylinder Ferrari 365 GTC/4s?


To answer those questions, we have to step back a bit and look at the collector car market as a whole. One of the advantages of being the chief steward of Sports Car Market is watching the numerous auction reports, filled with hundreds of transactions, that flow across my desk each month.
My job is to try to discern, from all the sale prices and condition reports, any patterns that might be emerging.
The last 40 years have been a wild ride for our generation. As kids, we watched Cobras duke it out with Porsche 904s, and GT 350s go head-to-head with E-type coupes in SCCA racing. When no longer competitive, we watched those clapped-out old race cars get sold for $5,000 and less.
Now we stand in crowded rooms and throw multi-hundred thousand dollar bids at those very same cars.
We've also ridden out the boom and crash of 1987-91, when collectible cars had their own little dot-com moment. Daytonas went from $25,000 to $500,000 and then dropped to $100,000 in just a few years. Most of us joined in the frenzy in one way or another, suddenly seeing the cars in our garage as great ways to make money rather than as four-wheeled instruments of pleasurable transportation.


So here's what we are seeing, and why some '65 Mustang convertibles are now worth more than Ferrari 308s, and Big Healeys are racing towards $100,000 while Lambo 400 GTs struggle to get to $80,000.
For most of us, the reason we own old cars is for pleasure, rather than as financial instruments. There are vintage tours, car club meets, concours, vintage races and even casual garage parties where we get together, drink cult wines and admire each other's toys.
Increasingly, we are buying cars that are ready for the road. That makes sense, as our culture puts a premium on things that are "ready to use." You might think of buying a restored car at an auction as being the equivalent of pulling a gourmet meal out of the microwave. Raise your hand, you're the owner, and instant fun is at hand.
Another key factor emerging in relation to value is ease of use. Proving that even fanatic car collectors can learn from their experiences, most of us have figured out what the "pay to play" factor is with collector cars. Owning and maintaining an MGB is likely to be relatively pain free compared to owning a Ferrari 308. While the Ferrari's every-five-years rubber belt change, at $5,000 plus, is a ticking financial time bomb, a well-tuned 1967 MGB may only suck up a couple of hundred dollars a year in general maintenance.
Of course, the MG will never be a Ferrari, with its sensuous styling and visceral exhaust sounds. But there's a cost for those great noises. All things being equal, it's generally more fun to own a car that doesn't bite your wallet every time you walk by it.
And finally, it always feels good to be part of a club. This is where mass-produced cars really shine. Porsche 356 and 911 owners seem to have events every weekend of the year to attend. When we drove our '63 BJ7 to the 50th anniversary convention in Lake Tahoe, there were nearly 700 Healeys there. For that weekend, at least, we were all part of one big happy family. Clubs of low-production cars like Ferraris, Masers and Lambos simply don't have the same number of activities.


So let's get back to our $90,000 Healey. This purchase wasn't about price guides or investments or paying too much. Clearly, whoever bought the car could afford it-he probably didn't try to pay for it with food stamps. The car was restored to better-than-new condition, and the restorer has a reputation for building cars that are absolutely road-ready.
Chances are that this Healey will bring thousands of miles of trouble-free use. And given that most collectors drive their cars less than 3,000 miles a year, that translates into decades of enjoyment with few if any mechanical hassles, and certainly nothing serious on the cosmetic side will need to be attended to.
We see collectors paying more for what seems like less car, as they trade off mechanical complexity for reliability and ease of maintenance. Hence the continuing rise, for instance, in Porsche 356 prices, as reflected by the $108,000 Barrett-Jackson got for a 356B cabriolet at their Petersen sale in June. A Daytona would be more impressive, but the 356 would probably be just as much fun, in its own way-and surely less troublesome.
We shouldn't be surprised to see, even today, that restored Mustang convertibles are becoming worth more than 308s. In terms of thrills per dollar and absence of mechanical aggravation, I would argue that the Mustang is the better value.
I predict we will see a continuation of this mature approach to collecting. Buyers are doing their homework and talking with other owners. They are asking, with increasing frequency, "What can I do with this car? How much maintenance does it need, and at what cost? What events can I go on?" SCM will do its part, by continuing to point out the joys and despairs of different marques and models.
Over the next decade, prices of iconic, nicely restored and simple-to-live-with classics like first-generation Mustang and Camaro convertibles, Triumphs, MGAs and Porsche 356s will continue to rise. It's the total package that collectors are seeking these days. The cars that offer the most fun, with the least hassle, will lead the pack in appreciation.

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