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

Tim Andrew

"Provenance" is a fancy word from the concours crowd that also applies to collectible muscle cars. It defines the history of either the model, the car itself, or the people who owned it. Provenance is simply the story that a car tells, a way to define the magic spell it casts over you. "When I get a car, I hope to get it from its original owner," Comer says. "He's got all the gas receipts, plus pictures of his kids standing next to the car when they were married. It sounds corny, but we're just curators of these cars, and the stories they tell will be around long after we're gone."

The condition of the car naturally counts for a lot, and this means originality as well as sheer shininess. This component of muscle car collectibility has become increasingly controversial. Plenty of cars are advertised as "numbers matching," a phrase taken from the world of Chevrolet Corvette collecting. It is meant to identify a car with its factory-installed original equipment, including the proper casting, date code, and identification numbers from its manufacture. The trouble is, some brokers use this phrase but can neither define those numbers nor even tell you where they are, a clear indicator of a fast-and-loose approach to a car's originality.

1969.5 Plymouth Road Runner

"To me," Comer says, "the word 'correct' defines the equipment a car should have in order to be like a certain model-but not necessarily the equipment it was built with. The car could be a clone, a lesser model built to resemble something more desirable. 'Numbers matching' means that the car is true to what it was born with, but you should remember that a lot of people these days think it means that they simply have to put the right numbers on a new part. A better word is 'original.' "

The world of old muscle cars sounds so fraught with financial catastrophe that it's easy to get disenchanted with the whole business. But Comer is the first to remind us that the obsessions of collectors and speculators shouldn't be allowed to get in the way of ordinary people who want to drive and enjoy these cars. He says, "Muscle cars have personalities. They're all different. They were designed as cheap cars, cut down from larger models, and made with parts that were just lying around. They were built by guys who were drunk on Friday and hungover on Monday, and they would scrawl their names-or other things-on the bare sheetmetal. The cars were designed for kids who wrapped them around telephone poles or blew up the engines before the warranty expired. Some of them drive like crap, and there's a reason so few Hemi convertibles were built.

"But the reason to buy muscle cars is because they're drivable, and you will be driving them. These might even be the last-ever generation of cars to have collectible value, because they're simple to maintain and fun to drive. If you pull up in some fast new car like a Dodge Viper, people say, 'How much is that thing worth?' But when you arrive in a muscle car, they rush over and say, 'This is awesome. How fast does it go?' "

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