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The appeal of collecting classic cars

Drivers bring their classic cars to compete in

Drivers bring their classic cars to compete in a quarter mile rally in Artemisa, Cuba. Credit: AP (2012)

As the New Year begins, I once again find myself thinking about just what it is about classic cars that so enthralls me, even after all these years. And equally puzzling to me is why everybody doesn’t “get it.” It’s kind of like politics; whatever your political leaning, you simply can’t understand how the rest of the country doesn’t understand what you do. What’s wrong with them?

So rather than ponder the question in some sort of ethereal cosmic way, I’m going to attempt to quantify just what it is about classic cars that afflicts me with what my wife calls “the sickness.”

Envisioned by artists and created by craftsmen in an era when form took precedence over function, classic cars transcend time to touch our lives in a myriad of ways that could not have been anticipated by their creators up to a century ago.

Classic cars touch not only the lives of the millions of collectors who have a genetic predisposition for “the sickness”; it also touches the lives of those who see classic cars as investments, art, nostalgia, and therapy.

As investments, classic cars have outperformed both the Dow and the S & P on an annual basis over the past decade. During the past 36 months in particular, those whose portfolios included investment grade classic cars were able to take solace in the fact that these cars continued to appreciate in value even as their 401Ks became 201Ks.

As an art form, classic cars grace the collections of museums throughout the world, as well as some of the finest private collections, such as that of Ralph Lauren.

Nostalgia is the driving force for many collectors. In what other medium can one choose an era to which they would like to return as a participant, not an observer? Choose the year you would like to return to, pick a car model, pick a color, tune in to your favorite AM radio station, and you’re instantly transported back to a time and place of your choice…..a virtual reality of sorts for those who were born before the term “virtual reality” existed.

“You don’t see classic cars in therapist’s parking lots.” Whether or not this old adage has any basis in fact really doesn’t matter, as most classic car owners use their car as therapy in one form or another. For some, the act of collecting, the hunt so to speak, is a form of therapy. For others it’s a central point around which one can sit with friends while enjoying a beer in the garage, or a glass of champagne at a concours car show. Still for others, it’s a place to silently get lost in your thoughts while doing light maintenance or polishing the chrome.

Even those who feel no attraction to classic cars can’t help but notice when one turns the corner, or pulls up behind them at the gas pump, if for no other reason than that it stands out from all of the generic cars produced by manufacturers today.

If one had to define the essence of a classic car, “form over function” would certainly have to be at the core of this definition. Although there are many definitions of “classic car,” almost all would agree that with few exceptions any car that would be considered classic would be at least 40 years old. Going back 40 years and earlier we find that cars were designed by designers whose main concern was form. Once the car was designed, engineers were tasked with figuring out how to make it function. Hence, form over function.

Designers such as Bill Mitchell (Cadillac & Corvette), Virgil Exner (Chrysler & Studebaker), Ferdinand Porsche (Porsche), Sir William Lyons (Jaguar), Ettore Bugatti (Bugatti), and Battista Pininfarina (Ferrari, Maserati, Rolls-Royce, Cadillac, Jaguar, Alfa Romeo and Lancia) have penned some of the worlds most beautiful and collectible cars with the vehicle as an art form foremost in their mind.

The automobiles of today are designed by craftspeople with titles such as stylist, aerodynamicist, metallurgist, cad-cam engineer, mechanical engineer, electrical engineer, and other such names as befit their highly specialized field of expertise. Function, not form, is at the heart of their design, and understandably so when priorities include fuel economy, crashworthiness, reliability, reparability, and even the ability to be completely recycled when it’s reached the end of its useful life…not unlike a plastic bottle or can of soda.

I wonder if today’s children will grow up with their equivalent of our fond auto-centric memories. I can remember asking my parents if we could “make a big window” by rolling down the front and rear side windows on our pillar-less hardtop. Or sitting facing backwards in the third row of our Pontiac Safari station wagon. Dare I say, I even recall the times that my father would recognize a friend’s car stopped at a red light in front of us.

He would slowly pull forward until he bumped that car a few times. When the light turned green both cars would pull to the curb and friends would stop and talk for a while. Try that today and you’ll get a hefty repair bill, or an air-bag in your face.

For those of us afflicted with “the sickness,” we simply can’t imagine our lives without classic cars. 

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