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

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 (, 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.

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.

“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 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 , 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?’ “