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Feature: Million-Dollar Cars

Robert Ross

The automobile has captured our imaginations for more than 100 years—each new design the standard-bearer of the technology, aesthetics, and values of its era. Whether a horseless carriage or a modern Formula One racer, the automobile has exercised a consistent impact on generations of passersby and connoisseurs alike. The motorcar is a benchmark of Western industrial progress, distilling architecture, fashion, and even fine art into a single design entity that defines the social position and captures something of the personality of its owner.

Born of a need to replace its unreliable equine predecessor, the automobile quickly became something more than a mere conveyance. By the first decade of the 1900s, a new field of sports competition in the form of automobile racing achieved widespread popularity in both hemispheres. At the same time, a new form of art had emerged—the automobile as a kind of industrial sculpture that would, collectively, comprise some of the most treasured artifacts of a century’s progress.

The greatest of these are the million-dollar cars, currently on exhibit through January 26, 2003, at the Petersen Automotive Museum in Los Angeles. This exhibit, which is the first of its kind, showcases approximately two dozen examples of the world’s most significant automobiles and examines what—apart from their tremendous monetary value—makes this handful of cars so very special.

The exhibit’s title, Million Dollar Cars: The World’s Most Valuable Vehicles, is a modest one according to Leslie Kendall, curator at the museum. “In this exhibit, a car worth just one million dollars is the exception,” he says, pointing out that most of the vehicles are valued at many millions of dollars. While curators have typically avoided emphasizing the vehicles’ high price tags in an effort to focus on their intrinsic qualities, their monetary worth is in many ways the prevalent measure of these qualities and reflects their historical importance.

What characteristics define such cars? Uncommon beauty is shared by all—an elusive but universally acknowledged quality that is recognized by both casual observers and cognoscenti. Brilliant designers understood perfect proportion, and that knowledge resonates in the details—a fender profile, a hood louver, or trim molding—the total of which greatly exceeds the sum of the parts. These cars brim with originality, setting the trends of their times and establishing a look emulated by other manufacturers and coveted by individuals fortunate enough to acquire them.

Superior quality is a given; these handmade cars were expensive when new and, with a few postwar exceptions, were beyond the reach of all but the most affluent buyers. Stellar performance set them apart from their contemporaries, and with the exception of early brass-era automobiles, all of these cars deliver sufficient speed, comfort, and safety to be driven with pleasure on modern roads. These cars were always exclusive and remain extremely rare today. Many are unique, with coachwork produced to a customer’s individual taste; their designers intended from the outset that no two examples would be entirely alike.

Provenance contributes greatly to these cars’ significance and value, establishing, among other things, genuineness in a world full of counterfeits. All things being equal, a car that was owned or used by a recognized personality is of greater value than one with an obscure owner or undocumented history. The provenance of cars used in competition is of utmost significance, and cars that made racing history with famous drivers are highly prized.

Key to the desirability of these automobiles is their originality, in terms of both authenticity and restoration. Collectors appreciate and understand original, unrestored cars, and an imperfect but original example with the gentle patina of use is more desirable today than ever before. “A car is original only once,” says Kendall. “You’ll never get that back, ever.” Despite this fact, he and serious collectors recognize that most cars, especially old ones, have seen some degree of restoration during their lifetimes. To successfully compete in world-class concours events, restoration is inevitable.

Two periods in the history of the automobile gave us those cars most highly valued today. The mid-to-late 1930s saw the creation of spectacular cars that pushed the limits of style and speed. As with fashions of the era, French and Italian coachbuilders set the standards, achieving a balance of classicism and modernity that remains unequaled in terms of sheer beauty. Also, engineering, production methods, and materials had advanced to such a state that their performance approaches that found in the modern automobile.

Following World War II, the sports car, which was designed for use both on the street and in competition, began to populate the vehicular landscape. The greatest among these are certain road racers of the 1950s and early 1960s, coveted more than any other automobiles by today’s enthusiasts. Ironically, cars like the Shelby Daytona Coupe and Ferrari 250 GTO could at one time be purchased for a few thousand dollars after they were no longer dominant on the track. Today, they are valued at over $4 million and  $12 million, respectively.

Such valuations beg comparisons to the art world and its community of collectors, dealers, academicians, and institutions. One might suggest that these cars are the sculpture of our age, stimulating an aesthetic response shared by connoisseurs of Old Master paintings and antique sculpture; indeed, some of these cars are acquired for their beauty alone.

Unlike a serious art collection, however, a car collection exacts from its owner a considerable ongoing investment of time. Owners of larger collections staff them with curators and mechanics; others enjoy working and doing research on their cars themselves. Both types share a desire to interact with their automobiles, as well as with other enthusiasts. Pride of ownership within one-marque clubs can, in fact, assume a quasi-religious fervor. But passion finds its most palpable expression on the pavement: With the exception of cars that are kept permanently inside museums, most collector cars see discreet but regular use on the road, providing a form of enjoyment that few collectibles can confer upon their owners.

It’s difficult to imagine that any of these automobiles were bought by their original owners with the expectation that they would become priceless artifacts, and it’s interesting to speculate about which, if any, contemporary cars may someday join the pantheon of million-dollar cars. The nature of the automobile has changed greatly since that time when a car could be ordered like a custom suit and driven among civilized motorists, or when a racecar could commandeer public roads. An exception to the norm is the McLaren F1, a supercar built in the mid-1990s and limited to 100 examples. These cars have been said to change hands for over $1 million, but what the future holds for their ultimate collectibility is uncertain. Today, sheer numbers conspire against exclusivity and rarity, and the performance of some current commuter sedans approaches that of last decade’s supercars. Is it likely that any car made after the Ferrari GTO or Shelby Daytona will achieve million-dollar status? Leslie Kendall answers this question. “The planets have to align just right,” he says humorously. If one trusts the future to the stars, perhaps it’s time to consult a horoscope.

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