Cobra race car, R220,000-R280,000 (Stephan Welz & Co)
Cobra race car, R220,000-R280,000 (Stephan Welz & Co)

"We had a 1973 Maserati Khamsin. It was one of five pre-production prototypes. And it was sold on auction at the beginning of this year [2016] at R1.6m. The new owner is doing a rebuild on the car. By the time he’s finished, it is probably going to be worth close to R4m."

Classic car specialist Jack Rosewitz, a consultant for auctioneers Stephan Welz & Co, is rattling off anecdotes about the recent spike in classic car prices.

"A few years ago we had a Mercedes-Benz 54K which we sold on auction at R7.6m," he adds. "And within a few years it’s gone over the R20m mark."

Another Mercedes, the 1969 280SL Pagoda, was on the Stephan Welz auction in November. "Three to five years ago, you paid R300,000 to R500,000 for it," he says. "Today, there’s one in Cape Town for R3.5m, with a dealer."

But it’s not just the most expensive marques. "A little MGA five years ago cost R100,000," says Rosewitz. "Today you can’t get one for R500,000."

There are good figures to back up the anecdotal evidence of the rise in value of classic cars. The London-based Knight Frank luxury investment index tracks the price growth of luxury investment sectors including wine, coins, art, furniture, watches and jewellery. This year it reported that in the 12 months to end March 2016, classic cars "were again the top annual performer in the index".

The average price of collectable cars has risen 17% in the past year. The report adds: "Fine wine saw the second strongest growth, up 9%, with rare coins in third position, rising 6%. Art and furniture were the biggest losers in the index, dropping by 5% and 6%, respectively."

When you look at the price growth of collectable cars over the past decade, the results are even more dramatic: 467%. And 161% over the past five years. That’s more than most hedge funds can say for themselves.

The London-based Historic Automobile Group International (Hagi) compiles a price index of various categories and marques. In its latest report, Mercedes-Benz, Ferrari and Porsche were the best performers. Mercedes values increased by about 85%, Ferrari by 65% and Porsche by about 60%.

In January, a 1957 Ferrari 335 S Spider Scaglietti was sold in Europe for US$35.7m (about R575m), breaking the record for the most expensive sports car yet sold on auction.

Nevertheless, the Hagi top index, which tracks "cars that cost more than £100,000 ($122,670) and have fewer than 1,000 surviving examples" reported a rise of "7.2% this year through September— compared with a 17.6% jump and 25.1% in the period for 2014."

Rosewitz says the spike in Porsche prices, which followed Ferrari prices after they became inaccessible to many collectors, is unlikely to continue.

Collectors are likely to start looking for other marques that have more potential to appreciate.

Rosewitz doesn’t see the recent high prices as a bubble, or the market as heading for a crash.

As a classic car enthusiast, with a collection of 22 cars, Rosewitz says: "Probably because I’m a Rolls-Royce and Bentley enthusiast, I think those are terribly undervalued." A 1988 Rolls-Royce Silver Spirit went for around R250,000 at the Stephan Welz & Co auction in November.

Rosewitz compares its prospects to those of a second-hand VW Golf GTi, which would have a similar price, and points out that the Rolls-Royce would be the one to hold its value, thus making the better investment.

While their rapidly appreciating values have encouraged some people to treat classic cars purely as investments, they are unlike any other asset class.

Beyond their engineering and aesthetics, Rosewitz refers over and over again to the "pleasure" and the "fun" of owning a classic car. "Some people take these old cars and just race them," says Rosewitz.

As a collector, of course, there are other practicalities to consider: condition, provenance, rarity.

There is another emotional dimension that affects the way collectors value classic cars.

"I think it’s nostalgia," says Rosewitz.

An added dimension is the way in which classic cars captured the childhood imaginations of collectors.

"I think very often people like to collect a car that they desired when they were young," he says. The imaginative grip of collectors’ childhood fantasies confers cultural or iconic power on certain cars. That partly explains the desirability of some Aston Martins, particularly the DB5 associated with James Bond, or the Ferrari 308 made famous by the Magnum PI TV series.

That emotional connection and propensity to fantasise often spills over into motoring memorabilia: mascots, models, miniatures and accessories. Personalised number plates have become a related investment phenomenon.

In the UK, the number plate K1NGS sold for £231,000 and RR1 for £75,000.

In 1989 in New Zealand, the number plate "1" sold for NZ$34,100 at the first auction of its kind. In 1991 it was resold for NZ$111,375 and in 1995 for NZ$630,000.

The world record for a number plate was set in 1994 in Hong Kong with the sale of the number plate "8" for US$1m. The number 8 is auspicious in Chinese culture.

"We sold 1GP to 8GP for close to R1.9m," says Rosewitz. "And that went to a collector who has probably 20 cars, and he wants to try to label them, I guess. We sold Mandela GP as well. That went for about R70,000.

"The funny thing is we had 911 GT3, which didn’t sell, so that’s still available."

The era of motoring history associated with internal-combustion engines is undeniably drawing to a close with the advent of electric and self-driving cars, and with it the associations of freedom, autonomy and individuality cars came to symbolise. Will that not spell a kind of doom for classic cars?

Rosewitz thinks it will make them more collectable, not less.

"We have a look at the generations who are born now," he says. "They’re probably going to live another 100 years. They’re going to know about combustion engines."

There is still the potential for them to become nostalgic about the cars from their childhoods, and their personal and cultural associations.

Art collecting, he says, has existed as a phenomenon for thousands of years. He ventures: "In terms of collectables, classic cars are certainly going to be around for another couple of hundred years."

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