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What makes a car a 'classic'?

Auctions take buyers back to the good, old days of their youth.

  • 57 Chevrolet

Global economic crisis? What global economic crisis?

“All those analysts who say we’re in a recession have obviously not been watching the classic Ferrari market,” chirps thegarageblog.com. The blog notes that at an auction held this year by Sotheby’s and Canada’s RM Auctions in Maranello, Italy, a 1961 Ferrari 250 GT SWB California Spyder ‘ owned by actor James Coburn ‘ went for $11 million, minus some change.

“There’s money out there,” says Terry Lobzun, RM Auctions spokesperson. Perhaps even the late actor would be astonished that his favourite set of wheels went for so much, global crisis be damned.

“The cars are still selling,” Lobzun says. “There’s no desperation in the market.”

This buoyancy among buyers and sellers of classic cars remains unshaken despite the fact economists can’t decide whether we’re going to have deflation or inflation. If the latter, “collectibles” will retain an obvious appeal as an investment, aside from the joy their acquisition will bring to the hearts of owners. If the former, car buyers will be left with a beautiful object on their hands, which is more than Nortel investors can say.

The state of the classic car market will be tested next weekend when RM Auctions holds its annual spring auction at the International Centre in Mississauga. Attendees can sit in the car of their dreams, pop the hood, look inside the trunk, ask the seller if the windshield can be replaced, and so on.

You don’t have to be an oil baron from Texas to get in the game, either. Last year, one of the items sold was a 1964 AMC Rambler Classic 770. Price: $1,870 (U.S.).

Never mind that in 1964, when teenagers dreamed of Thunderbirds, the kind of person who owned a Rambler Classic was the high school history teacher. Never mind that it was the least cool car you could imagine, the polar opposite of James Coburn’s Ferrari, and the only thing worse than showing up at the Dairy Queen behind the wheel of a Rambler was showing up on your bicycle. Never mind even the fact that this year you just lost your job. For a couple grand you can be in the game, too.

The Rambler route is not necessarily the way to go, of course.

“The bigger, the better,” is Lobzun’s advice. Big engine block, 400-plus horsepower, four speeds.

“That’s the ultimate muscle car,” Lobzun says. “You can’t really burn the tires as well with an automatic. Well, you can.”

But you get the idea. You want something from the late ’60s or early ’70s, before pollution controls hit and everyone had to get a job and make RSP contributions. Proud Rambler owners might talk about how their 138 horsepower car provides “decades of reliable driving” and has “a graceful, pretty look,” but we’ll take that Challenger or Road Runner or AMX, thank you.

Still, the reputation of cars is a funny thing, and can’t always be reduced to big engine blocks. Why else would Volkswagen Beetle ragtops be in such demand? The Beetle had a cute design, and motorists at the time had a laugh over the giant windup key attached to the rear of some of these cars by their jocular owners, or the sign saying, “Don’t Squash Me, I Eat Harmful Insects.” But it was a terrible car.

But it was iconic in its way. Until reality intervened, some baby boomers wasted their youth cruising for members of the opposite sex, and some on hippie communes, but both still respond to the muscle car or the Beetle that symbolized their hopeful pursuits.

Perhaps the trick in deciding what current car will prove iconic is looking at 20-year-olds and seeing what cars they wish they could own. What is their equivalent of the ’57 Chevrolet? That car was actually outsold by ’57 Fords, but now you can’t give away a 1957 Ford. The ’57 Chevrolet, by contrast, somehow entered into the Valhalla of the “iconic.” Even today, you can’t have a ’50s theme dance without posters of that car on the walls.

The irony is sometimes 20-year-olds respond to cars that, on inspection, turn out to be echoes of past icons. Thomas Peters, designer of the 2010 Camaro, was never so pleased as when he heard kids call his product “a cool, freaky looking car.” Their elders would have recognized it as an echo of the iconic 1969 Camaro – something about the front grill, the proportions.

“There’s a spirit there you want to capture, that enduring timeless spirit,” Peters says. “How do you get that again in a new way? We’re in the 21st century and you want to take advantage of it, celebrate the new technology in a way that will make the car even better.”

An auction, in this light, can also function as an education in taste, helping attendees recognize timeless design elements. If they don’t go home with $100,000 cars, they may at least look at today’s cars with a different, more discriminating eye. And then wait for the global economic crisis to go away.

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