Questions regarding Corvette performance used to be about horsepower, track times, and 100-to-0-mph braking tests. Today, though, vintage-Corvette performance is more often measured by how much these cars earn on the auction block. Given the sickly economy, some have worried if the infection might have spread to America's favorite sports car. What follows is our latest diagnosis.
Overall, the Corvette market is healthy, albeit with a few exceptions. On a volume of 1,776 Corvettes offered through auction over the past 12 months, 64 percent actually sold. If Corvettes were a major-league baseball team, they'd be a contender for the World Series.
To be specific, we'll break the market break down into three basic categories-halo cars, mainstream collectibles, and entry-level enthusiast cars. Each points to a positive market trend in its own way.
Halo cars are Corvettes with historical significance that helped elevate the marque. The typical buyer in the segment is purchasing for prestige first and investment second. These are the cars auction houses tout as top sellers, as they typically earn the highest bids for the event. In a sluggish economy, the volume, grade, and price of these top-tier offerings are usually all down.
Even so, we've seen an increase in the number of these cars offered, as well as a near total sell-through rate. Prices have also been strong. The reason is simple: Those who can afford cars like these, which range from $100,000 to a million dollars or more, have been minimally impacted by the economic downturn. These cars typically represent the pinnacle of the concours lifestyle, are seldom driven (if at all), and are kept in private museums.
C1s made a strong showing in the halo category, with four cars topping $200,000. The most paid for a first-generation Corvette in recent memory was $247,500, for the '61 roadster drag-raced by "Big John" Mazmanian. The sale took place at the RM Icons of Speed & Style event, held at the Petersen Automotive Museum in September 2009. According to the RM Catalog, the car was meticulously restored in "as raced" concours condition, featuring a 316ci supercharged Chevy V-8, a four-speed manual transmission, four-wheel hydraulic drum brakes, and a supplemental braking parachute. Big John was a pivotal figure in the West Coast drag-racing scene, and his Corvette was one of the more important competition vehicles of the early '60s. The huge money it brought at auction is proof of how the collector community honors the accomplishments of cars like these.
A more recent example of a first-generation Corvette pulling down a big number came at the RM Classic Cars Monterey, in August 2010. It was an excellent example of a first-year Corvette, featuring the 253ci "Blue Flame" inline six-cylinder engine and a two-speed automatic transmission. The auction rated the car "#1" condition, despite citing minor cosmetic imperfections. It still earned a healthy $220,000. One of only 300 ever produced, the car hailed from the collection of the late John O'Quinn.
Second-generation Corvettes have always been collector darlings, but sales of counterfeit 427 Tri-Power roadsters have impacted all but the most well-documented and well-pedigreed midyears. Still, with 484 examples offered and an average bid price of $74,706.53, it's clear these cars still occupy the minds of most Corvette collectors. Mecum at Monterey 2010 brought the year's biggest midyear sale, in the form of a '67 L88 427 roadster.
RPO L88 was the endurance-racing option package that brought forged rods, 12:5.1 pistons, a Holley 850 carb, an M22 four-speed, an F41 heavy-duty suspension, a G81 Posi rear differential, and J56 four-wheel heavy-duty disc brakes. This particular Tuxedo Black example looked as though it were cut from volcanic glass, with obsidian fenders sharp enough to slice the competition during a pass.
As with any car with a race heritage, the more prominent and successful the races, the more valuable the vehicle. Tony DeLorenzo was the driver during this car's dominance in SCCA A-Production class racing. But all the right options and even a distinguished race history do not necessarily command the astonishing $1.25 million the car's new owner paid. Low production, high desirability, originality, concours correctness, and a tremendous history all have to be backed up by proper documentation. This one had it in spades, with a letter of authenticity from the original driver, the original Protect-O-Plate and 1967 title, Bloomington Gold Certification, and NCRS Top Flight status.
Third-generation cars also enjoyed halo status this season, with a '69 L88 coupe earning more than $400,000 at RM's 2010 San Diego Classic Muscle Auction. Again, all the ingredients were there. Designed as a Cobra hunter for SCCA competition, only 116 '69 L88s were unleashed from the St. Louis production line. Finished in one-of-one Monza Red over Saddle, and showing a provable 2,265 original miles, this particular car had all the ingredients. In addition to a pile of purchase documents from the original owner, the car was also highly decorated, boasting Bloomington Gold, NCRS Top Flight, and the Chevy Vette Fest Gold Spinner-the "triple crown" of Corvette awards.