Hemi cars heyday has come and gone

Left: Former heavyweight boxing champion Mike Tyson leaves

Left: Former heavyweight boxing champion Mike Tyson leaves Superior Court. (Sept. 24, 2007) Right: Security personnel stand near a rare 1971 Plymouth Hemi Cuda convertible that is being displayed before an auction in New York. (Sept. 9, 2005) (Credit: AP)

There has never been an engine like Chrysler’s 426 Hemi. And there probably never will be. But the Hemi had its 15 minutes of fame, at least as far as values are concerned. Yet I am often bombarded by collectors and investors who still think that they can make a fortune buying and selling Hemis.

A well-known sports writer coined the phrase “Mike Tyson Syndrome” to describe an athlete that is no longer relevant to their sport, yet continues to draw so much media coverage that they eclipse those who are.
I can’t help but wonder whether Hemi-powered cars are the Mike Tysons of the collector car world?

In January of 2007 a 1971 Plymouth Hemi Cuda convertible sold for $2.2 million at the RM auction in Scottsdale, Arizona. Granted, this car only had 300 original miles on the odometer, but those were very hard miles that had been put on “1/4 mile at a time.” In fact, it was common knowledge that the original engine had been removed and replaced with another during the years that this car accumulated its 300 miles at the drag-strip. Eventually the original engine was replaced, somewhat sullying the cars pristine provenance. Still, as one of only 11 1971 Hemi Cuda convertibles it is a very rare car. This sales price translated into a return on investment of roughly 50,000% of the original purchase price had the original owner kept the car. Not too shabby.


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“A rising tide floats all boats,” and sometimes cars. Hemi powered cars, although always on the radar of serious collectors, began to increase in value almost exponentially. Everybody had to have one, whether to drive to the local cruise-night or expand a diversified collection. The feeding frenzy had begun and prices continued to climb at major auctions. Hemi-powered cars had long ruled on the streets (at least in folklore), but now they ruled on the sales block. Auction houses scrambled to get their hands on any Hemi-powered car that they could, reaching farther and farther down the Hemi food chain to the likes of Hemi Belvederes and Hemi Coronets. And people continued to buy, at ever increasing prices.

All people talked about were Hemi, Hemi, Hemi. The Hemi was enjoying its heyday, just like Mike Tyson did when he became the youngest boxer to win the WBC, WBA and IBF heavyweight titles at only 20 years of age. It had taken the Hemi a little bit longer, about 36 years, but it too had knocked out all comers and was the center of attention in its world.

Then something happened. Somewhere around October of 2008 someone said that the country was in a recession that could conceivably turn into a depression. The prices of almost all collector cars dropped significantly, but none more so than the Hemis. Sure, the super rare ones like the one that sold for $2.2 million probably held its value, or even increased a bit as did most other super rare cars. But what about the other hundreds, if not thousands, of more pedestrian Hemis whose prices had run way up during the preceding 20 or so months? They came crashing down to levels that were often lower than they were even before the Hemi gold rush. The tide had come in, and the tide had gone out, and not many Hemis were left floating. Many buyers of these cars were way underwater.

Some, for whom money was not an issue, were able to hold onto the cars, but due to the poor economy, others who had hoped to make money on their Hemis were forced to sell at a loss. This sudden influx of Hemis into the market had the effect of reducing values even further. There is a lesson in here somewhere on why it is sometimes best to leave the investment aspect of car collecting to the investors.

To be certain, there are still some Hemi cars out there that are very rare, either because of their very limited production numbers, or their history, or both. But these are few and far between, and very expensive. The fact is that there are probably more Hemi powered cars of all types on the market right now than ever before, many at affordable prices.

Yet any time that a Hemi powered car crosses the auction block, or appears in the media, the rhetoric begins. Voices rise in excitement. Terms such as the “elephant motor,” powerful Hemi, unbeatable Hemi, street Hemi, race Hemi, Hemi this and Hemi that are all thrown about with wild abandon. Why is this? Nobody can appreciate the sound of a Hemi, or the way it looks with those eight spark plug wires plugged right into the middle of the valve covers more than me. But the Hemis day has come and gone, yet it is still treated as if it were the focal point of the collector car market. It seems to transcend time and logic, much like the fascination with Mike Tyson. Maybe deep inside there is a part of all of us that is collectively expecting it to return to its former glory, just like Mike Tyson.

And I think that someday it will…unlike Mike Tyson.  

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