Classic car heyday wanes as collectors become more discerning

A new wave of more discriminating collectors are wary of overpaying in unpredictable times

epa07799275 A general view of a classic car graveyard at the Wijnland Auto Museum in Cape Town, South Africa, 28 August 2019. Les Boshoff the owner of the Wijnland Auto Museum founded the business 30 years ago. The museum is the largest collection of classic and vintage cars in South Africa. It has over 4000 vehicles. The museum restores vehicles and often supplies them to the film industry. Included in the museum is a passenger aircraft often used for filming purposes. A large part of the business of the museum is also renting the space for photography. Used also for locations, wedding photography, graduation photography, photography schools there are various uses of the museum for clients wanting an interesting background or set for their images.  EPA/NIC BOTHMA  ATTENTION: This Image is part of a PHOTO SET
Powered by automated translation

The classic car market is coming to terms with a new reality, as years of climbing prices and spirited buying give way to a new era of more discriminating collectors wary of overpaying in unpredictable times.

Demand for cars costing more than $1 million (Dh3.67m) collapsed at the 2019 Monterey Car Week in California last month, according to Hagerty, which compiles an index tracking collector-car prices. The sell-through ratio - a gauge of the success of auctions - slumped to 48 per cent from 67 per cent for these elite vehicles, while sales rates held up for cheaper models.

The trend highlights the unsustainable pace of growth for prices of vintage cars in recent years and how the market is adapting. A glut of inventory has taken a toll and some investor-collectors new to the game are proving more skittish than traditional enthusiasts in the face of economic uncertainty.The newer collectors, “if there’s a slight wobble or a slight turn in the market, they’ll all get out at the same time,” said Richard Wrightson, head of acquisitions at UK-based dealership Classic Motor Hub. “And then everyone acts surprised that those values have gone down because suddenly the ten buyers in the world have a hundred to choose from.”

Low interest rates and disappointing stock-market returns drove hordes of new buyers to collector cars after the 2008 financial crisis, pushing prices up across the board and ushering in a golden age that lasted much of the last decade.

That pulled more cars onto the market, including, for the first time, 1980s-era models like the Ferrari 308 and Volkswagen Golf GTI that cater to the tastes of new Generation X and Millennial collectors.

Global economic uncertainty has made newer collectors more discerning and bloated prices are “settling back to what is a sensible value,” according to John Mayhead, an automotive journalist at Hagerty.

“It isn’t down to the make and model anymore. It’s down to the quality of the car,” Mr Mayhead said.

The very best cars continue to sell at eye-watering levels. In August 2018 - three years after overall classic car prices last peaked - a Ferrari 250 GTO sold for $48.4m, setting a new auction record. Another Ferrari of the same model sold privately for $70m the same year.

Meanwhile, the lower end of the market for vehicles below $100,000, including cars from the 1980s, has continued to boom. The segment saw the smallest drop in sell-through rate and, unusually, represented the largest share of lots sold at auction in Monterey, one of the world’s premier classic car gatherings.

Buyers want these cars for the fun of it rather than the investment, Mr Mayhead said. “It’s the same as people going back to analog records rather than digital music.”