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.
The mainstays of the Corvette hobby are regular-production vehicles that are typically shown at NCRS events, kept in private collections, and occasionally driven. With healthy prices paid for cars that warranted it, the mainstays also made a strong showing this season. Meanwhile, those missing a piece of the puzzle-a non-original motor, thin documentation, or an imperfect restoration-sold for much less money, if at all.
Fine examples in the middle of the market earn more than the cost of a new Corvette, but usually come in at less than $100,000. Overall, these cars are holding their own, with a mean sales price of $50,000.
One unusual example we came across just prior to Mecum's event in Indy was a "time capsule" '80 Corvette owned since new by Wes Abendroth. With only 4.8 miles on the odometer, it had never been driven on the street, still had the original MSO and no tags, and hadn't been registered. The original window stickers showed a sales price of $16,818.40-and it sold this year for $44,000. Not counting sales commission, that's an appreciation of $27,000 in 30 years.
Commenting on this fair-market sales price and the action at Mecum generally, Abendroth stated, "You always hope for more, but what you get is what people will pay. I don't think they were setting any world records-that doesn't happen anymore too often."
ProTeam's Terry Michaelis, a noted Corvette collector who attends all of the big auctions, basically agrees. "Special cars-single- to triple-digit [production runs]-are still very strong, as are the survivors and benchmark Corvettes. But they have to stand three heads higher than the rest of the pack."
Dana Mecum confirms these observations. "It's a good time for buyers," he says. "Mileage is the biggest barometer of dollar values. A Corvette with low mileage, in good condition, will bring a much higher price."
In addition, he notes that the '63 to '67 Corvettes are still the hot segment. "It's a timeless body style, and when you put radials on them, they drive down the highway like a new car. Those earlier cars are antiquated, driving-wise."
Indeed, if you're after midyear muscle, the average sale price jumps to $76,656. And at Barrett-Jackson's auction in Orange County, California, sales prices for these models ranged from $71,500 to $181,500.
Taking a closer look at what it takes to command a good price, a Lynndale Blue '67 327 Sting Ray sold at Mecum's Bloomington Gold Auction for a healthy $75,500. Sound like a lot for a small-block car? This one was a factory air-conditioned, with a four-speed trans, original Protecto-O-Plate, dealer order form, and 1967 Ohio title. Represented as numbers-matching, it was also concours judged and Bloomington Gold Certified. Tempering the value of these credentials against collectibility, however, Michaelis notes, "Documents are nice, but if you've got the real deal, that's more important."
Entry-Level Enthusiast Cars
The Bloomington Gold Auction is a window into the entry-level side of the market as well. About half of all the Corvettes that sold in the past year fall into this category. Overall, the sell-through rate was up 3.2 percent in 2010 over 2009, with 137 of 303 cars sold. The average sale also dropped by more than $10,000 from 2009 to 2010. Looking at an even longer timeline, Mecum admits, "Prices are off 30 percent from three years ago." He cites the down economy as a significant factor but remains upbeat, noting that some premium-quality cars and collections are coming up for sale soon. "For 30 years, Corvette collectibles have been the most resilient, and the quickest to return in value."
Affordable entry-level cars, which go for $32,000 or less, enjoyed a 51 percent sell-through rate. The increased volume of cruise-night and weekend drivers sold this year is a clear indicator that the market has found a new average everyone agrees with. As Michaelis sums up, "There's a slow recovery in prices of 'belly button' [common] Corvettes."
One well-bought ride was a Dark Red Metallic '90 ZR-1 with full documentation, average miles, and a bevy of trophies. The new owner picked up this driver-quality "King of the Hill" at Bloomington Gold for a mere $17,500, beating the current CPI Blackbook value of $19,400. With C4 lovers leading the charge, Corvette enthusiasts are more confident than they were a year ago, buying not only for investment, but also indulgence.