There are a number of reasons why people buy classic cars. One is the desire to own something unusual, another is the delight of driving a car without the computer-controlled coddling of modern vehicles. Another is that, for the mechanically minded at least, it can provide hours of endless tinkering. There are monetary reasons, too. Depending on the model, the car may well increase in value: as an investment, vintage Ferraris, Porsches and Aston Martins have outperformed many leading fund managers. Such vehicles are often exotic or exceedingly rare, and many have had fortunes spent on their restoration. So it might come as a surprise to find that when the hammer fell on a rusty 1952 Volkswagen Beetle at the Sotheby’s auction in Paris last week, it made €52,000 ($55,650), excluding fees.
It is the latest example of a “barn find” which, as the name suggests, is an old car discovered after years, if not decades, in storage. Some barn finds have all but rotted away and are good for nothing but spare parts. A few, though, appear much as they were when left. This Type 1 Beetle was parked up in Sweden 50 years ago with just 77,000km on the clock. Apart from all the rust on the bodywork, it is in remarkably good nick, runs and is completely original – it even has its first owner’s 1950s wooden skis strapped on the back. Although 21.5m Beetles were manufactured between 1938 and 2003, it is the authentic untouched nature of this car that makes it rare, and thus valuable.
Other barn finds have been turning up as classic-car hunters forage for a piece of motoring history. A horde of rare vehicles was uncovered on a farm in the west of France a few years ago. The star was a dusty 1961 Ferrari 250 GT California Spyder, a particularly rare sports car. When it went to auction in 2015 it fetched $18.5m, including fees. A well-preserved example of the same model, with shiny red paintwork and only three previous owners, was sold in Florida in March 2016. It fetched $17.1m including fees.
It used to be that so-called “preservation cars”, like the Ferrari sold in Florida, would fetch top money. They have usually led a charmed life, are largely original and have been cosseted by their owners. But as the classic-car market attracts more investors, barn finds in particular are becoming more expensive. According to the Knight Frank Luxury Investment Index, classic cars have risen in value by 467% in the past ten years. (That compares to 245% for wine, 206% for art and -30% for antique furniture.) This has brought people into the market – and investors value rarity and originality. Provenance helps, and barn finds tend to have an interesting back story.
The tricky thing is what to do with them. One of the attractions of a barn find, says Peter Haynes, a spokesman for Sotheby’s, is that a car collector has a blank canvas that has not been fiddled with – and possibly badly repaired. So he can do anything he wants with it. But a Beetle from the early 1950s, fitted with replacement parts and a new engine, will cost you around $25,000, half the value of the car sold in Paris. For many mass-produced models the cost of a full restoration often exceeds the value of the vehicle, especially if it was never a particularly loved car. It could cost £15,000 ($18,800) to restore an Austin Allegro, a bit of a duffer built by British Leyland in the 1970s. But you’d be unlikely to sell it for more than a couple of thousand pounds.
There is also a danger in over restoration. Some classic cars are now rebuilt to such a high level that they have better chrome and straighter body panels than even their original manufacturers could manage. Some have turned into “trailer queens” – rarely taken out on the road and only turning up at a posh car show to be driven a few hundred metres to win a place at a concours d’elégance event.
Luckily, vehicle restorers now have techniques to preserve faded paintwork and rusty patches to keep a car looking original and to prevent it from deteriorating further. So it might make more sense to keep a car like the Beetle sold in Paris much as it was found.