FEB 18th 2015

Edward Legge shines a light on the dark side of the classic car industry

After an explosive start to the year (Scottsdale and Paris auctions and the Baillon collection), it’s clear that we are all still passengers on the runaway train that is the classic car market, and even though it looks like the momentum has reached its peak we are still travelling at quite a speed. In a recent and unexpected turn of car snobbery, frustration appeared to have bubbled over when it was reported that some of the French media were alleged to have been critical of the type of people who turned up to bid on the Baillon collection, which gave a glimpse into the dark side of the industry.

Let’s explore this ‘dark side’. There is no denying that the classic car movement is now a bona fide industry, and with big business come high stakes. The retail motor trade is one of the most highly regulated, commented upon and moaned about business sectors in the UK, so it seems miraculous that the classic car sector seems to have escaped from the glare of genuine public and media scrutiny thus far. As manufacturers get more involved in the business of selling their heritage, will this change?

“We have seen some absolute rotters masquerading as the best of the best – based on the asking price at least”

While the laws that govern classic car dealers and their high-street counterparts are the same, the expectations of all parties in each sector seem to be entirely different – I’ll let you be the judge of whether that is a good thing. For example, how accurate do you expect the description of a 50-year-old car to be, and what is your expectation if something goes wrong after buying it? To be honest, I can see the attraction of being a car dealer diminishing quickly given the upper hand legislation gives the consumer over them – far better to be practically free of liability and sell at auction.

As prices have risen, so do the profit opportunities and those are not just restricted to dealers – private sellers, auction houses, restorers and all manner of specialists stand to gain, and there has been a profusion of new players in the market recently. Our team see all manner of vehicles and it it fair to say that we have seen some absolute rotters masquerading as the best of the best – based on the asking price at least.

Phrases such as ‘concours’, ‘matching numbers’ and ‘original’ seem to be gradually losing their meaning and we have seen other phrases creep into regular use in the classic car vernacular – ‘believed to be’, ‘probably’ and ‘assumed’. Sellers play fast and loose with the notion of verified mileage, so important on retail forecourts.’Expert’ valuations on a classic car can now command a four-figure sum and politics and liability have played their part in making these far from accurate on many occasions. If you have enough money, you can even have the history and authenticity of your car re-written.

Much of this is at odds with historic racing which can be bound in the red tape of regulation and restriction, but is there anything really wrong with that? When the media start casting judgement on the authenticity of car buyers rather than the cars themselves, doesn’t this send the message that the industry needs to pull itself into the modern era and that we should all take on a degree of responsibility for our beloved classic cars rather than try and print pound notes from them?

The Americans still refer to the classic car movement as a ‘hobby’. I think it’s just a little bit more serious than that over the pond. Is it time for regulation?

Edward Legge is Director of Commercial Development at Classic and Sports Finance.

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