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

Tim Andrew

Then something odd happened in 2002. Milt Robson, a car collector from Atlanta, put a classified advertisement in Hemmings Motor News for his blue, 1971 'Cuda convertible with a Hemi V-8 engine and a four-speed manual transmission, one of just two such cars built by Plymouth that year. Robson asked $1 million for it, and he got his money. Muscle car sales have been on fire ever since, and now a handful of selected cars have cracked the million-dollar mark, or what Comer calls "the two-comma barrier."

Yet Comer thinks there's more to the muscle car craze than just a speculative frenzy such as the boomlet in Ferrari values that followed the death of Enzo Ferrari in 1988. Comer notes: "Everybody who is into these cars either remembers driving them or wants to find out what they missed. The big thing is, there's lots of things to do with them. In Milwaukee, which shouldn't be the heartland of car enthusiasm, we have four cruise nights each week, not to mention rallies. A muscle car is different from other collectibles, because you get to actually use it in the way it was meant to be enjoyed. And there's something reassuring about knowing that if something breaks, you can walk to the local parts barn, buy fifty bucks' worth of parts plus a nine-sixteenths-inch wrench, and get going again in an hour. A guy can pop the hood on a Sunday, gap the points and set the timing, feel like he's at one with his machine, and then spend the rest of the day driving."

1967 Pontiac GTO

Beginning in the early 1990s, Comer would drive to Arizona, load a bunch of rust-free cars on a semi, and then bring them to Milwaukee, where he'd restore and sell them. But those days are gone, he says. The Internet and eBay have revolutionized things, so there are no diamonds in the rough to be found while looking through the AutoTrader or cruising the Pomona Swap Meet. "Only five percent of all the muscle cars are really desirable," Comer says, "and eighty percent of the buyers want that five percent."

Since the odds of finding greatness are so poor, some newbie muscle car enthusiasts sink their money into less desirable cars in rough condition, figuring a restoration will help it reach top value. But, as Comer explains, you just can't get there from here. "You can't buy a pig in a poke and hope to restore it to prime condition," Comer says, "If you see a certain car that's worth $100,000, you can't start with one that's worth $60,000 and get there. A top-class restoration takes 1000 hours of labor, plus parts. That's about $65 per hour in labor, and parts as simple as chrome trim can cost $5000."

Fortunately, good investment-grade cars do come to market, although they emerge slowly. The trouble is that car auctions can be scary for amateurs, with lots of pressure to buy and little opportunity to figure out just what you're buying. There are plenty of car brokers, but many of them specialize in a quick coat of resale-red paint and a fast fifteen percent commission (five to ten percent is the reputable rate).

Comer suggests that you take care to determine exactly what it is you're buying. Do your homework, then do the math. "There's no reason to think that you're on the outside looking in," Comer says. "Thousands and thousands of cars were built, and some of the best cars to own and drive are actually the most affordable ones. Auction results are the best guides to muscle car values. Just remember that a car with a four-speed manual transmission is always worth about 25 percent more than a car with an automatic."

Rarity is the prime directive, of course, just as it is for any collectible. Ironically, the bewildering num-ber of options with which muscle cars were equipped en-sures that rare combinations can be ob-tained relatively readi- ly. If lots of options are included, it's also likely that the car in question was built in low numbers.

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