Anyone who remembers how the classic car boom of the late 1980s ended in a dramatic bust might justifiably be inclined to steer clear of sinking their cash into a collection of old motors. But a look at some of the prices achieved for cars now that could have been bought for remarkably little money just 10 or 20 years ago shows that the market is at an all-time high.

At its annual Goodwood Festival of Speed sale in June, for example, specialist auction house Bonhams achieved a staggering £19.6m for an ultra-rare Mercedes-Benz W196 Formula One car from the 1950s, which had been raced to victory by none other than Juan-Manuel Fangio. The car is now the most expensive ever to be sold at auction.

And just a few weeks later, American house R.M. Auctions achieved $27.5m for a 1967 Ferrari 275 GTB/4 S N.A.R.T Spider, making it the second most expensive car at auction and the most expensive Ferrari to cross the block, although the all-time sale record is believed to stand at $35m for a Ferrari GTO that changed hands in a private deal in 2012.

There is no doubt that the dramatic upturn in the old car market can partly be attributed to the fact that people are looking for a home for their money that is both safer and more interesting than leaving it in the bank to earn a paltry rate of interest, and because classic cars are, rather conveniently, exempt from capital gains tax in most countries.

But it is not just about the money. In recent years, the number of events being staged for veteran, vintage and classic automobiles has grown exponentially. Now, instead of just polishing your pride and joy and taking it for an occasional weekend jaunt, you can actually use it for anything from an organised tour with a group of like-minded enthusiasts to an all-out, seat-of-the-pants circuit race.

Then there are the increasingly popular long-distance regularity trials such as the five-week Peking to Paris Motor Challenge, recreations of historic events such as the Mille Miglia, the Alpine Rally and the no-holds-barred Carrera PanAmericana.

According to Robert Coucher, editor of high-end classic car magazine Octane, hefty entry fees have done nothing to prevent such events becoming ever more popular with classic car owners.

“People are completely changing the way they look at classic cars. They no longer just want to polish them and use them on high days and holidays, they want to really drive them and make the most of them. Values have risen dramatically even in the past year or two, but that hasn’t stopped owners from appreciating the fact that the best way to enjoy these cars is to use them, and they love the fact that by entering events ranging from the Tour Britannia to the Peking to Paris they will meet fellow enthusiasts and have a huge amount of fun.”

Perhaps surprisingly, driving a classic car regularly does it far more good than leaving it to sit out of the elements in a garage. Mechanical objects like to be used in the manner for which they were intended, otherwise parts seize-up and perish. That leads to breakdowns, which in turn propagates the belief that old cars simply can’t be relied upon.

“In actual fact, old cars are probably more reliable and useable now than when they were new,” says Coucher.

“There are all sorts of sensible upgrades available to prevent them from going wrong, countless specialist restorers who know how to prepare them properly and any number of businesses make parts from modern materials using modern machinery. That means they fit properly and last for a long time, which was not necessarily the case when the cars were originally made.”

But although classic car prices appear to be going through the roof in every direction, the reality is that only excellent, or at worst very good, examples of any given marque and model are fetching strong money. Buyers are being choosy and steering clear of poor quality restorations and cars that are seriously unoriginal.

So, when you set out to buy, prepare to pay the most you can afford for the best you can find and, if in doubt, shell-out for the services of a marque specialist to be sure you’re making the right decision.

On top of the original purchase price, however, you’ll need to budget for insurance (which, on a really high value car, can be colossal) regular maintenance—these cars need love—and the often high price of spare parts for more exotic models.

But, most of all, be sure you’ve got time to drive it. Not only is there nothing worse for an old car than being left dormant, there are also few sadder sights than one that doesn’t get driven as it should.

 

Where to buy

Specialist classic car auction houses undoubtedly provide a quick and convenient route to classic car ownership, although you’ll probably end up paying more than you might in a private transaction. If you know the type of car you’re after, join the marque owner’s club—most have a regular newsletter or magazine filled with cars being sold by enthusiastic owners. Alternatively, keep an eye on the classic car press. Magazines such as Octane, Classic Cars, Classic and Sportscar (and marque-specific publications such as Porsche World) are always packed with offerings across all price ranges. Internet sites such as Classic Driver (www.classicdriver.com) and Piston Heads (www.pistonheads.com) are also fine places for a would-be buyer to while away a few hours.

 

What you can get for your money

£20m +: Ferrari 250 GTO

£5m: Alfa Romeo 8C

£2m: Jaguar C-Type.

£1m+: Bentley four-and-a-half litre supercharged

£650,000: Shelby Cobra 427

£500,000: Bugatti Type 57C

£450,000: Aston Martin DB6 Volante

£200,000: Ferrari F40

£150,000: Porsche 911 2.7 RS

£90,000: Ferrari Dino 246GT

£50,000: Jaguar E-Type DHC Series 1

£35,000: Austin Healey 3000

£20,000: MGA Roadster

£10,000 and less: Triumph TR6; MGB; Lotus Elan

 

Auction Houses

UK and Europe

Artcurial.com

Barons-auctions.com

Bonhams.com

Brightwells.com

Coys.co.uk

Classic-auctions.co.uk (H and H)

Historics.co.uk (Historics at Brooklands)

Rmauctions.com

Silverstoneauctions.com

USA

Barrett-jackson.com

Bonhams.com

Goodingco.com

Mecum.com

Rmauctions.com

 

 

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© Don Heiny/Corbis; Jaguar Heritage; M Knight, Austin-Healey Club UK; c. Courtesy of Shelby American, Inc.; Phil Talbot/REX; The MG Car Club