Classic car market remains vibrant

The desire to own American-made automobiles remains remarkably strong, despite last week’s grim announcements that General Motors and Chrysler will close hundreds of U.S. dealerships in a struggle for survival.

Across the nation auctions of classic muscle cars and vintage luxury vehicles are drawing record crowds.

It’s both a buyer’s market and a seller’s market, depending on the type of vehicle that rolls into the auction ring.

More than 1,250 highly in-demand models of Chevrolet Corvettes, Pontiac GTOs, Plymouth Hemi Cudas, Packard Woody Wagons and many more original American automobile idols were put on the auction block at the 22nd annual Spring Classic conducted by Mecum Auto Auction, which was held recently at the Indiana State Fairgrounds. Attendance was projected at more than 10,000 people, which is in record territory, officials said.

“We simply refuse to participate in the recession,” said Dana Mecum, chief executive officer of the Marengo, Ill.-based auction company.

The buyers, sellers and just-plain curious ranged from professional auto-restoration companies to independent high-rollers, husband-and-wife teams who needed to sell their prized wheels to pay mortgages and children’s college educations, to senior citizens subsisting on Social Security checks looking for an escape from their problems for a few hours.

Standing under the glare of about 300 antique neon lights (also up for bid at the auction) promoting just about every American car brand ever sold, Gary Brewster of Oneida, Tenn., thumbed through the auction catalog looking for Chevy Chevelles from the 1970s.

“The sour economy is not affecting these folks none any,” said Brewster, referring to the crowd, which included individuals decked out in custom-tailored clothing and diamond pinky rings as well as men and women wearing T-shirts and shorts and sipping from bottles of Budweiser.

“You don’t judge a book by its cover,” said Brewster, who was “itching to bid” if he could find a car in the $35,000 to $40,000 price range. He already owns more than 30 Chevelles, which he works restores as a hobby when he’s not selling real estate.

“I’m a buy-and-never-sell guy,” he said.

Entering the weekend, 63 percent of the vehicles were sold, according to Tom Christmann, Mecum’s marketing manager. That figure has remained steady from before the collapses on Wall Street and in the housing sector, he said.

“The irony is that there are some bright spots in the economy and the car industry. The passion for the old cars is alive and well,” Christmann said.

There are some deals around. The prices on some classic Chrysler models are down 20 percent to 30 percent on average, he said. But it has less to do with Chrysler’s bankruptcy troubles than the fact that Chryslers were last to appreciate in value over the last several years, so now they are the first to decline, he said. GM cars are the least affected, while Ford vehicles are in the middle, Christmann said.

“The very best cars haven’t depreciated at all,” he said. “They are money in the bank.”

Dan Mershon sold about 10 of the 30 cars he brought to Indianapolis, and bought about eight cars, in the first three days of the five-day auction. He said he was right on target and he did not feel troubled by the slumping economy because “people go back to their true love.”

“The country is worried about the stock market and the housing market, but people feel specialty cars are safe. The blue chip investment stuff has hung right in there. In fact, it’s selling a little bit higher than last year,” said Mershon, of Springfield, Ohio, who has been in the classic car business since 1981 and specializes in Corvettes.

The main attraction of the auction was a 1965 Shelby Daytona Cobra Coupe that won international racing championships. Some experts predicted the iconic Shelby would fetch up to $15 million.

Race-car legend Bob Bondurant was again in the cockpit Friday night when the Shelby, owned by a consortium, rode onto the auction stage. Bondurant drove the Shelby in a spectacular victory in the 12 Heures du Reims race on July 4, 1965, to capture the Federation Internationale de l’Automobile crown in the GT race class. It was the first American car to beat a Ferrari in world championship racing in Europe.

“Winning is everything,” Bondurant, 76, an Evanston native, told the adoring crowd before the bidding started, adding that he drove the Shelby six weeks ago in Arizona and “it still feels good.”

Then an announcer took over, urging the revved-up crowd to “Take your stimulus checks out of your wallet and let’s sell this car!”

An auctioneer then took over the microphone, but it wasn’t to be Shelby’s night. In a matter of minutes, the bid got up to $6.8 million, and it went no higher. No sale.

Asked afterward about his thoughts, Bondurant said: “I love this fantastic car and I won a lot of races in it. When I fired it up tonight, it brought back some really great memories.”

He said he was surprised the bidding didn’t go higher.

“The economy is low, but to me,” he said, “this car is priceless.”

(c) 2009, Chicago Tribune. Source: McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.