Trying to find the upside of a low-interest economy? Buy an old car. Or even a not-so-old one.
This month saw the 42nd annual Spring Carlisle, an extravaganza of a car show, swap meet, and auction for collector vehicles.
With the latter having seen increasing interest in the past few years, Carlisle Events – the company behind the shows and auctions – has scheduled an additional auction-only event in June, banking that the market for trading cars will continue to bear fruit.
“You don’t make a whole lot of money off what’s in the bank these days,” said Carlisle Events’ co-founder, Bill Miller, Jr. “People buy as an investment. It’s something that you can enjoy while it’s appreciating in value.”
Since the end of the economic recession in 2011, the United States has seen one of its longest-ever periods of continual growth – but growth that has been characterized as slow, and incumbent upon low interest rates.
For older car enthusiasts who have money in the bank, this may make buying a classic a better bet than, say, putting that cash on the bond market. For younger enthusiasts, easy access to credit at low rates can make buying a collector vehicle more feasible.
“I sold a car the other day and my sales pitch was exactly that – go out and enjoy the car, have fun, and as long as you take care of it the car will not go down in value and you’ll sell it at a profit a few years down the road,” said Lance Miller, son of Carlisle Events’ other co-founder, Chip Miller.
Hagerty, one of the largest insurers of collector vehicles in the nation, compiles a market index whose trend line roughly mirrors what one would expect to see given the wider economic outlook.
Hagerty’s open-ended index – similar to the Dow Jones or other stock indexes – shows the value of the market rising roughly 85 percent from late 2009 to late 2015, peaking at 186.09 in August 2015 before dropping over the past two years, to 155.7 currently.
This index, however, represents a cross-section of the entire market. Depending on your niche of collecting, the scenario might be quite different.
This makes it difficult to rely on an average or median price trend, Bill Miller said, since each of Carlisle Events’ auctions has a different mix of cars.
“The hobby overall seems really healthy,” Miller said. “It’s difficult to gauge because you’ll auction a car at $200,000, and then one at $3,500, and those are probably both great prices for what they are.”
The June 16 auction will be a one-day event with 200 hand-picked cars of interest, Miller said, putting an ideal spread of bull-market cars in front of bidders, who will be able to transfer their bid credentials from other events, including from the February auction held in Florida.
“[Expansion] is probably going to be in that auction realm for us,” Miller said. “When you think a car is going to bring in $80,000 and it gets bid to $120,000, that’s a great place to be.”
Niche markets tend to be cyclical, Miller said, as the bulk of the money that goes into the hobby is in the hands of older collectors who generally want cars from their youth that they were unable to afford when they were young.
“It used to be that the Model T and Model A were the hottest thing going,” Miller said, referring to the 1920s Fords. But as collectors who idolized those cars passed away, the market share dropped.
The same, according to Hagerty data, is currently happening with 1950s American classic cars, which gained in value rapidly before the 2008 recession, but have since flat-lined.
At the same time, Hagerty’s index group for muscle cars has seen less of a drop since peaking in late 2015, indicating that the Baby Boomer demographic will likely keep prices up on the cars of their youth, even as the economy moves into a higher-rate environment.
Even less data is available on what the Millers see as the up-and-coming market for Carlisle Events – cars of the 1980s and 90s, and even new-production vehicles that are being bought with the expectation that they will be collector’s models in the future.
“The newest generation of collectors wants those cars that were hot back then [in the 80s and 90s],” Lance Miller said. “It’s not any different form previous generations – we aspire to have the things we can’t get, and then when we have the means to buy them, we’re willing to do a lot to finally get them.”
“We’re getting more and more of the later-model folks who are basically buying collector cars of the future, today,” Bill Miller said.
This has fed strongly into Carlisle Events’ other major growth sector – the presence of aftermarket parts and accessory vendors who provide on-the-spot installation at shows and auctions.
“The aftermarket guys are following that and saying ‘we better start producing stuff for the 80s and the 90s models,” Miller said. “The people that have the original parts do the same thing…they store that stuff up until the market starts to turn and then they have it available for folks who are restoring their cars.”
One of the fastest-growing suppliers is A&A Auto Stores, which opened a new location on Route 11 earlier this year. The stores, started in PA, are now part of the larger Keystone Automotive Group, one of the nation’s largest car part distributors.
“The cars are more sophisticated,” said Rudy Forlenza, general manager and retail director at A&A. “Because of that, it’s not like the old days where it was easy and there were no emissions regulations and anyone could make a system that fit on almost any car.”
Installing upgraded exhausts and intakes – the bulk of A&A’s business – is a much different process in the era of computerized cars and environmental efficiency rules. Much of this technology was rolled out in the 1980s, the era that is now presenting more and more collectable cars and interested buyers, but a more intricate situation for aftermarket suppliers.
“The industry knowledge is that the second owner does more to accessorize the vehicle than the first,” Forlenza said. “The first owner will keep it original and clean. When they decide to sell, the second guy comes along and says ‘I’ve been waiting for one of these to kit out,’ and makes it a whole other investment.”
This is true not just of older cars, but of very recent model vehicles that enthusiast are predicting will become the collectibles of tomorrow – especially if they have period-correct upgrades.
“As soon as the cars come out, we’re getting announcements about new products,” Forlenza said. “You’ll get to the show and have cars with less than 1,000 miles on them, and the owner is pulling the stock exhaust off and putting a news system on it.”