The Enthusiast-Car Market Is Cooling Off. Sort Of.
“Sellers are showing me comparable sales from 10 to 16 months ago and insisting I set the reserve to match top pricing,” Doug DeMuro, auto YouTube celebrity and founder of auction site Cars and Bids wrote. “Many people, even when confronted with more recent sales evidence, just don’t believe the market has declined from its peak.”
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For the last few years, it seems like the dominant conversation among car enthusiasts is how expensive everything got. Of course, quite literally everything is expensive these days, but for the purposes of this story we’re talking about mass-market enthusiast cars. The pandemic and its resultant effects on the stock market in 2020, a chip shortage that’s led to a lack of new car inventory, and growing interest in enthusiast cars, combined with various other factors that led to skyrocketing prices across a spectrum of vehicles.
There are signs that the market is cooling down, however. At least, it is in certain segments. DeMuro—who is, in the spirit of full disclosure, a friend—has unique insight into this as the owner of Cars and Bids, an auction site exclusive for cars built after 1981. Earlier this month, he shared an informative thread on Twitter based on his experiences setting reserve prices for auctions on his site.
In an interview with Road & Track, DeMuro expanded on his thinking. “I think in an inflationary period, and especially if we believe it was an inflationary bubble period as I do, then by definition, there was overvaluing,” he said. “Things kind of got a little out of control and obviously the federal reserve, and the government in general, are trying to change their monetary supply tactics to try to make things less inflationary…But you know, I really believe that stuff’s worth what people pay for it at the end of the day. People thought they were worth that at the time, but that was in a situation where everything was getting crazy expensive and interest rates were really low, so debt was cheap.”
The market is still hot for a variety of reasons, including limited supply of new vehicles. So while there are now perhaps deals to be had, a softening isn’t happening across the board, and if you think now’s the time to pick up a rare, classic Ferrari for a song, I’m sorry to say that day may never come. “We deal in a different caliber of car than some of those online auction houses, so we really haven’t been affected by it at all,” said Gord Duff, head of auctions with RM Sotheby’s, in an interview with Road & Track.
RM Sotheby’s has seen the same huge increases as the rest of the car market over the last two years, but Duff says its clients aren’t really affected by the same factors leading to a softening elsewhere. “We’re dealing with people of, you know, a certain type of wealth that those things aren’t really, you know, affecting them too much day to day,” Duff said. “[Now, they] even more so probably more of a reason to, you know, put their cash into, you know, very blue-chip type vehicles.”
For those looking for more attainable, yet still aspirational enthusiast cars, the realities are very different. “What we’re seeing right now is that the markets have tightened, especially the stock markets,” DeMuro said. “People don’t quite have as much money as they thought they did six months ago.”
Kyle Stock, a Senior Correspondent with Bloomberg agrees that the stock market is playing a big role here. “There’s always anomalies with vehicles and buyers, but I think generally, the heart of the market does kind of track with the stock market and the economy overall,” he says. “And I think it would be really strange if it weren’t cooling right now because the COVID boost was a real thing.”
“When COVID happened, the market stopped initially, but then skyrocketed, so everybody’s looking at their portfolios and they’re saying, ‘I’m a genius! I’m up 30 percent! I can do whatever I want!'” DeMuro says. “Now there’s a pullback where it’s like, maybe you’re not as much as, and you don’t quite have as much money to screw around with. And so there just become fewer buyers or the same number of buyers, but willing to pay less money. One of the two.”
The catalog for RM Sotheby’s upcoming Monterey auction is interesting. A mix of the cars you’d expect to see at a high end auction—Duesenbergs, pre-War Bugattis, Mercedes Gullwings, Fifties and Sixties Ferraris—and things whose stock has risen in recent years. Notably, there’s a number of Eighties and Nineties supercars, and even a handful of gorgeous Nissan Skyline GT-Rs.
Duff believes there’s still room to grow for cars like the Jaguar XJ220 and other Radwood-era exotica, though interest remains strong in the traditional blue-chip classics. “If you look back over the last 20 years, those significant low production cars, even though they had some dips, they’re still worth quite a bit more than they were 20 years ago,” he said. “When I started at the company, [Mercedes 300SL Roadsters] were $175,000, $200,000, and they went to $400 to $600,000, to $1 million, $1.5 million. They came back a little bit, but they’re never going back to $500,000.”
Stock says that a downturn in the economy might make blue-chip classics more appealing to the ultra-wealthy, as they’ll continue to appreciate. You see those cars—like the 1974 “chairs and flares” Dino 246 GTS that sold for $853,000 on Bring a Trailer—continue to sell strongly, and we may see more of that later this month at the Monterey auctions.
Without the benefit of much hindsight, it’s hard to say exactly when the softening started, though DeMuro thinks it was likely earlier this year with markets falling and interest rates rising. One of the first car markets the team at Cars and Bids noticed was new Mercedes G-Wagens, which for a time were regularly selling for $100,000 over sticker. Those were easy sells for Cars and Bids, but in the last few months, they started seeing cars not meet reserve. Late model Porsche 911s also seem to be softening. Not limited-production and extremely hyped cars like GT3s and the like, but more common Carrera models. Rising gas prices have also had an effect on enthusiast SUVs in general, which had previously been going strong.
Despite the market for blue-chip cars still seemingly growing, overall, things are leveling off. Hagerty’s Market Rating, which judges the classic-car market based on a number of factors, has dropped for the first time since April 2020. The insurance agent says that inflation is outpacing classic-car appreciation, though values still remain very high.
DeMuro recently made a video on the state of the market as he sees it, and it’s worth watching to get a better idea about what’s happening for specific models. There are still plenty of cars that continue to bring strong results, some surprising, like the E36 M3, and some less surprising, like the Rivian R1T.
It’s tough to know where things are headed exactly, especially with a recession a strong possibility. What is certain is that if you know where to look, there could be a deal to be had. When was the last time you could say that?
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