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Selling classic cars: Why you should prepare to be disappointed

Classic car buyers in Brazil are fond of

Classic car buyers in Brazil are fond of mid-1960s Ford Mustang Fastbacks. Credit: Ford Motor Company

Potential sellers often ask me what I think their car is worth. Often they are dissatisfied with my response. I will try to explain to them the rationale for my answer, explaining that many considerations are taken into account when valuing a classic car. Some are obvious, such as condition, rarity, and documentation. Others are less obvious such as geographic location, and even the season. Unsatisfied with my explanation, their response is often “Oh well, I’ll just sell it overseas.” I can’t help but wonder, where is this “magic overseas”?

You have a personal connection to your classic car. In all likelihood, when you purchased the car you researched criteria such as options, colors, and production figures. Then you began a nationwide search for the perfect car, purchased it, and waited in agony for the transporter to arrive from some obscure place on the other side of the continent. Or maybe you just got lucky and found it at a cruise-night two miles from your home. No matter, your car(s) have personal meaning and value to you, but only to you.

Classic cars are not often thought of as commodities. But to overseas buyers, they are. And they are subject to the same global economics that affect every other commodity. As the fortunes of the world’s economies shift, so too do the import and export patterns of classic cars. If you think that you’re going to list your car on an internet website or auction site and international buyers are going to clamor to buy your car at a premium, think again.

Every foreign classic car that you see in the U.S. was imported here at some time. They were exported from their country of origin because it was profitable for their manufacturer to do so, and no other reason.

They may not have been classics when they were imported, but time and the whims of collectors have been good to some of these cars and they have achieved this status, once again making them commodities.

And commodities get bought and sold the world over.

The same is true for American cars except that they were manufactured in the U.S. rather than being imported. As they have aged, many have become classics.

It’s easy to get the impression that the entire world is in the same sour, uncertain economic mood as the U.S., and to a large degree this is true. But there are exceptions. To identify these exceptions one only needs visit any large port in the U.S. to see where the containers filled with classic cars are going. The U.S. has become a virtual shopping mall for classic cars from buyers the world over.

South America - Brazil in particular - is the destination for many of these containers filled with classic cars. Their tastes seem to be towards the performance end of the spectrum, both domestic and foreign. I’ve filled containers with everything from mid 1960’s Mustang Fastbacks to Maserati Ghiblis.

Staying in the Southern hemisphere one can’t help but notice the volume of cars going to Australia. They are particularly fond of American cars, with most of what I’m sending “down under” consisting of mid 1960’s convertibles and early 1970’s Cadillacs, especially El Dorados.

Head North to Europe and the tastes change a bit. Northern Europe, and Scandinavia in particular, has been quietly collecting classic American cars for at least a decade and the trend does not seem to be slowing down. Early 1970’s Corvettes seem to be the car of choice, but I’ve sent over nearly everything you can imagine.

The rest of the European countries are suffering economically to one degree or another, and as expected, exports to those countries have dwindled, but they have not stopped. Most of the cars that I am sending there are the typical European classics which are being repatriated at least to their continent, if not country of origin. These consist of the likes of Mercedes Benz 190SL’s, Jaguar XK-120’s – XK-150’s and Porsche 356s.

Germany seems to be the exception to the European economic woes. I have no problem filling containers that will eventually land at Bremerhaven, and when they are opened there will be an assortment of American cars from the 1950’s through the early 1970’s. A large percentage of these containers will discharge Cadillacs, particularly convertibles, from 1962 – 1969.

The Middle East has always been a hot spot for the export of classic cars, and as long as the oil keeps pumping this will probably continue. I’ve noticed that in addition to the European exotics that have been the main staple of their appetite, they have developed an appreciation for American cars of the 40’s and 50’s, as well as motorcycles. It might be a little difficult to find their cars waiting to be shipped from the port, as many of them are flown over as air freight.

The reason that classic cars are leaving this country destined for points all over the globe is because as with any commodity, it makes sense financially. When I tell a seller that their car will be shipped overseas I am often told that “I wish it could stay here in the U.S.” I always respond by telling them that things continuously change, and that there is a very good likelihood that one day it will come home. Just like the Mercedes Benz’s, Jaguars, and Porsches are now. 

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