Blue Collar Cars — Wall Street Prices

By Eric Peters, Automotive Columnist

Anyone who follows the old car hobby knows how expensive classic-er muscle cars have become. It’s routine to see six-figure asking prices for prominent/popular models such as Hemi-equipped (and even 440 powered) Mopars – ‘Cudas, Challengers, Chargers, Super Bees and GTXs. Even 383 versions of these cars now command primo prices. Big block Chevelles, GTOs, Boss Mustangs, first generation SS Camaros and Z28s are also big bucks rides now — $40k and up

Even the less desirable (for now) models built in the mid-late ’70s are bringing as much as $30,000 (and more) vs. $10,000 or less as recently as ten or so years ago.

The irony — blue collar cars that have become rich men’s toys — is both remarkable and sad. As recently as the ’80s, something like a ’69 SS 396 Chevelle was a Hillbilly Special — the kind of car you saw loutish-looking younger guys with mullets and flannel shirts cruising McDonalds on Friday nights in. Primered quarters; Gabriel Hi-Jacker shocks — wrong-size Cragar or Keystone Classic mags — with peeling chrome. No respectable citizen with a college education wanted any part.

But they were a way for average guys with not much money to have a go at the Yuppies in their BMWs — screechy burnouts to impress the girls (or annoy the high school principal). They were all over the place — and they were dirt cheap.

I remember the summer of 1983 when I was 16 and the local consignment lot had a bumblebee yellow Super Bee with a 383 and a 4-speed. It was a little run down — but it was all there — and it was all of $2,300. A buddy of mine wheedled his parents into a loan that let him get his hands on a ’71 440 GTX — again, for under three grand. Then there was the guy who had the 455 HO Formula Firebird. None of us were yet 18 years old.

Can you imagine?

This kind of experience is inconceivable today. Such cars are not only out of reach of feckless youth — they’re getting out of range for middle-aged middle class working stiffs, too. Who has $40k in disposable income to plunk down on an old muscle car?

I’m not poor — but I would have trouble swinging the purchase of my ’76 Trans-Am if I had to buy the thing today. Back in 1990, I picked her up for $5,100. A stretch — but doable. Today — 18 years down the road — the same car in similar condition would probably run me around $25k. In another five years, it’ll probably be $30k.

I’m glad I got in when I did. But I feel sorry for those too young to have had a shot — and I don’t like the way the hobby’s headed, either.

Part of the reason for escalating prices, of course, is simply the passage of time and the fact that they’re not building these cars anymore. Attrition has done its work — and the relative handful of ’60s and even ’70s-era muscle cars that are left intact are usually either complete basketcases in need of major work or extremely nice restos (or well-preserved originals). Few “drivers” are left.

You don’t find cars like my ’76 Trans-Am sitting in the back row of a second-rate used car lot anymore.

But scarcity — and the passage of time — doesn’t account for the tsunami-surge of average values in recent years. Credit for that belongs to the phenom of glitzy auctioneering and the transformation of hobby cars into quick buck investments. This has helped create a speculative bubble in the value of old iron very similar to the recently burst real estate bubble that saw the selling price of suburban McMansions in many areas of the country grow 20 percent or more in the space of a single year.

The problem I have with this is not the rise in value per se. What gets my back up is the way the hobby’s being turned into a rich man’s Ponzi scheme — buy it to flip it, not to keep it. Ride the wave — and enjoy the easy money

Many of the people acquiring vintage muscle cars have no real interest in the cars themselves. They’re not gearheads, they don’t wrench — and they often don’t even drive the damn things. They just sit on them for awhile — to let them appreciate some more. Then they have the car trucked to Barrett-Jackson and milk it for all it’s worth.

That’s capitalism, of course — but that doesn’t make it right.

Not everything is (or should be) a commodity — viewed primarily as an “asset” or some way to wheedle a profit merely by getting the next guy in line to pay more for it than you did. The muscle cars of the ’60s and ’70s, in particular, were conceived for the everyman — not orthodontists and real estate moguls with money to burn. It’s sad that cars that were once accessible to just about anyone are fast becoming — indeed, already have become — remote, untouchable totems of the elite that most average Joes have no prayer of ever owning.

I’m grateful I’m old enough to have arrived before things went downhill. And I feel bad for those too young to have had their shot. It’s too bad there’s nothing much that can be done about it. Values are going to keep climbing to ever more ridiculous heights; it won’t be long before even the dregs of the late ’70s and early ’80s (think 301 Trans-Ams and 305 Camaros) also become all but unobtainable.

I’m glad I got mine before the curtain came down.


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