Muscle Rules Again: Behind the excitement and extreme prices of muscle cars today

Tim Andrew

They sparkle under the auction lights like candy-colored confections, as if steel and iron had been whipped into a froth of 1960s style and Detroit power. Muscle cars are hot, and they've virtually taken over the collectible-car scene, accounting for one-third of the 1084 cars that Barrett-Jackson offered and sold this year at its well-known auction in Scottsdale, Arizona. One 1970 Plymouth Hemi 'Cuda convertible crossed the block there at a knee-buckling $2.16 million.

Unfortunately, the frenzy of buying and selling also has brought plenty of suspect cars and disreputable players onto the scene. What with the bark of auctioneers, the whispered conversations with brokers who promise "numbers matching," and the late-night telephone conversations with muscle car owners in faraway states, it makes you wonder if there's any room left for a guy who just wants a nice, honest muscle car to drive to Bob's Big Boy on Saturday nights.

Well, Colin Comer offers some worthwhile advice. "Slow down," he says. "Read. Research. Ask around. Know what you want, and know what you're buying. There are plenty of cars to buy if you know what to look for."

Of course, Comer would be more than happy to sell you something from Colin's Classic Automobiles (colinsclassicauto.com), an emporium specializing in rare, collectible muscle cars that's just a few miles from downtown, made-in-America Milwaukee. He's got about twenty-five cars on his floor right now and turns over approximately 200 cars a year. Comer has been involved in the business for twenty years, and he'd like your buying experience to be a happy one, even as you cash in your 401(k) to feed your muscle car habit like some kind of dope fiend. After all, Comer has been there himself.

"When I was a kid, I used to bring home car parts that I found in the street," Comer says. "I started out reading the newspaper ads all the time and looking for neat cars. My first car was a 1968 Mustang convertible that some college kid had driven up from Florida. An old lady had backed into it and mashed the fender, so he sold it to me for $500. I parked it around the corner about two blocks from my house so my father wouldn't find out. A week later, someone offered me $900 for it, so I sold it. This was in about 1985. I was thirteen."

1970 Plymouth AAR 'Cuda

There's some dispute about the prime years of muscle car manufacture in America, when big cars with big engines ruled the streets, but the current auction frenzy dates the introduction of the Pontiac GTO (then an option package for the Tempest Le Mans) in 1964 as the beginning of the golden age, and it thinks of the 1973 model year-when the cars were choked by exhaust-emissions hardware-as the end of the era. As Comer notes, "Like Elvis, muscle cars started skinny and ended fat and dressed in sequins."

In recent years, muscle cars have become recognized as an American art form, special vehicles from a special time and place. "It was like a perfect storm," Comer says. "It was the 1960s, and kids were the powerhouse buyers. They were working in a factory and making some money for the first time or maybe coming back from Vietnam with money they'd saved. Much of the driving-age population was under age twenty-five. And they were saying, 'Hey, let's shake it up.' Detroit was ready for some fun, too, and the insurance companies were caught sleeping."

Until the late 1990s, muscle cars had been largely overlooked as nothing more than charming Americana. As car enthusiasts from the baby boom generation reached midlife and found themselves with some disposable income, they turned to the cars that they once yearned for as high-school students, a pattern in the world of collectible cars that has been repeated over several generations.

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