Whether you're buying one to drive, to tinker with in the shed, for the social aspect of joining a club, or even as an investment, owning a classic car is an achievable dream.
How to make a classic decision
It can start with a simple comment by your partner that you should find a hobby. Or perhaps you’ll be on the road one day and see a vision of automotive beauty cruise past. Or you’ll read in the press about the eye-watering prices being realised by collector cars and decide you want part of the action.
Whatever the spur, like most decisions in life, buying a classic car has its share of pitfalls for the unwary and the unprepared.
South Australia is well served with classic cars and at any moment there is a wide selection on offer. Fortunately, wise advice is also close at hand and freely available.
Buying a classic car is even more of an emotional decision than buying a new car, so consider carefully just why you want one and what sort of car it should be. Ben Finnis of Collectable Classics in Strathalbyn advises: “A lot of people get into classic cars because the wife has said ‘Buy a classic car and tinker with it in the shed’. The first question to ask is ‘Are you car-minded?’ And nine times out of ten, the answer is ‘No’. So the second question becomes ‘Do you have or know a good mechanic?’ Because you’re going to need one.”
A classic car as a daily driver needn’t be in show condition. Cars that will be entered into concours events must be in perfect condition and as original as possible. If your dream is a classic car to enjoy club runs or weekend getaways, you’ll want something less than concours, but still in good usable condition.
Fourteen years ago, Garry Rainsford started Rainsfords Collectable Cars in Keswick. “I was brought up with vintage and veteran cars,” he recalls. Garry’s theory is if he likes a particular vehicle, others will too. “Some cars I buy are concours, some have patina, but they’re all running, driveable and registerable. For the home handyman who wants to tinker and make it better, there is plenty of scope and the cars are priced accordingly. A lot of people want an old car they can hop in and use, not something they have to constantly work on, or something they wouldn’t want to take out in the rain.”
Older cars can be challenging to drive, and stressful in modern traffic. Some require a totally different way of driving. In a Model T Ford, for instance, the right pedal is the brake, the middle pedal is reverse, the accelerator is on the steering column and the left pedal is the clutch, but not as any modern driver knows it. “In a Model T you can forget everything you’ve learnt about driving a car,” suggests Garry. “Cars from the 1920s had crash gearboxes and no synchromesh, but after a five-minute lesson from me, it becomes second nature.” He pauses for a moment. “Well, perhaps a 20-minute lesson!”
Most people will want something easier to drive and better able to cope with modern traffic. A recent addition to Adelaide’s classic car scene is Richmonds, run by David Light. In 2011, as he puts it, David “rented some space, bought some cars and made all the mistakes.” Two years ago, he opened on Richmond Road. “We wanted to create a lovely place to go, somewhere you’d be impressed by if you’re a car lover.”
Richmonds is a large, open area, allowing buyers to walk around the cars. “It’s a bit of a honey pot,” he admits. “Many people are attracted to a car they see, but need to consider how they are going to use it.”
Then he reiterates a comment made by Ben and Garry.
“If you buy a good one, your money is fairly safe. Some have appreciated incredibly — air-cooled Porsches have doubled in value in the past few years. Unlike a new car that you might buy for $40,000, a classic car won’t only be worth $10,000 six years later.”
Another thing the three dealers agree on is that classic car ownership is not as expensive or difficult as many people might think. Historic registration is very affordable and allows use of the car for 90 days a year (you’ll need to be a member of a recognised car club and complete a simple log book entry each time you take the car out). Tyres were once difficult to find for older cars, but are now far more widely available and cost about the same as modern tyres.
However, an old car will never be as reassuringly trouble-free as a new car. Garry speaks from experience; “No matter how well it’s been restored or maintained, it’s going to break down and you have to keep that in the back of your mind.” Cars from the 1930s through the 1960s are usually simple and straightforward enough for a reasonably competent home handyman to maintain and fix. If one does need professional attention, their relative simplicity makes them less expensive to fix and a competent mechanic can usually manage it.
On the other hand, exotica will never be cheap to own or maintain. And as for restoring that old pile of junk you found in a barn, even more caution is called for. David explains, “Restoration costs are currently running at $120 to $150 an hour and a car will take thousands of hours to restore whether it’s a Morris Minor or a Rolls-Royce. An Aston Martin DB5 might cost upwards of $300,000 to restore, but, if at the end you have an asset worth $1.5 million, it’s worth it.”
Inexperienced restorers often overestimate their own skills and underestimate the time and expense involved. The old rule of thumb is to double both what you think it will cost and how long it will take. Ben Finnis agrees. “Buy someone else’s hard work,” he suggests. “Unless you can write off the expense, it’s rarely worth restoring a car. However, if the car has special meaning for you, if it was Mum’s car or Grandpa’s, and you can do a lot of the work yourself, it will be incredibly rewarding. Some people just love the journey, doing the work, sourcing the parts and, when they finish, they call us because they want to move on to the next project.” Garry Rainsford agrees. “You couldn’t possibly restore these cars for what we’re selling them for. And there are lots of cars in sheds that have been pulled apart, had the chrome and upholstery done by professionals, but will never get back on the road.”
And so we come to the issue of classic cars as an investment.
Most classic cars have increased in value over the past years, some dramatically, but buying a classic car purely with the thought of making a killing is not recommended. For one thing, it’s a long-term investment. Ben Finnis comments, “Ten years ago, Falcon GTs were making up to a million, then they fell back. Now they’re once again heading in that direction — it’s supply and demand. Overseas, Jaguar, Mercedes-Benz and Porsche are all strong, but the Australian market will always be big on Holden, Ford and Chrysler.” David Light also gets people buying for future gains. “Some people buy cars with the feeling that they can take advantage of the next run. There’s the Ferrari I sold one year for $400k, could have sold the next year for $500k and in following years could have sold for $600k. But some cars become too valuable to be used. On the other hand (Pink Floyd band member) Nick Mason has a Ferrari 250GTO that he bought for £9000 that’s now worth $70 million, but he’s still driving it, even uses it to go to the shop to buy milk.”
Classic cars are not for everyone. But as David concludes, as he looks around his showroom: “There’s nothing here that anyone really needs. But we are the lucky ones who can indulge ourselves.
In a world where cars are becoming less individual, classic cars bring back the years of chrome bumpers and when cars had their own character.”
This article was first published in the Dec 18/Jan 19 issue of SALIFE.