Recently, Editor Pickering and I discussed a simple question that I think may have far-reaching market implications. We’re constantly scouring market results in an effort to create a high-level view of the American collector-car market as a whole, and we got on the topic of cars from the 1980s and 1990s. That led to a big question — have we already seen peak demand for vehicles from the ’80s?

To take this on, I knew we’d need some hard and fast numbers to analyze. Auction Editor Chad Tyson knew just where to look, and he pulled all the sales data from the past five years for three of the most influential auctions in the country.

We chose Barrett-Jackson’s Scottsdale sale because it’s the highest profile, Mecum’s Kissimmee sale because it has the highest volume, and RM Sotheby’s Monterey sale because it’s the highest grossing. What we found when dissecting the numbers may surprise you — it certainly surprised me.

Generational shift

Now, before we talk about lots from the 1980s, let’s first talk about expectations by decade at these three auctions. The first thing to note is that sales of vehicles built before 1950 are drying up here — that’s a fact.

Lots dating from 1900 to 1920 are virtually nonexistent in this data — the sample set isn’t even sizeable enough to evaluate. Lumping all lots representing the ’20s, ’30s and ’40s together accounts for barely 10% of the total lots across the three auctions, and each decade is exhibiting sporadic and scattered results. Put simply, buyers, at least at these auctions, are moving on.

For some time now, the bread and butter of our selected auctions have been cars built between 1950 and 1972. Over the past five years, over 61% of all B-J Scottsdale lots and just over 50% of all lots for both Mecum and RM Sotheby’s have fallen into that 22-year window. You shouldn’t expect those numbers to change dramatically in the next few years, but we are starting to see signs that lots representing the 1950s are losing steam both in terms of number sold and in average sale prices.

Pickering and I have been discussing this trend for some time now, and I anticipate we’ll see the decline accelerate dramatically in five years’ time. Aside from a handful of iconic models, cars from the 1950s simply do not seem to resonate with the younger buyers in today’s markets the way that vehicles from 1960 onward do.

What about the 1980s?

Now, let’s dig into the meat and potatoes of this effort. The first thing that jumped out at me was that the numbers didn’t exactly align with my hypothesis.

For example, let’s start with the B-J results. The buckets representing 1973–79, the 1980s and the 1990s are much more comparable to one another than I had anticipated. Note that I elected to exclude 1970–72 from the first bucket in an effort to avoid skewing the results with sales that I think we can all agree belong in a different era.

The total number of lots in each bucket accounted for around the same percentage of the sale total (about 5%), and the average sale prices were within a whisker of each other. I had expected to see a wave of interest moving across the late ’70s and into the ’80s and/or ’90s, but there really was no wave. The numbers slowly crept up from 2015 until last year, but this year’s results saw all three decades drop in interest.

I eventually found the wave I was looking for, but it was not where I expected it to be. Vehicles built between 2000 and 2009 have outpaced each of the prior three decades by about 2-to-1 at two of our three sample auctions.

In fact, if we throw the results from all three auctions into one big pile and combine everything built between 1973 and 1999 into one bucket, they account for about 20% of the total lots offered at the three auctions over the past five years. Cars built between 2000 and 2009 represent about 13%. If we look at total dollars, the gap closes even more. As the number of lots from the 1950s has waned, the 2000s have waxed — particularly at B-J and RM Sotheby’s. Should we be surprised?

A new story

It’s a common notion that there should always be a strong market segment made up of buyers chasing vehicles that influenced their formative years. We expect to see buyers moving into the market in earnest around the age of 40, with the 50- to 60-year-old market holding the most sway. So the current market’s most formidable buyers should be turning the heat up on anything built between the mid-’70s and early-’90s.

Why aren’t the market results telling that same story?

If we’re being honest, I think we can count the collectible American vehicles built between 1973 and 1999 on two hands. You could also argue that vehicles from the 2000s are still new enough as to not really be collectible yet, but they do represent a golden age of automobile manufacturing where technology, functionality and performance really began to come together. That’s key.

So where do we go from here? Trucks and SUVs from the ’70s, ’80s and ’90s are going to continue to sell strong for the foreseeable future, but I think the number of high-demand models across manufacturers is going to remain much lower than what we’ve seen with ’60s and early-’70s cars. I’ll also be surprised if we don’t see some sort of uptick in vehicles from the ’90s, but we may need to get used to the ’80s trading at a simmer rather than a boil.

As for the 2000s, I’m still trying to make up my mind. Are sales up because new cars have turned outrageously expensive and early-millennium rides are still affordable, reliable, and comfortable? Are they being traded for their service or for collectibility? Seems too early to know for sure, but the surge makes sense to me even if I wasn’t fully expecting it yet.

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