From Bentleys to Plymouths, Antique Cars Are Way of Life

Last weekend's classic car races and auction in Monterey, Calif., show that the industry is making a big comeback

IT was the weekend that classic car buffs dream about all year.

Dozens of rare Ferraris, Bugattis, Packards, and Jaguars competed in California's annual Monterey Historic Automobile Races last weekend, while hundreds of other rare automobiles lined the Pebble Beach Golf Course in Pebble Beach, Calif., for one of the world's most-elegant and well-attended classic car shows, the Concours d'Elegance.

The real high rollers, though, spent their evenings - and money - in downtown Monterey, where millions of dollars worth of cars were gaveled off at the Vintage & Classic Car Auction.

Car collectors are a rare breed - willing, in some cases, to spend phenomenal amounts of money on what others might see as ``just a used car.''

In the waning days of the 1980s, the classic car market became glutted with speculators who didn't care whether they were dealing stocks, bonds, or classic coupes. But the recession hit harder than a speeding ticket. Those same cars lost 50 percent - and sometimes 75 percent - of their value virtually overnight.

``This is the first time in my 30 years in the business that I saw the value of cars go down,'' notes Don Williams, one of the partners running the Monterey Vintage & Classic Car Auction. ``There was just a frenzy based on greed.''

The classic car market is making its comeback. And Mr. Williams deserves some of the credit. He manages a number of the world's most lavish car auctions. He also operates the Blackhawk Classic Auto Collection - which some car buffs laughingly refer to as the world's largest used-car showroom - in the hills outside San Francisco. ``I almost live and breathe cars. I shouldn't say almost,'' Williams says in a sonorous voice. ``Some people will call me in the middle of the night about a car I should see, and I'll get on a plane immediately.''

During any given month, the Blackhawk Classic Auto Collection is likely to display a mix of boat-tail Bentleys, vintage Bugattis, and maybe the odd MGB, carefully spaced out across a granite floor polished to a mirror finish. Ironically, most of Williams's customers rarely set foot in the showroom, preferring to conduct their business discreetly by fax or Federal Express. But by one means or another, Williams claims that he will sell as much as $150 million in antique autos this year.

``The thrill of the chase,'' is what Williams finds most enticing about his work. ``My desire isn't to have possession,'' contends the dapper 49-year-old. ``I paper clip pictures of cars. I put silver clips on cars I've owned. I put gold clips on the cars I haven't owned yet. I want to be able to look back someday at a picture book of classic cars and say, `I owned them all.' ''

``The big collectors make the headlines, but the bulk of your collectors are meat-and-potato people,'' confides William Smith, executive director of the Antique Automobile Club of America in Hershey, Pa. ``Not many of us drive Duesenbergs. Most of us are into less-expensive cars, like a '36 Plymouth Sedan that might trade for $12,000 - if it's in excellent condition.''

Whatever they're spending, most collectors seem to have one thing in common: nostalgia. Most collectors specialize in - or at least start with - the cars they remember most fondly from their youth.

Pinky Randall's fixation began at the tender age of 4. ``I must have been a mean kid,'' he says, laughing, ``because my mother couldn't wait to get me into kindergarten. But I'd leave an hour early. There was a woman around the corner with a 1932 Chevrolet, and I'd just go there and stare at that car.''

Now 67 years old, the Houghton Lake, Mich., businessman has been collecting cars for 40 years. A 1932 Chevy has an honored place in his garage, but Mr. Randall has also managed to find and restore a dozen other classic Chevys. ``I don't chase women or drink, and my wife is glad of that,'' he says, ``but I do chase cars.''

If you're looking to find a classic to call your own, ``get some good advice,'' cautions John Retsek, host of the syndicated radio program, ``The Car Show.'' Remember, you're buying a used car. And with this much money at stake, scam artists are ready to prey on the gullible. An expert eye can spot a fake or warn of potential problems, such as poorly repaired fenders, a damaged suspension, or an engine that isn't original.

Prices usually reflect factors such as rarity, a car's historical significance, condition and design, and horsepower. V-8 engines usually command more than a slant-6. But the guiding principle for the average collector is to ``buy something that you really like,'' adds Mr. Retsek, who often serves as a consultant to collectors. Don't buy a car just because you think you can make money when you resell it, he says. Of course, it can't hurt if the car you want has enough growth potential to help finance your retirement or your child's college education.

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