Out with the Old

An auction scandal over a 1939 Porsche, and a growing market for rather more recent vehicles, leaves lifelong classic car fan Simon de Burton wondering exactly what ‘classic’ now should mean

By Simon de Burton

September 24 2019

‘Debacle’ is a word with which any follower of UK politics will now be thoroughly be familiar; it also best describes the attempt by RM Sotheby’s to sell a car from 1939, described as the first to bear the Porsche badge, in its annual flagship auction staged during Monterey car week in August.

Listed as ‘the most historically significant of all Porsche cars,’ the Type 64 was one of three built at the behest of the Nazi Party’s Motor Corps to a design by Ferdinand Porsche, making it both highly controversial and, according to RM Sotheby’s, ‘the antecedent of Porsche’s historical evolution’.

Understandably there was high excitement when it appeared at auction with a pre-sale estimate of $20m. So when the bidding opened straight out at $30m and swiftly soared to a high offer of $70m, there were gasps all round – until it was revealed that the Dutch auctioneer’s English had been misinterpreted, including by those operating the on-screen graphics in the room. He’d actually started bidding at $13m; the high bid was $17m.

Inevitably, the car (which had previously been offered privately for considerably less than $20m) failed to sell, amid boos and hisses. But the Type 64 was only one of many big-number entries that were left on the shelf during Monterey car week, which saw this year’s auctions generate a total of $245m between them, against the $370m realised in 2018 for around 25 per cent fewer lots – and many of the multi-million dollar cars that did sell changed hands for below estimate prices. It’s a scenario that seems to be playing out at all levels and at auctions in both America and Europe.

Made for the Nazis in 1939, a disaster for RM Sotheby’s in 2019: the Type 64 designed by Ferdinand Porsche
Made for the Nazis in 1939, a disaster for RM Sotheby’s in 2019: the Type 64 designed by Ferdinand Porsche

The fact is, the market for classic cars (as we know them) appears to be softening after a full decade of glorious growth, during which the perceived values of everything from humble MGBs to the rarest Ferraris, and from early Land Rovers to the exotic McLaren F1, reached sums that were previously beyond the wildest imaginings of even the most optimistic of dealers and enthusiasts.

But what, actually, is a ‘classic’ these days? The definition was once pretty clear in the minds of most people, regardless of whether or not they were automobile enthusiasts. Essentially, if a car was a few decades old and was clearly from a different era of motoring, it was referred to as a ‘classic’ – even if it hadn’t been especially popular, successful or highly regarded in period.

Such classics have been the crux of my motoring life. They were the only wheels I could afford at first, and then became the cars I chose due to their design, their simplicity, the history behind them and, probably, the fact that their individual peculiarities are as charming as they are inconvenient. Why would anyone who liked to have their emotions stirred choose a modern, characterless, computer-controlled box instead?

The Bonhams MPH  top-seller, a £49,500 1993 Ford Escort RS Cosworth
The Bonhams MPH top-seller, a £49,500 1993 Ford Escort RS Cosworth

But recently I was travelling on a dual carriageway in my 1970 TR6 – fuel being consumed at a gallon every 18 miles, a refreshing breeze blowing through the gaps in the soft top and tiny modern shopping cars whizzing past me – when it hit me that time might be running out for ‘classic’ classics.

With 150 horsepower, sprightly acceleration and a claimed top speed of 120 mph, the TR6 was once seen as a hairy-chested sports car of impressive performance. But I’m finally accepting that it’s so far removed from the modern automobile in every sense, that it barely has a right to occupy the same road space. In other words, such cars really are, finally, becoming as obsolete as dinosaurs, in terms of being practical transport. Driving one is akin to using a theodolite instead of sat nav, doing sums on an abacus, or cooking on an open fire: once the done thing, still fun now and then – but not to be made a habit of.

And that’s partly why the definition of a classic – or collectible – car appears to have altered rather suddenly. In the past five years ‘modern classic’ has become the new classic, with collectors willing to pay premium prices for interesting cars made during the 1990s, early 2000s and even during this very decade.

The $8.2m Lamborghini Veneno
The $8.2m Lamborghini Veneno

The fact is, if you prefer driving to mending, if you want comfort and not hardship, if you favour resilience over rust, then a modern classic is the way to go. The sweet-spot era, many would agree, falls between the mid-to-late 1980s and the early 2000s, a time when performance cars were still made with manual gearboxes, electronic nannying devices had yet to replace driver skill, corrosion was becoming a thing of the past and reliability was built-in.

As a result, many relatively recent cars are now appearing at ‘classic’ auctions, with some houses staging sales specifically dedicated to them. Most notably, Bonhams recently inaugurated ‘MPH’, a new strand of its car department that aims to make classic car ownership more accessible, more affordable and, perhaps, more fun.

It’s based at Bicester Heritage, the Oxfordshire centre for classic car excellence that occupies the site of Britain’s most complete WWII bomber base. MPH’s first sale in September was highly successful, the top seller being a 1993 Ford Escort RS Cosworth that drew £49,500, while other performers included a 2016 Audi A4 RS6 for £38,250, and £37,125 for a 2006 Renault Clio V6 255 Sport.

But it’s not just enthusiasts with £50,000-or-less to invest in an interesting car who are going the modern route – so are those with millions to spend, as evinced by the Bonhams ‘Bonmont’ sale in Geneva in October. A sell-off by the Swiss state of cars seized in a corruption scandal, it comprised virtually every key supercar made this century, from a LaFerrari at $2.1m to a Koenigsegg at $4.6m, and a Bugatti Veyron at $1.3m.

The highlight was one of nine Lamborghini Venenos made for the marque’s 50th anniversary in 2013. Now, it is sometimes said that, regardless of age, a car can be described as ‘classic’ when its pre-owned value matches or exceeds its original retail price. Those nine Venenos each cost $4m when new; and Bonhams sold this example for $8.2 million.

So that must make it a true classic,
then? Discuss...