My recent trip to the Pebble Beach week in California and a trip to the nearby Chelsea Auto Legends made me think hard about the way the classic car movement is heading.
Some years ago, I went on a rare trip to a well known hillclimb. Parked up at the back on the event was a Jaguar C-type, unpolished, original and almost carelessly abandoned. I was greatly impressed by such an effortless display of taste and style. My fellow race-goer took a picture and framed it for me as a Christmas present.
I remember another Sunday lunchtime in Hertfordshire, when I was riding in the passenger seat of an original 1973 Porsche 911 RS Touring. We came upon the owner’s friend, who was driving his original, unpolished AC Ace. Okay, even a decade ago these were not cheap cars, but they were the epitome of automotive good taste.
Today, however, things have changed. Cars like the C-type, Ace and RS Touring have become four-wheeled old masters. Prices have rocketed and they are now traded like any other work of art. For the collector, as Pebble Beach showed, the rarer the better.
A friend who buys and sells supercars simply buys models that were made in small in numbers and sits back while the price rises. Rarity is all. After all, there’s only one copy of Cezanne’s ‘Card Players’.
At Pebble Beach’s Quail gathering, the cars were placed as if on exhibition at an open-air gallery. Hundreds of well placed visitors chatted and sipped champagne and wandered around the hundreds of super-rare and utterly immaculate classics laid out on the equally immaculate grass.
At Quail, I watched a super-rare Pegaso Tipo Z-102 trickling out of the arena, driven by a chap of such personal polish that I would quite believe he was the Spanish king’s first cousin. It’s a sight to see, but it also drove home just how much the collector’s car market has changed.
The day after Quail I went to the nearby Laguna Seca Raceway. Race cars are, of course, treated in a much less precious way, but they’re often no less valuable. I heard a story the other day of a race car which was so valuable that it cannot be insured, but even major damage would be a much lower sum than the value of the car. In this brave new collector’s world, everything, even a competition car has to be all present and correct.
So what about the car I spotted in the pits at Laguna? The event featured a huge number of genuine Cobras, in celebration of the life of Carroll Shelby, who died early this year. All the running Cobras I saw were in showroom polish, aside from this one example.
Battered and faded, it couldn’t have been a more perfect example of the classic ‘California car’. When I spent my first student summer in California in 1989, the streets were lined with Healeys, 911s, 124s and MGs that looked just like this Cobra.
The note on the screen explained that the owner – a now-retired professor at Berkeley University – had bought it new in 1964 and used it to run around locally, covering just 130,000 miles. I was transfixed by it. Surely this most honest of Cobras was the coolest thing at the whole Pebble Beach gathering.
If it went up for sale, I bet it wouldn’t attract a premium in the current market. But for effortless style and authenticity, it really should.