Indianapolis Mecum Auction - Getting Better

A Glimpse Of Collector Corvette Prices At Mecum's Indy Auction Shows There Are Reasons To Be Optimistic

Barry Kluczyk Feb 10, 2011 0 Comment(s)
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Like the broader economy, the collector-car market rolls up and down; and like most economic things these days, it's been on the down cycle for the last three or four years. Generally speaking, prices are off their peaks-and, in the case of some "headline" cars, they're off significantly.

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Sticking with the economic analogies, Corvettes have traditionally been the blue-chip stocks of the collector-car world, with regular-production big-block Stingrays and sharks always a safe bet to equal or better a buyer's original investment. The same went for '57 Fuelies and other "exceptional" C1s. Pedigreed race cars, factory concepts, and extremely rare production models, such as L88 cars, have been the riskier bets, with high six-figure-and occasionally seven-figure-prices commanded for some.

So, while the riskiest of investments in the economy took the biggest hit in recent years, it's not surprising to learn the cars that were the center of the wildest price run-ups suffered significantly. And just as some entrepreneurs and businesses do better in a recession, many buyers are taking advantage of the market's "correction" period to snap up Corvettes, classics, and muscle cars at prices that have not been seen for a decade.

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That's exactly what we saw at a Mecum auction in Indianapolis we attended recently. Savvy buyers were using the market conditions to drive great deals. We wouldn't suggest that $150,000 for an L88 Corvette is cheap, but compared with the prices of only a few years ago, it represented a significant discount. We also found some pretty steady prices for those blue-chip big-blocks. They're soldiering on, trading at relatively steady prices, although discounted a bit from a few years ago. One thing is clear: Discerning collectors are still willing to pay top dollar for the right car.

The top seller of the event was a Bill Mitchell-styled Corvette show car that hammered sold for $925,000 (more than $1 million was bid for a rare '69 Trans Am convertible, but, incredibly, it didn't meet the seller's reserve). Other marquee muscle cars crossed the block and sold for perhaps 20-25 percent less than they would have in, say, 2007.

It's easy to see that the buyer of that one-of-a-kind Corvette bought it at a discount, as compared with a few years ago, but it will likely take a number of years for the collector-car market to recover significantly enough to make a marked profit on it-if that's what the new owner intends.

So it seems we're enjoying an unmistakable buyer's market, but it's a hard time if you're a seller who bought at the pricing peak several years ago. The decision must be made whether to hold onto the car and try to recoup your investment a few years from now, or cut your losses and sell for less than you paid. That's not as easy a decision as it seems, as some collectors were swept up in other parts of the distressed economy-real estate, anyone?-and must sell their collector cars to satisfy other financial obligations.

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Encouragingly, we found signs of stabilizing prices, meaning the prices may be off their peaks, but probably won't erode further. It also looks as if it will be a while before prices make significant climbs again. One of the reasons for that is the sheer number of investment-quality muscle cars on the market. During the market's ascension, starting about a decade ago, a great many vehicles were treated to rotisserie-style restorations because it was possible to recoup that large investment and make a profit.

To put it simply, there are unlimited numbers of excellent-condition, concours-style cars to pick from. Big-block midyear Corvette roadsters are everywhere, and it seems as if every Hemi-powered car ever built has been restored.

Perhaps because of the erosion in prices for marquee cars, the prices of clones-also known by a number of other euphemisms, such as recreations, tributes, and so on-are way down. The same seems to go for non-numbers-matching cars and modifieds. Again, however, one man's pain is another's pleasure, as enthusiasts looking for a great deal on cars they can drive and enjoy will find plenty of clean, show-worthy machines at prices that are generally less than the build cost.

Perhaps because of the erosion in prices for marquee cars, the prices of clones-also known by a number of other euphemisms, such as recreations, tributes, and so on-are way down. The same seems to go for non-numbers-matching cars and modifieds. Again, however, one man's pain is another's pleasure, as enthusiasts looking for a great deal on cars they can drive and enjoy will find plenty of clean, show-worthy machines at prices that are generally less than the build cost.

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Nearly 1,800 cars crossed the block during the Indy event; about 66 percent of them sold, for a total of more than $41 million. That was a good sell-through percentage, but it suggested that many sellers were still holding out for 2007-era prices. As we overheard from one bidder, "Some of these guys need a reality check. They don't seem to know what year it is."

Nevertheless, it was a marvelous spectacle of classic American sheetmetal-make that fiberglass. And if you're in the market for your first collector Corvette, there hasn't been a better time in the last 10 years to jump into the fray.

Author's note: Visit www.mecum.com for information on upcoming auctions, as well as results from the Indy event and other previous sales.

Sleeper Collector: '70-'72 LT-1
The 1970-introduced 350 LT-1 was a landmark engine in the history of the small-block, as well as the Corvette. It was a solid-lifter powerplant that performed well over a broad rpm range, with its unique aluminum dual-plane intake manifold serving as the model for aftermarket intakes to this very day. Its 370hp peak was achieved at a then-sky-high 6,000 rpm.

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Unfortunately, the LT-1 was launched in the last year of the high-compression muscle-car era. Gross power was reduced from 370 in 1970 to 330 in 1971, thanks to a reduction in compression from 11.0:1 to 9.0:1 (and a lower maximum rpm). The change from gross to net power ratings in 1972 further lowered the reported output to 255, which was also due to the elimination of solid lifters.

Despite the high-performance nature of the engine, the LT-1 didn't sell well. It cost nearly $450 more than the standard 300hp 350, while the 350 L46 engine cost only $158 and the LS5 454 big-block was a $289 option. Only 1,287 LT-1 cars were built in 1970, along with 1,949 in 1971 and 1,741 in 1972. That makes them quite rare.

The '70 models, with their higher out-put and lower production numbers, are the most desirable, with their value about 30 percent greater than the '71 and '72 models. But with virtually all attention on collector Vettes focused on big-block models, these special small-block cars have real potential. As the big-blocks continue to march upward in value and out of the reach of midlevel collectors, the LT-1 cars should prove wise investments.

We found examples from all three model years at Mecum's Indy sale, and the prices offered for them were almost embarrassingly low. The cars were virtually ignored, which was a shame-and it made us wish we'd have registered as bidders, because there was a great deal to be had. Here's a look at the three cars we found:

LOT F52: '70 Corvette LT-1
Not Sold
High bid: $41,000
A numbers-matching car with mostly original paint and body-on refurbishment. The engine was backed by the Muncie four-speed, and the 87,000-mile odo reading was believed to be original. The car was in great condition, if not quite concours-level. There was original paperwork, too. The $41,000 high bid seemed soft, but as we've said, collectors are playing it safe these days with big-block cars. The seller was probably right to hold onto his car.

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LOT U103: '71 Corvette LT-1
Not Sold
High bid: $17,000
The $41,000 offered for the '70 model in the auction was downright generous compared to the measly $17,000 offered for this '71 example. It was a claimed numbers-matching car with a four-speed transmission. The original mileage was just shy of 100,000, and the car's condition was overall great for a driver, but not perfect. Nevertheless, the high bid was way low.

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LOT U82: '72 Corvette LT-1
Not Sold
High bid: $77,500
On the other end of the bidding spectrum was the $77,500 rejected for this '72 LT-1. It was offered as Bloomington Gold Benchmark car, with Gold and Survivor certification dating back to 2007. It was an exquisite car, but the high bid seemed more than reasonable in today's market.

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