NEW YORK – The pursuit of classic cars can be just as thrilling as actually getting behind the wheel of one of those bad boys and testing its speed and handling.
Any car can get you from point A to point B, but certain classic cars—built aerodynamically for speed and incorporating innovative technology—just exude “cool” and will turn more heads than a traffic cop with a radar gun.
While the layman’s definition of a classic car may be broad, earnest collectors take the following seriously: The Classic Car Club of America defines classic cars as “ … fine or unusual motor cars which were built between and including the years 1915 to 1948. All of these are very special cars that are distinguished by their respective fine design, high engineering standards and superior workmanship.”
The auto industry was in a heyday during this period, and competing manufacturers constantly sought to outdo each other. Some makers are still around today, while others, such as Auburn Automobile Co., had a fairly short run. Each person’s collecting fancy is highly individualized, although nostalgia—the so-called “generation effect”—plays a big part and sways collectors to buy cars they identify with or grew up around. In general, rarity, low production numbers, popularity and aesthetics all contribute to determining a car’s value.
Proving that celebrities are sometimes just like us, albeit with deeper pockets, there are several who are car crazy and willing to spend a fortune to indulge their passion and create a noteworthy car collection. Comedian Jay Leno, the longtime host of The Tonight Show, is as famous for his car collection as he is for his snappy one-liners. Totaling around 150 cars, Leno’s collection includes such classics as a 1931 Duesenberg Model J Town Car, a 1928 Bentley Speed 6 and a 1939 Lagonda V12. Fellow comedian Tim Allen reportedly began collecting cars in the 1990s while starring on TV’s Home Improvement. While his tastes run toward American muscle cars of the ’60s-’70s, he also has a 1933 Ford Roadster that was rebuilt from the ground up during his show’s run.
One of the best-known and highly desirable pre-war European automakers was Bugatti, whose Bugatti Type 57 dazzled with its styling. This model is hard to find, as only 700-some were made. RM Sotheby’s sold a 1937 57SC Atalante coupe for $4.4 million in 2009.
In America, the Duesenberg Motors Co. was renowned for its race cars and luxury autos. In August 2010, RM Auctions sold a 1933 Duesenberg SJ Riviera Phaeton for $1.3 million, and the top price on LiveAuctioneers for a “Duesy” was a 1929 Duesenberg J convertible coupe with a rumble seat that brought $2.3 million at Morphy Auctions in October 2015.
According to RM Sotheby’s, when a new Cord designed by Gordon Buehrig debuted in 1935 at New York Auto Show, viewers were amazed by its “new, original and ornamental design for an automobile,” featuring an aerodynamic “coffin-nose” louvered hood without the traditional radiator shell, a step-down floor, hidden door hinges and pop-up headlamps. Buehrig dubbed it a “rolling sculpture.” Produced for a mere two years, the car is still notable as art on wheels.
Also renowned among classic cars is the 1934 Packard Twelve Individual Custom Convertible Victoria. “The car bears all the typical spectacular Dietrich design cues, including very curvaceous fenders,” says an online narrative written by RM Sotheby’s. The automobile’s dramatic tapered fenders, with full “skirts” over the rear wheels and streamlined running boards, are known to have been installed on only two models, a convertible Victoria and a Phaeton.
The chances of stumbling across a valuable classic car covered in dust in someone’s barn are slim now, though it makes news when it happens. Collector cars are big business these days, and a major player driving this industry is RM Sotheby’s, which traces its roots to RM Classic Cars founder Rob Myers’ childhood exposure to his father’s antique autos. After launching a restoration business, Myers began trading in collector cars. In 1991, RM Auctions was formed. Over time, RM took car auctions to the same level as high-end art auctions.
One common misconception is that classic cars are acquired to be displayed but not driven. Owing to the quality of craftsmanship and design in these vehicles, they absolutely can be driven today.
So next time you are out on the open road for a weekend drive, slow down and keep your eyes peeled. If you are lucky, you may just see a Bugatti coupe, a pre-war Jaguar, a 1940s woody—or that no-nonsense state trooper, just ahead.
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