Classic American Cars: Is There a Fortune in Your Garage?
Life and Leisure

Classic American Cars: Is There a Fortune in Your Garage?

© RK Motors Charlotte

Chip Fudge collects cars: Lamborghinis, Maseratis and rare vehicles you've never heard of. The 59-year-old's love for exotic autos knows no bounds, other than the 14,000 square feet of his Oklahoma City garage. "I want the cars to easily fit in so I can drive them out," Fudge said. "If I buy any more cars, I'll have to sell some."

Besides expensive European sports cars, Fudge also likes models he says he "thought were just neat” when he was 13 or 14 years old. He's owned, sold or traded classic American cars such as a Dodge Challenger and a 1971 Corvette. And he recently bought a Ford Genie, previously owned by famous car restorer and TV personality Chip Foose, for a quarter of a million dollars. "The next day one went for $340,000 and I felt like I stole it for $250,000 and mine has better provenance," Fudge said.

Despite their eye-popping current values, none of the American vehicles collectors like Fudge chase after were particularly expensive when new — they certainly wouldn’t have matched the hefty prices of a then-current Italian sports car.

Slideshow: 21 Classic American Cars That Have Skyrocketed in Value

But collectors have helped push up values of less exotic domestic models over time. Black Book, a publisher of value guides for new and used vehicles, says a handful of American cars have transcended their "regular" start to become collectibles with prices that can top $1 million.

The market for classic cars largely splits into those from before World War II and those after the conflict, says Eric Lawrence, director of specialty publications at Black Book. "You have a subset called the true classics, like the Dusenbergs or 1923 Cadillacs or the old Packards," Lawrence says. "What you'd expect a Hollywood star of the ‘30s to show up to an award show driving."

The category also includes rare cars from Europe, like the Porsche 929, says Dietrich Hatlapa, founder of Historic Automobile Group International, or HAGI. "Less than 300 cars were ever made," he said. "It was never sold in the U.S. and you couldn't drive it on the road without some major modifications." As made, it wouldn't be street legal.

Related: The 15 Best Cars of 2017

As with other collectibles, rarity is a "value driver" for cars, according to Hatlapa. As supply shrinks, prices rise to meet demand — and avid collectors often have significant incomes they are willing to put toward such purchases. Many favorites in the post-war exotic collectible car market — Ferraris, Lamborghinis and Aston Martins, for example, as well as European sports cars like Porsches and Jaguars — were made in smaller production runs and cost a small fortune when new.

American vehicles from the 1950s through mid-‘70s came to their collectible status differently. Post-war American classics include the '57 Chevy; '55 or '56 Ford Thunderbird; older luxury cars like the Cadillac Eldorado; so-called pony cars like Mustangs; and muscle cars with big engines, including the Dodge Charger RT, Chevrolet Chevelle SS 396, and Pontiac GTO. Originally these vehicles were not expensive or high-end. "People didn't expect them to become collectible," Lawrence said. "They were just that year's neat car.”

As a result, despite being mass produced, there are relatively few of them still around, at least compared to demand from classic car buffs, which has increased as people like Fudge look to purchase reminders of their youth. “You know how sometimes you hear about those one-of-a-kind baseball cards?” Lawrence asked. “It's because people bought them with a stick of gum or tobacco, played with them for a couple of days, and then threw them away." The few that didn’t end up mangled or in the trash became rare and very collectible. Similarly, if many people sock away the same car it’s unlikely to appreciate as much in value.

Related: The Worst Cars at the 2017 Detroit Auto Show

That’s not to say money is, or should be, the only factor driving collectors. "There are lots of other value definitions," Hatlapa said. "Pride of ownership, fun driving the cars, fun working on the cars, enjoying attending events, or even racing them. Or what you liked when you were younger. Those are for the enthusiast more important than price appreciation."

David Pressler, a retired firefighter in Davie, Florida, has five 1999 Buick Rivieras. He fell in love with the vehicle's comfort years ago when driving upwards of 150 miles a day for work. In the 2000s, he looked for a replacement, but the car was no longer made. So he started collecting them. "I'm driving my money around and I'm enjoying it," Pressler said. He'd be willing to part with one or two, but wants close to $10,000 when the normal going rate for the model is under $5,000.

"My market is really unique," Pressler said.

Hatlapa's firm recently helped a wealthy collector obtain a car he wanted: a 1960s Oldsmobile in very good condition. "He ended up buying the car for less than $25,000," Hatlapa said. "If you're trying to chase something other people may be chasing, it's much more difficult. You have to second guess what is liked in the market. If you have your own taste, that's much easier to follow."

Related: The 16 Best New Luxury Cars of 2017​​

If you do want to make money from an investment in a collectible car, Hatlapa says that rarity — whether from low production numbers (fewer than 1,000 units built) or a lack of preservation leading to relatively few examples, as with one-time "ordinary" American cars — is important. Also look for cars that have a racing or sporting heritage. "In many cases, these are convertibles or sports cars, two-seaters."

Although it still happens on occasion, don't expect to stumble across a vintage car squirreled away in an old barn or garage. "Very often they're derelict cars and they need a lot of time and money to bring them back to good running condition," Hatlapa said. "Because classic car values have been rising, a lot of these barn finds have been found and cars have been restored."

The restoration process can be costly in its own right. Fudge says a paint job, depending on what you want, could run from $5,000 to $50,000. New interiors can cost $12,000 to $15,000 or much more. A complete disassembly and rebuilding of a car down to the last nut and bolt could be $250,000, far more than the value of most American collectibles.

But if you've got the money, a beautiful muscle car — and a whiff of your youth — might just be worth it.

Click here to see 21 classic American cars that have skyrocketed in value.