What Makes a Car an Instant Classic?

Discontinued in August, the 2017 Dodge Viper has become instantly collectible. Photo courtesy of Dodge.
What Makes a Car an Instant Classic?
Discontinued in August, the 2017 Dodge Viper has become instantly collectible. Photo courtesy of Dodge.

We’ve all heard the story before: a friend of a friend, or maybe even a family member, finds a rare 1965 Porsche 911 just sitting in a barn under a tarp. They purchase the vehicle for a song, and without any investment in restoration, turn around and sell it for a whopping profit that basically puts them on easy street for a year, maybe longer.

Completely restored, a 1965 Porsche 911 Coupe that sold for $6,490 back in the day could sell for as much as $250,000 today.

“Any early 911 Porsche has probably gone up in value by as much as three or four times in the last couple of years,” says Eric Lawrence, director of specialty products for Black Book, a provider of vehicle pricing information to the automotive industry. “Cars that were worth $20,000 to $25,000 in the past 20 years, literally became $100,000 to $150,000 cars almost overnight just because they got hot.”

Imagine buying a vehicle in 1971 that cost $4,296 when it was new, but today it’s worth $2.5 million – a 58,000 percent increase on your investment. That was the case with a 1971 Plymouth Barracuda Convertible with a 426 HEMI.

“That’s one of the craziest ones out there,” says Lawrence. “It’s a combination of it being a ‘Cuda, a HEMI and a convertible. They only made a few of them, so this is something that collectors really like.”

Typically, the cars that were popular when they rolled off the line in the past are the models that are collectible today, especially if they represent an era – like the age of muscle cars. As a general rule of thumb, the rarer a car is in terms of its production run, powerplant or body style, the more collectible it’s going to be.

What Makes a Car an Instant Classic?
Vehicles with limited production runs or high performance engines, like the 840 horsepower Dodge Challenger SRT Demon, will always be in high demand. Photo courtesy of Dodge.

A little research and a keen eye can help you find a collectible vehicle that represents a nice investment, can be turned around for a profit or make a nice addition to your collection. But how do you find tomorrow’s classics today? Which new vehicles are instant classics the minute they roll off an assembly line?

“The cars that have become collectible today, like the ‘57 Chevy or the ‘65 Mustang, are basically cars that a lot of people liked when they were first built,” says Lawrence. “And they built thousands of them. But the ones that really bring in the crazy money are going to be the top performance variants, or unique body styles. A convertible might be worth more than a coupe. A bigger engine would be worth more than a typical engine. That’s how you get moonshots like the HEMI Cuda Convertible.”

Models that are unique or discontinued will always fetch a larger price, especially if they are high performance vehicles. The Dodge Viper is a prime example. Discontinued in August, it became instantly collectible.

“Even though they made thousands of them since 1992,” says Lawrence, “the Dodge Viper will always be collectible because it goes way above and beyond basic transportation.”

The Ford Shelby GT350 and GT350R Mustangs are instant classics because of the mystique of the Shelby name. Similarly, anything with a classic design that brings to mind vehicles from an earlier day might also become instantly collectible.

What Makes a Car an Instant Classic?
While its high performance attributes make it highly collectible, the 2017 Ford Shelby GT350R Mustang also gets a boost in value from the Shelby name. Photo courtesy of Ford.

“The Nissan 370Z harkens back to the 240Z from 1970, so I think the new Z will be a collectible moving forward,” says Lawrence. “What a lot of these cars have in common is that they are interesting. They are high performance, but they are also very affordable.”

There’s always an audience for anything MOPAR. The Charger and Challenger Hellcats will be very collectible in the very near future, says Lawrence, as will the Camaro ZL1. But don’t overlook offshore brands like the Alfa Romeo 4C Coupe and 4C Spider.

“Then if you want to go into exotics, brands like Ferrari, Lamborghini and Maserati will always be collectible,” says Lawrence. “But you’re also paying a substantial premium for a brand like Aston Martin.”

So you obviously won’t see as high a rate of return as you would with a Ford or Chevy.

As for searching for that rare classic find today, there are some very interesting trends emerging in the market. Thanks to television shows like “American Pickers,” a lot of people are interested in buying cars “as they are” with original paint and patina. However, that’s a trend that may be here today and gone tomorrow.

What Makes a Car an Instant Classic?
As the fastest Camaro ever on the famed Nurburgring, the 2018 Chevrolet Camaro ZL1 1LE will be on the radar of many collectors. Photo courtesy of Chevrolet.

Trucks, both classic and hot rod, seem to be gaining in popularity, at least from the number seen in recent classic car auctions. Indeed, Chevrolet recently published a list of some 11 classic, hot rod and custom trucks that sold for six figures at auction.

If you’re serious about investing in a classic or collectible vehicle, make sure you do some research on both the vehicle and the current market. If you’re going to restore the vehicle or modify it, make sure you factor those costs in with your initial purchase price as well.

Today, it’s getting harder and harder to make that rare “barn find” that we hear so much about, thanks to televised auto auctions like Barrett-Jackson and Mecum. That little old man in the back hill country will often know exactly what that car under the tarp in his barn is worth – and may ask a premium price for it.

So the first mistake you might make is overpaying for something that you hope will go up in the future.

Market fluctuations can also drastically impact a collectible vehicle’s value. If the economy is good and a vehicle is seen as desirable, its value could go as high as $3.5 million. However, if the economy tanks and the market is off, that same vehicle’s value may slip to as low as a million dollars – certainly desirable, but not if you paid $2 million for it.

An older vehicle that is all original, with original matching parts will be worth more. However, modified hot rods and custom builds are also increasing in value. Always remember the cost of ownership as well. A classic or collectible should always be housed somewhere out of the elements, and be insured for its full value.

Check the vehicle’s provenance. A vehicle with one owner may be more valuable, but a vehicle with a famous owner in its past could make its value skyrocket, like a friend who recently sold Dean Martin’s Ferrari for a price that made me green with envy and put a ton of green in his pocket.

While seeing a good return on an investment is always worthwhile, there’s a lot more to investing in a classic or collectible than your cash outlay. Above all, you should invest in a vehicle that you like to look at and above all love to drive.

What Makes a Car an Instant Classic?
Eric Lawrence, director of specialty products for Black Book. Photo courtesy of Black Book.


About Terry Troy 5 Articles
In his extensive career as a journalist, writer and communications consultant, Terry Troy has written for a wide variety of publications, as well as radio and television. He currently writes the Automotive section for the Cleveland Plain Dealer, Ohio’s largest daily newspaper, and has also written for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette’s Drive Pittsburgh.

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