Pebble Beach Concours D'Elegance Shows Collector Car Market Weakness

Robert Farago
by Robert Farago

Whatever happened to Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous? Robin Leach’s TV series motivated class warriors and aspiring entrepreneurs alike, fortifying the former group’s conviction that they had a sacred duty to redistribute wealth (if only on aesthetic grounds) while inspiring rappers, coke dealers and other venture capitalists to redouble their efforts to reach ever-greater heights of conspicuous consumption. These days we have federal stimulus packages and MTV’s Cribs, which doesn’t include a single golden bath fixture (or a single book, but that’s another story). Ah, but we pistonheads will always have Pebble Beach, where we can watch old money compete with modern-day robber barons to pocket the world’s automotive crown jewels. One can almost hear Robin’s Harrow twang calling the tune: “One lucky collector bought home this 1938 Bugatti Type 57C Special, Ettore Bugatti’s personal car, for $1.38 mmmmmillion dollars.” Leach-like, the majority of the MSM would have you believe the collector car market defies economic gravity. The New York Times sets us straight.

As expected, total dollar volume declined — to about $117 million this year from $138 million in 2008. Gooding & Company was again the overall leader with just over $50 million of sales.

But the total amounts that changed hands don’t tell the whole story: overall results were puffed up by sales of high-price cars like a 1965 Shelby Cobra Daytona Coupe that brought $7.25 million including buyer’s premium (the weekend’s high sale) at the Mecum Auctions sale; a Ferrari California Spider sold by Gooding for $5.1 million; and a Jaguar C-Type that brought $2.8 million at the RM auction . . .

Clearly, buyers at the very top end of the market still have no qualms about writing checks for very expensive cars. The 10 highest single-lot sales came to more than $40 million, or a third of the total.

But the situation was less rosy further down the line. More common cars and those in less-than-perfect condition sold, in many cases, for much less than their low estimates.

Keep in mind, this is Pebble Beach (doncha know). The financial reality is carefully hidden behind velvet ropes. And the action at lesser auctions (for lesser vehicles) is grim, with prices collapsing and a large percentage of cars failing to make their minimum. Not that you’d know from the media coverage, which always focuses on the top sellers.

Bottom line: if you have champagne wishes (and a bullet-proof bank balance), it’s a good time to buy the best. If you have caviar tastes on a hummus budget, TV coverage is still your best bet. Just remember: the revolution will not be televised.

Robert Farago
Robert Farago

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  • Fred Fred on Aug 24, 2009

    Still it's not weak enough for my checkbook.

  • Argentla Argentla on Aug 24, 2009

    I agree with Chuck. I went to a show in El Segundo, CA on Saturday -- your local show-and-tell, not a concours -- and there were a couple of cars there with elaborate homemade signs proclaiming the rarity of their cars. One was a '68 or '69 Mustang, and the sign gave an elaborate breakdown of how it was the only car in that particular color with that engine in that body style with a four-speed. As a piece of interesting trivia, fine, but when it becomes an excuse to try to run up the price, it strains credibility. Yes, it may be the only one of that combination, but it ain't a Bugatti Royale.

  • MrIcky Worrying about mileage is for poors.
  • ToolGuy A 'true' Volvo (pre Ford Motor Company). I would buy this and drive it for 3 years until I can get one of them 'Chinese' EV things. But I'm offering $1,850 against your $3,700 because you couldn't be bothered to pull it outside for pictures. 😉 And I will stick close to home with this one -- no road trips.In related news (Relevant and Connected!!): My new dishwasher is Swedish -- little outfit called Frigidaire, you may have heard of them. (On order, should be here in March)
  • CKNSLS Sierra SLT Let me get this straight-It's OK for GM to make cars in China and ship them here-under a Buick name. But for the Chinese to directly do it is not OK.If the Big 3 had not a deserted sedans/low end of the market they wouldn't have anything to worry about.Yea...makes perfect sense.
  • Analoggrotto This must look great in your Tellurides
  • Dukeisduke Meanwhile in the EU, they're inviting Chinese manufacturers to build assembly plants there, especially in Italy. FIAT cut back production in Italy from one million vehicles a year, to 750,000, so the Italian government wants the Chinese plants for the jobs they'll create. They've contacted BYD about building a plant, but so far, BYD has only committed to building a plant in Hungary. A second plant in the EU will depend on demand for vehicles.