A Collector’s Guide to Classic Car Values

Ever since the first gasoline-powered automobile was constructed in 1886, there has been a fascination with the design and evolution of transportation vehicles. Car aficionados have come to collect them as a hobby, extending beyond their practical use. In fact, over 70 percent of classic car trades happen through private sales between classic car collectors, 20 percent are sold through auctions, and only about 10 percent through dealerships.

Much like savvy art and furniture buyers, classic car collectors focus on specific styles, periods, and individuals to mold their collections. Car collecting has attracted the likes of famous creatives such as Jay Leno, who has amassed over 150 modern and vintage classic cars himself. Whether you’re looking to buy, sell, or simply have a passion for relics of the past, determining classic car values can be a difficult task due to factors like condition and demand. To help navigate the landscape, there are a variety of valuation tools available to help ascertain the price of a classic car, as well as the best ways to have a classic car appraised, which are outlined below.

What is Considered a Classic Car?

The term “classic” is often used interchangeably when describing an old car; however, there are various classifications, each of which affects a car’s value and separates one category to the next.

The three key car classifications are as follows:

  • Antique car: Antique car classifications are generally set by state laws. In most cases, antique cars are those that are over 45 years old and often categorized by the era in which they were manufactured.
  • Classic car: Classic cars are those that are at least 20 years old, but no more than 40 years old. For this reason, all classic cars are antique cars, but not all antique cars are classic cars.
  • Vintage car: Different groups set different parameters for what qualifies as a vintage car, but in general, those considered vintage were manufactured between 1919 and 1930.

The Veteran Era (1888–1905)

St. Louis Motor Carriage Company, 1899. Image via Wikimedia Commons.

The Veteran Era included the first successfully manufactured automobiles. Cars produced during this time were powered by either steam, electricity, or gas. Because they were individually constructed, the process was slow, costly, and consumers were forced to wait months before cars were completed.

Because construction was new and had yet to be perfected, cars created during this time often broke down due to mechanical issues. Popular models from this era include the 1903 Winton touring car made by Winton Engine Company and the 1905 Ford Model F. Cars produced during this era became mere collectibles versus utilitarian objects for transportation. Not until the next period did cars become used as distinctive modes of transportation.

The Brass Era (1905–1914)

Thomas Flyer Touring, 1910. Image via Wikimedia Commons.

The Brass Era refers to the brass accessories found in cars from this time period such as lights and radiators. After Henry Ford produced the Model T in 1908, car production changed drastically. The Model T was relatively inexpensive and had standardized parts, thus broadening the base of interest and igniting demand for the vehicle. This led to an improved assembly line which enabled Ford to deliver around 100 cars a day. Before the Great Depression in the 1930s, there were hundreds of car manufacturers in the United States, working to capitalize on the demand for transportation vehicles.

During this time, Thomas Motor Car Company’s “Flyabout” roadster, which was considered a luxury car during its time, sold for around $6,000. In 2016, the Thomas Flyer Model K 6-70 “Flyabout” sold for $825,000 at Bonhams.

The Vintage Era (1918–1929)

Ford A 40A Roadster, 1929. Image via Wikimedia Commons.

This era marks the period between the end of the first World War and the stock market crash that prompted the Great Depression. Cars from this era offered a variety of new features including an enclosed area for passengers, more powerful engines, and a quest for comfort over style. By 1925, one in six people had cars, and just five years later, that number reduced to just one in five. The purchase price for a Ford Model T decreased from $800 in 1909 to just $290 by 1925. In 2015, a 1924 Chevrolet Superior F Touring sold for $25,850 through Barrett-Jackson.

Pre-World War II Era (1929–1948)

1947 Cadillac Series 62. Sold for €81,056 via Artcurial (November 2015).

It is during this period that most of the technology we see today was introduced. This includes features such as integrated fenders, enclosed bodies, trunks, radiation, and unified lights. While many companies consolidated or went out of business, General Motors saw success, even amid the Great Depression, reportedly selling over 750,000 cars throughout 1933 in the United States. In 2017, a 1948 Cadillac Series 62 Cabriolet by Saoutchik produced during this era sold for $847,500 at RM Sotheby’s.

Post-War Era (1948–1972)

Ford Mustang. Image via Wikimedia Commons.

After General Motors unveiled its high-compression, V8 engine in its Oldsmobile model, there was an instant pivot to more affordable versions of larger, powerful cars. Cars became more decorative and stylized, and middle-class families and troops returning from war were ready to purchase. In 1964, Ford introduced its Mustang at the World’s Fair, catapulting a wave of more performance-oriented cars that eventually led to the sub-category known as “muscle cars.”

Classic Car Price Guides

There are a handful of popular price guides and websites that help provide an approximate value of vintage, classic, and antique cars. Basic criteria required to help provide a rough estimate include the car’s year, make, model, and condition.It’s always recommended to compare data against multiple sources to gather the most accurate estimation.

National Automobile Dealers Association

The National Automobile Dealers Association produces appraisal guides for an array of used cars and collector’s vehicles. Since creating an online presence in 2000, NADA guides have been a trusted source to value specific makes and models of classic and antique cars for free. The site also allows you to search by zip code to help assess local demand for each specific vehicle.

Hagerty Insurance

Hagerty Insurance is a great resource to appraise cars made after 1945. Using their site, you can search by year, make, or vehicle identification number. Their free guides also show changes in value over time, afford the ability to save desirable makes and models, and even provide insurance estimates for various types of cars.

1956 Fina Sport Convertible Coachwork. Sold for $775,000 via Bonhams (August 2018).

Hemmings

The Hemmings Valuation Tool provides an array of data including the average price of collector’s cars based on recent sales and advertisements from the previous three years. They also offer classified ads, current dealer listings, and publish various guides and magazines that include auctions, highlight classic cars, and provide interesting information for collectors.

HAGI Index

The Historic Automobile Group International‘s HAGI Index is a resourceful tool to keep track of the investment of your car and see which specific ones are growing in value. They track values compared to other luxury investments such as art, collecting data from major sources like private contacts, marque specialists, dealers, and auction results.

Collector Car Market Review

Available in both print and online, the Collector Car Market Review tracks the value and prices of classic cars, pulling from a combination of their own value database, sales reports, government data, new car inventory, and auctions. Each feature also spotlights different cars, styles, and periods from vintage to modern.

How Classic Cars Are Appraised

1949 Jaguar. Sold for $396,000 via Bonhams (August 2016).

Ultimately, your car value is determined by several key factors: how rare it is, what condition it’s in, the quality of its restoration, and market demand. Using these key elements, an appraiser will work to determine the fair market value (FMV), which is defined as the price an object would sell for on the open market between a willing buyer and seller. Below are six classifications used to assess a car’s condition:

  • Parts car: no value beyond harvesting parts to restore other cars
  • Restorable: deteriorated but can be restored to some degree
  • Good: needs minor work to rebuild, has low-quality restoration, and its value can increase if it runs well
  • Very Good: restoration is acceptable and in good condition
  • Fine: restoration has been carefully restored and most original components work well
  • Excellent: perfectly restored or in original mint condition

Top Ten Cars Sold at Auction

Car Auction House Auction Price
1962 Ferrari 250 GTO RM Sotheby’s $48.4 million
1962–63 Ferrari 250 GTO Berlinetta Bonhams $38.15 million
1957 Ferrari 335 Sport Scaglietti Artcurial $35.7 million
1956 Ferrari 290 MM Scaglietti RM Sotheby’s $28.05 million
1957 Ferrari 275 GTB/4*S N.A.R.T Spider Scaglietti RM Sotheby’s $27.5 million
1964 Ferrari 275 GTB/C Speciale Scaglietti RM Sotheby’s $26.4 million
1954 Mercedes-Benz W196 Formula 1 Racer Bonhams €19.6 million euros
1955 Ferrari 410S Rick Cole Auctions $23 million
1956 Aston Martin DBR1 RM Sotheby’s $22.5 million
1935 Duesenberg SSJ Gooding & Company $22 million

Classic car enthusiasts, like fine art collectors, value many aspects of vintage cars, from the craftsmanship of their design and style down to the era in history they represent. While collecting cars may not be a viable hobby for many, those who are fortunate enough to dabble in the craft have a variety of resources available to accurately determine their value and worth. Car aficionados who don’t collect cars can still bask in the beauty of the road vehicles at vintage car shows, in movies, and through historical pictures.

Sources: West Coast Shipping | Love to Know | Architectural Digest