People Spent a Lot of Money on Vintage Cars Last Week

August 21, 2017, 10:06 PM UTC

Stronger than expected. That’s the takeaway after four days of vintage car auctions during Monterey Car Week. Across six companies, preliminary numbers show sales totaling $327 million at Pebble Beach over the weekend, down 3 percent from last year but 12 percent better than predicted at the beginning of the week.

According to car insurer Hagerty, the bump came because the week’s biggest consignments—a $6.7 million 1959 Aston Martin DB4GT Prototype Coupe and a $1.089 million 1964 Shelby Cobra 289 R&P Roadster—met estimates and sold, as opposed to not meeting reserve prices at all. In fact, while numbers this year were down from 2016, the sell-through rate (58 percent) and median price of car sold ($88,000) matched the previous year’s performance.

“At the moment, the market favors buyers, but prices have stabilized for most models, and those sellers who are realistic with their expectations are receiving fair prices,” said Jonathan Klinger, the spokesman for Hagerty. “We expect ultra -high-end cars to continue to perform well.”

The top seller of the week was Aston Martin’s 1956 DBR1, a green roadster that sold for $22.5 million Friday night, via RM Sotheby. The car is widely considered the most important Aston Martin ever made—it was the first of a series of five racing cars, one of which won the 1959 24 Hours of Le Mans sports car race—and it set a record for the most expensive British car ever at auction. Of the five that were made, this is the only one that has ever been offered for public sale.

Bonhams sold a 1995 McLaren F1 Coupe sold for $15.6 million, while two Ferraris also were in the top five—a 1966 Ferrari 275 GTB/C sold for $14.5 million, and a 1961 Ferrari 250 GT SWB sold for $8.3 million.

Meanwhile, Porsche’s 1970 917K sold for $14 million at the Gooding & Company auction Friday night. That car was the one featured in Steve McQueen’s famous film Le Mans.

Among the strongest performers this week were cars valued at more than $250,000, a segment that had the highest sell-through rate of any other.

But the other strong sellers were cars from the 1980s and ’90s. “In this area, you have a lot of Silicon Valley money come here, and that’s what they like,” said Craig Jackson, the chairman and chief executive officer of the Barrett-Jackson Auction Company. “Bidders are tracking much younger, which is a healthy thing for the hobby. But younger bidders have different tastes, and you see it reflected here.”

Cars in the ‘80s and ‘90s were much more likely than those of other decades to be bid at premiums above condition-appropriate amounts. RM Sotheby’s 1991 Ferrari F40 (it sold for $1.54 million) and Gooding & Co’s 1989 Porsche 911 Carrera Speedster (it sold for $297,000) are prime examples of this strong spot. Multiple Ferrari Testarossas made from 1984 to 1996 also exceeded expectations on the auction block.

“There’s a lot of money, a lot of enthusiasm,” Jackson continued. “But the people who are new coming into this, they are more cautious. They bid to the lower part of the estimate and then hold off if it’s not right.”

On the other hand, the short wheelbase Porsche 911s from the late 1960s rarely hit market prices, while Porsche Turbo 930s sold “on the low side,” Klinger said. Even the chic Mercedes-Benz SLs (the 190SLs, 300SLs and 380SLs, in particular) often fell short of “condition-appropriate” prices.

“Entry-level stock was slow to move,” Klinger said.

Supercars didn’t do great at Pebble Beach this year, either. A 1985 Ferrari 288 GTO from Bonhams received the lowest bid for the model since January 2014, and a 1988 Porsche 959 from Gooding took a little more than $1 million, $250,000 less than what it sold for last year.

There’s a simple reason to explain the decrease in interest in supercars, Jackson said. It has to do with people using the cars for their stated purpose—to drive. When significant cars finally come out of long-term ownership, as they have in recent years, they typically get snatched up quickly by another long-term owner. That means far fewer of the really good ones are available to buy. And for the truly discerning buyer, the rest that do pop up are not good enough to buy.

“A lot of people who wanted them got them,” Jackson said about those high-end cars. “Now that they have them, they’re actually using them. They’re driving. It’s all about you sharing moments of your life and enjoying it. We are seeing a lot more of that. And that is healthy for the market.”