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The Bridge 2023

How to Build a Classic Car Collection

The world of vintage cars shares many elements with contemporary art collecting: Desirability depends on provenance, aesthetics, and a finite supply. How particular cars ascend and impact the sway of the collector market is harder to pinpoint.

On a gorgeous crimson day late last fall, I took a road tour in the open air of a kingfisher blue Bentley Continental GTC Speed W12, wind whipping, engine purring. This sculpted $380,000 classic car will go out of production this year as Bentley, like most automakers, makes steps to become an electric car company. Instead of going quietly into the night, Bentley introduced an entire lineup angled on capturing future collectors that celebrates its engine’s past.

Perhaps the lineup of W12s will become coveted by collectors as the gas engine becomes obsolete over the next few years, but how collector tastes evolve are not always so predictable. The world of vintage cars shares many elements with contemporary art collecting: Desirability depends on provenance, aesthetics, and a finite supply. How particular cars ascend and impact the sway of the collector market is harder to pinpoint. Like contemporary art, acquiring and preserving vintage cars is both a delight, a long-term responsibility, and a puzzle. 

The Bridge 2023 The Bridge 2023 presentation, photo by Kevin Arechiga.

How to Choose a Classic Car

“I think anything one collects—art, furniture, fashion, cars, homewares—should be collected in the same way,” said automotive historian and critic Brett Berk who took turns driving with me in the Bentley convertible. Berk has written extensively about classic cars and judged several car shows. “Learn about new things on the recommendations of trusted friends, buy what you love and what your heart tells you to, take good care of it, use it as often as possible, and when you tire of it set it aside or sell it and get something else.”

Berk, Jason Barlow, and Guy Bird co-authored the book The Atlas of Car Design (Phaidon). The book is an encyclopedic primer into the ins and outs of exemplary makes and models that caters to design innovation from classics like the Ford Model T, the Ferrari 250 Testa Rossa, and the Jaguar E-Type to rarer less known models like the Bizzarrini 5300 Corso and the Hispano-Suiza H6. In the book, each car has story behind it, and underscores the roles automotive design giants Giorgetto Giguiaro and Harley Earl played in advancing the field.

The sport of car collecting is tied to scholarship, exhibition, and perseveration. Participation in the hobby runs the gamut of experiences, from the quirky and ultra-affordable tongue-in-cheek Concours d’Lemons that focuses on cars once deemed garish, to the most expensive car ever sold, the 1955 Mercedes-Benz 300 SLR Uhlenhaut Coupe that hammered at $135 million dollars at a 2022 RM Sotheby’s auction. As much as the make and model, collectors track the provenance of the cars they buy. 

The Bridge 2023 The Bridge 2023 presentation, photo by Kevin Arechiga.

“Some of the most interesting car collections I’ve seen are those that derive from the mad mind of one person,” Berk says.” Jeff Lane, who founded the Lane Motor Museum in Nashville, collects only completely weird cars, many of them made in small numbers by individual obsessives who had a big idea—like propellor power. This, in my mind, is what the best car collections look like: their owners. More specifically, their owners’ psyches.”

An excellent way to build knowledge around car culture is through visits to museum shows. Like any pursuit, cars are best understood and evaluated in person. Regular exhibitions at the Peterson Automotive Museum in Los Angeles are devoted to historical scholarship around cars including a current comprehensive Porsche show. The Schlumpf Collection at the Musée National de l’Automobile in Mulhouse, France has a historic European focused collection made up of 450 vehicles. Car companies have built their own impressive in-house collections open to the public such as BMW Welt in Munich, the Alfa Romeo Museum in Italy, the Toyota Museum in Nagoya, Japan, and the Mercedes-Benz Museum and Porsche Museum, both in Stuttgart, Germany. Various contemporary art museums have staged automotive exhibitions including the Museum of Modern Art and the High Museum of Art, committed to the scholarship around car design and the value of the car as a decorative object or abstraction of contemporary art, which also add to the car’s collector pedigree. Other parameters that add value include how the car was used, particularly if it raced in iconic motorsports series. 

The Bridge 2023 The Bridge 2023 presentation, photo by Kevin Arechiga.

The Classic Collector Calendar

To keep up with high end car collecting, key events in the automotive calendar are staged around concours or car exhibitions, where cars are judged and assessed for beauty, restoration, and historical significance. The season kicks off with the Amelia Concours d’Elegance held the first weekend in March. The exclusive, but incredible Concorso d’Eleganza Villa d’Este in May is a glorious gathering of valuable, restored vehicles over Lake Como, pairing rare makes and models against the backdrop picturesque region. 

The Goodwood Festival of Speed held annually in June at the Goodwood House in West Sussex, England celebrates cars that rose to prominence in motorsports, as attendees gather to watch vintage cars make their way up the hill. The largest showing in the US market is the Pebble Beach Concours d’Elegance held in August. The event has ballooned into Monterey Car Week, a ten-day celebration of all things high-end car culture and is the site where new super cars are revealed, as precious models cruise the roads. The Quail, a Motorsports Reunion, is a daylong event during Monterey Car Week where sports cars old and new parade across the long focused on themes, such as the 50th Anniversary of the Porsche 911 Turbo Type 930. Vintage car racing takes place at the track in Laguna Seca. Several the auction houses including RM Sotheby’s, Bonhams, and Gooding & Company have a presence in Monterey.  

A more recent coveted collector event is the invitation-only Bridge held in East Hampton in September that overlooks the Atlantic Ocean. Here the cars are staged on the lawn of golf course that once was a racetrack. The Audrain Newport Concours and Motor Week held in Newport, Rhode Island in October is held toward the end of the season, before the weather turns in cooler climates.

The Bridge 2023 The Bridge 2023 presentation, photo by Kevin Arechiga.

Buying and Keeping Up a Classic

After an enthusiast is set on a particular make and model, the pursuit of finding a car in excellent working shape and available for purchase is something of a sport. “Of course, old cars are also a nightmare. They are constantly in need of care and service,” Berk said. “So you should try to buy the best example of whatever vehicle that you can afford.” The Hagerty Valuation Guide offers price parameters around make and model year. 

To acquire a rare vehicle requires relationships with dealers, the rare barn find, or a savvy understanding of the growing number of digital auction platforms. Bring A Trailer was acquired by Hearst in 2020, and though the collector car market is undergoing a correction from it 2022 high, it boasts sales of over $1.4 billion. The social sensation Super Car Blondie has recently launched SBX, an auction platform. “The future is being able to buy whatever you want, wherever you want, at any time,” said Alex Hirschi, whose Super Car Blondie audience is made up of more than two billion monthly viewers and over 110 million followers. Digital marketplaces are transforming the hobby as car collections go global. 

Once a top car is procured, upkeep is another ongoing investment—old cars require near constant tweaks and parts, and above all need to be driven to run. McPherson College offers a four-year degree in automotive restoration as well as summer workshop in Kansas as a commitment to preserving craft and authentic parts. The key difference between cars and other designed objects comes down to functionality. There’s nothing like riding in a piece of the past—a moving window into another space and time.

The Bridge 2023 The Bridge 2023 presentation, photo by Kevin Arechiga.

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