Collecting classic cars - tips for the beginner

There's a lot of talk about the classic car market on the collecting circuit, with values climbing after a host of record sales in 2013. Inevitably, this brings an influx of beginner collectors attracted by the hobby's recent exposure.

However, there are a few tips you need to know before building your garage. Collector cars are rarely a cheap buy and it's easy for the inexperienced to get themselves into trouble - the Paul Fraser Collectibles guide aims to help you avoid any major breakdowns when you're on the collecting road…

Collectors vs owners

It doesn't have to be blue chip: exceptional collector cars are seeing strong results across the board

Do you have a collection of cars, or simply a lot of vehicles to your name? It's important to make the distinction.

The key is focus: anyone can spend thousands on a line-up of stunning classic cars, but this does not make for a good collection. Collections are usually concentrated on one particular aspect, such as the body style, manufacturer, era the car was made, or cars that were raced in competitions.

Predominantly, a strong collection is born out of a love of the subject matter. To graduate from car owner to car collector, you must research: find out all about the cars you love and what makes you love them, and this will give you a good start on deciding what to buy.

And remember, any car can be a collector car, it doesn't have to be a "blue chip" Ferrari to be the star of your collection.

"We are seeing strong - and often market shifting - results for any car that is an exceptional example, whether it be an Austin Seven or an Austin-Healey 100," says James Knight, group motoring director at Bonhams.  

Be prepared for empty pockets

Contrary to popular opinion in the media, collector cars don't always make their owner money. Sure, values are rising, but mainly for the "exceptional examples".

Some cars can look like a good investment, but lift up the hood and you can discover thousands of dollars worth of restoration work ahead of you - do as much investigative work as possible before parting with your money.

But that's not to say there isn't money to be made. Those with the right knowledge can "flip" cars, which involves buying them for cheap, doing a bare minimum of work (or even none at all), and then selling in a more profitable market.

But be wary. Many collectors fall in love with the cars they plan to "flip" and decide to keep them as a permanent part of their collection. The additional costs of car collecting - storage, insurance and taxes - will all then mount up.

Ears to the ground

Barn find E-type
A barn-find Jaguar E-Type - just a dream for collectors today, as the majority are accounted for

One of the most exciting times for any car collector is when they hear of a rare "barn-find" car - a dusty old classic that has been languishing on someone's property, unloved and almost forgotten.

This is a dream situation, but with the popularity of car collecting at the moment, instances of a genuine barn finds are becoming few and far between, especially for the most desirable models, the majority of which are accounted for.

However, remarkable discoveries are still available to those with their ears to the ground. We all pass covered cars on driveways almost every day, and often the owners are keen to get rid of them for peanuts.

All it takes is a simple inquiry and you could have a bargain on your hands. If not, the owners are often just glad to meet someone interested in their old car and you could meet a like-minded collector.

Provenance is profit

You see a listing for a car you have always wanted. It's in great condition, the price is right and you have the balance in the bank. But, before you place your bid, you notice it has no ownership history, no documents and no service history… do you buy it?

For the collector, the answer is no. When buying your average family run-around, a lack of provenance might not be that important, but to the collector, it is everything.

Without a clear provenance, it's hard to tell which parts are original, how many miles the car has done, what restoration work has already been carried out, or even whether the car was stored in a damp, rust-creating marshland that has all but ruined its internal workings.

These are all deciding factors on the value of a car, and any vehicle that is offered without a sound provenance should set alarm bells ringing. If it's a car you're planning to make a profit on, steer clear.

Join the club

Attending events like the Pebble Beach Concours d'Elegance is the highlight of many collectors' years. This 1938 Phantom Corsair shows why.

One of the best aspects of car collecting is the prevalence of clubs, societies and functions for like-minded enthusiasts. It's not what you know, it's who you know, and clubs are the best way to pick the brains of experienced collectors.

Better still, get friendly with those in the know, and you could get tip-offs on hot trends, barn finds waiting to be bought, or upcoming auction lots.

See Wikicollecting's comprehensive list of car clubs and societies.

A long-term love

So, you've come to sell your prized classic, but the collecting community just isn't buying. You need to make money for your next purchase, but interest is lacklustre and similar models are selling far below what you had expected - what do you do?

Wait. Being successful in selling is usually a question of patience. If the model was popular at one time, it is likely to be in fashion again at some point as trends tend to be cyclical. Hold on to what you've got, get a few years more enjoyment out of it, and then sell when the market is hot.

Don't be tempted to go for the quick cash-in, you'll regret it in the long run.

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