Rise of the Machines

Rise of the Machines

A few weeks ago I made my first trek to the annual Barrett-Jackson auction in Scottsdale, Ariz. I've been trying to attend this event for years, but a busy schedule and a lack of funds always got in the way. This year I was fortunate enough to hitch a ride to the auction courtesy of Chrysler as part of its PT Cruiser Convertible press introduction. It was the perfect solution — I could attend the event and work (if you can call attending a press event "work") at the same time.

This auction is truly an epic event. Everything from the size of the venue to the number of people in attendance is on a scale that's hard to believe. The number of cars crossing the auction block measured 762, of which 744 sold. For those of you not into math (I can relate), that's a 98-percent sales rate. And for those of you not familiar with auction sales rates, that is a phenomenal number. Most auctions are considered a success if more than 50 percent of the cars sell.

Yes, everything about this auction exceeded my expectations, including the price of the cars I have the greatest affinity for. A 1970 Hemi 'Cuda coupe (with less than 10,000 original miles) sold for $216,000 — a new world record. World-record Hemi sales were common all weekend, with a Superbird fetching $194,400 and a Hemi Charger netting $170,100 — making it clear why Chrysler continues to sponsor this auction. What better way to plug the new Hemi than to sponsor an event where the classic engine racks up multiple six-figure sales?

While these prices continue to astound me, it was the price of "lesser" cars that really shocked me. I watched a 1970 Plymouth GTX cross the block and clear $32,000. This car had neither a Hemi nor even the rare and desirable 440 six-pack engine. It was "just" a standard 440 car…like the one I've owned for 18 years. I figured my car was worth around $20,000 if restored, maybe $25,000 max.

This dramatic rise in muscle car prices is both a good thing and a bad thing. For folks like me, who have managed to hang on to their cars for nearly two decades, it's possible to spend a bundle on a top-quality restoration and still make a profit when it comes time to sell. But it also means that I can't easily trade up to a more desirable car, such as an AAR 'Cuda or Hemi Charger, because those vehicles have appreciated even more rapidly.

Anyone who has tried to buy real estate in the last few years has experienced the same dilemma. If you haven't bought thinking that prices have to come down, you've been painfully wrong. If you have bought with the thinking that your current property will serve as a stepping stone to a more desirable house, well, you're probably also wrong. As with my GTX, if you already own a condo or house, the best you can hope for is to maintain pace with the rising tide when it comes time to sell. You likely won't be "catching up" with that more desirable model (house or car) you've had your eye on for the last few years.

I, for one, would love to own a nice Hemi 'Cuda or Challenger. And if I could find a great deal on a winged warrior (Plymouth Superbird or Dodge Daytona) I'd be all over it, even without a Hemi or six-pack engine under the hood. Problem is, my definition of a "good deal" differs largely from the market's definition.

Certainly it's nice to know that the repair, maintenance, gas and insurance bills spent on my GTX since the mid-1980s may one day be recouped. But I've basically given up on the 1971 Hemi 'Cuda dream. The market value on these cars indicates my dream isn't an uncommon one, and plenty of the folks who share my muscle car interests have the funds to make them happen regardless of price. But for $150,000-plus, I could buy a Ferrari and get rear disc brakes, air conditioning and rock-solid stability above 140 mph.

In the meantime, my $4,500 GTX (I'm probably into it for around $10,000 total at this point) sits patiently in the garage waiting to fulfill my muscle car dreams. Who knows, one day maybe even it will be worth $100,000-plus dollars. But at that point, a Hemi 'Cuda will cost over a million dollars — along with the average new house in an average neighborhood.

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