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The Highs and lows of the 2023 classic car world

If it seems to you that 2023 just whizzed by, it did, thanks to the emergence of more cars, auctions, events and experiences than ever before. As a result, at least in part, the classic and collector car market continued to progress, although more slowly and with increased signs of cooling and caution. It was a year that had it all, from outstanding restorations and intriguing new events to sad goodbyes. These were the highs and lows of 2023.

2023 EVENTS

We’re going to have to concentrate on the really big events here, but actually the story for 2023 is as much about the continued rise of the smaller, less formal gatherings. Cars and coffee was originally a California thing, but it’s spread around the world, and has spawned highly successful car-themed venues such the UK’s Caffeine & Machine, which opened a second location this year. And, still in the UK, Bicester Heritage celebrated its tenth anniversary with the return of the Flywheel festival and more great Scramble events.

The headline news was the centenary of Le Mans, though, played out to spectacular effect not just at the Le Mans 24 Hours and Le Mans Classic, but also at other events around the world. The centenary was impressively previewed in 2022 at Monterey Car Week, so it fell to some of the other big concours to mark the 100th in 2023 – we think the best of those was Concours of Elegance Hampton Court, with its remarkable line-up of 24 Le Mans cars, including ten winners and even four double winners.

Also in the UK, Salon Privé continued to innovate and expand, with the second running of its London event. And we’ll cheekily mention the second running of our own Concours on Savile Row, which for 2023 expanded around the corner to the Royal Academy of Arts. The expansion made room for more cars and bikes, as well as the extremely popular Nyetimber English winemaker’s double-decker bus…

In the US, The Quail, A Motorsports Gathering, celebrated its 20th anniversary with easily its biggest and best show yet; classic car auction group Broad Arrow continued its rapid growth, as demonstrated by its impressive presence at the Jet Center during Monterey Week; and the much newer Velocity Invitational really came of age, returning to its natural home of Sonoma Raceway. McLaren’s decision to round off its 60th anniversary at the event helped take Velocity to another level.

And then the king of them all, Goodwood! What a year it had, celebrating 30 years of the Festival of Speed, 25 of the Revival and the 80th Members’ Meeting. Bad weather made this year’s Festival trickier than most, but the Revival in particular was at its absolute peak. After all these years, it’s still our favourite of them all.

We’d be remiss not to celebrate the success of the inaugural Concorso d’Eleganza Varignana 1705, either. It was an event to remember for many reasons, not least of which was collector Corrado Lopresto notching up his 300th concours award and 62nd Best of Show, too.

Just a few days after Ferrari’s first overall victory at Le Mans in 58 years, the longest Mille Miglia ever staged took participants on a five-day, 2200km-long tour of Italy. Across the Atlantic, around 100,000 people attended Rennsport Reunion 7 at Laguna Seca – a truly unmissable celebration of all things Porsche.

2023 CARS OF THE YEAR

So many great cars were out in 2023, so what to choose? Well, the headline-grabber was, of course, the 1962 Ferrari 250 GTO / 330 LM that was sold by RM Sotheby’s in New York for $51,705,000. Not quite the expected $60 million, but a new record for a Ferrari sold at auction, and one that helped put the world’s focus back on classic cars.

For us, the inclusion of the unrestored 1932 Alfa Romeo 8C 2300 Corto Figoni Cabriolet, in the four contenders for Best of Show at the Pebble Beach Concours d’Elegance, was important and exciting, showing the respect that the concours world now gives to preservation cars. And it was great to see the look on the face of a shell-shocked Gregor Fisken, who was looking after the car.

While we’re on heart-warming tales, what could be more comforting than that Sunday-afternoon classic 1953 movie Genevieve? To celebrate the film’s 70th anniversary, the two star cars, a 1904 Darracq 10/12hp, aka Genevieve, and the 1905 Spyker 12/16hp Double Phaeton, left their home at the Louwman Museum to lead this year’s London to Brighton Veteran Car Run. Wonderful! And from a very different movie, not one but two of the Countachs – one pristine, one wrecked – from The Wolf of Wall Street, came up for sale this year.

Back in the concours world, there were two stand-out stars: Jonathan and Wendy Segal’s gorgeous Maserati A6GCS/53 Frua Spider, which not only took Best of Show at Concours of Elegance Hampton Court, but also won Car of the Year at the Historic Motoring Awards. And there was Fritz Burkard’s Delage D8-120 S De Villars Roadster, which was Best of Show at Audrain Newport Concours and was also made the 2022 Best of the Best at a prize-giving in August 2023. Fritz, in fact, was the featured collector at Hampton Court, and his two Peel bubble cars entertained the crowds even more than his Delage. He topped off the event by having his James Bond DB5 drive into the hallowed quadrangle at Windsor Castle, firing its movie prop guns.

We’ve seen some great new cars too this year, including the beautiful Alfa Romeo 33 Stradale, which revived an iconic model designation and prompted our Magneto issue 20 front cover. Rolls-Royce proved that all-electric power is never better deployed than in high-luxury cars with its new Spectre, and Aston Martin went all out to launch its new DB12, a significant move on from its DB11 predecessor. While we’re on new car manufacturers, remember that McLaren’s 60th anniversary celebrations brought out some amazing machinery, including the first-ever customer car, the M1A featured in Magneto issue 20. And Lotus marked its 75 years with a number of celebrations, rounded off by Clive and Jane Chapman, son and daughter of founders Colin and Hazel, remaking their parents’ drive to Dunstable Downs in the Lotus Mk1.

It’s been another year of restomod and low-volume launches, too. Two of our favourites were electric, curiously. On the restomods, Frontline’s MG Bee GT, proved that EV conversions can be fun without lashings of range-sapping power, but the king of the restomods must surely be Lanzante’s bonkers TAG F1-engined 911 conversions. Amazing! Of the low-volume cars, Meyers Manx came out with a brand-new four-seater version, once again styled by Freeman Thomas, which we love.

And while we’re talking low volume and off the wall, how about the Austin J40 Continuation? The what? Yes, it’s the classic pedal car, re-engineered for modern-day kids. It’s a work of art, as you’d hope for £25,000.

2023 SAD FAREWELLS

It’s always tough to say goodbye to the stalwarts, heroes and friends we lose each year. On the final day of 2022, we lost the talented and influential industrial designer Tom Karen. The Reliant Scimitar GTE, the Bond Bug and the brilliant Raleigh Chopper bicycle were the high points of a long career, much of it spent at the reins of Ogle Design. After a spell designing commercial vehicles, he ‘retired’ in 1999 to design toys and write children’s books – an unusually gifted creative to the end.

In March, we lost prolific car collector, founder of the Blackhawk Museum and Magneto friend Don Williams. We also bid a sad farewell to Lady Susie Moss. So much more than just the widow of Sir Stirling, she was his rock, and the reason he remained in the spotlight all of his life. Her business head, firm hand and elegant touch made the two of them an unforgettable and formidable pairing.

Just two days later, automotive enthusiasts and hot rod devotees said goodbye to perfectionist car fabricator Ken Schmidt, co-founder of the renowned Rolling Bones Hot Rod Shop. Ken’s hugely sought-after rods were never anything short of showstoppers – a direct result of doing what he loved. There’s no doubt Craig Breedlove, who sadly passed away in early April, also spent his life in pursuit of his great passion: speed. The five-time Land Speed Record holder lived a life marked by monumental courage and sheer determination.

Another giant to fall this year, although this time born of the automotive engineering world, was the brilliant Italian carmaker Giotto Bizzarrini. As so wonderfully told by Winston Goodfellow in Issue 13 of Magneto, Bizzarrini’s contribution to cars such as the Ferrari 250 Testa Rossa, Ferrari 250 GTO and  Bizzarrini 5300 GT Strada, as well as to Lamborghini’s V12 engine, has more than stood the test of time.

The passing of much-loved and hugely impactful car collector Peter Mullin was an incredible loss. Not only did Peter (with wife Merle’s assistance) assemble a peerless collection of French Art Deco-era cars, build the extraordinary Mullin Automotive Museum, contribute time and resources to the restoration of the Petersen Automotive Museum, and support the art of car design, but he was also one of the world’s friendliest, most passionate and knowledgeable collectors. Always great company, and highly supportive of Magneto magazine, he will be dearly missed.

And most recently, we lost Ireland’s celebrated rally driver Rosemary Smith, described as “fearless and remarkable” by her country’s president, Michael Higgins. At Magneto, we’ll remember her as being deeply talented, but modest and fun-loving, always laughing and telling the best stories.

AUCTION HIGHS AND LOWS

This year hasn’t half been a funny one – for all the talk of doom and gloom, the market is performing in line with the gradual progression from 2021, with 2022 being a bit of an outlier. Why’s that? Well, it’s not every year Mercedes-Benz skews the auction market with one car – and considering that the other Uhlenhaut Coupé is probably unlikely to be sold, a repeat performance was unlikely this year. The facts and figures point to small but steady growth at a macro level, but anecdotal evidence from auctioneers and dealers paints a more nuanced story.

There’s a marked difference between the European market and that of the US. The latter appears to be very strong at the moment, whereas Europe has had a tricky time of it. As one international dealer operating out of the US told Magneto: “The US really saved our asses this year.” Why’s that? Well, the proximity to the ongoing war in Ukraine and the clampdown on Russian assets may still be having an effect, but there are other factors.

The cost of borrowing has increased from long-term lows, which has favoured cash buyers – witness the considerable resilience at the lower end of the market. The increased cost of borrowing has suddenly made refinancing a car a challenge – if, for example, you were offered a PCP-style finance deal on a classic at a low rate, financing the balloon (the remainder at the end of that initial term) could end up costing you far more than you ever intended. This may lead to a glut of vehicles hitting the market at the same time, if interest rates do not fall.

However, perhaps the biggest difference between the European and the US markets reflects a wider cultural perception, not just of cars, but towards the wealthy. It’s difficult to imagine scenes of income inequality protestors vandalising yachts in the south of France being replicated in Miami, for example. As one collector noted to Magneto privately: “While I’d love to use my cars more often, and add to the collection, right now the perception is just not good.”

This year also saw several instances where Ferraris may have set new auction records, but the sum received fell far below what was intended. This is particularly true of the 1962 Ferrari 330 LM/250 GTO sold by RM Sotheby’s in November. Originally estimated at anything up to $60m, it ended up going for $51.7m. Still a record for Ferrari at auction, but not quite the epoch-shifting sale it was foreseen to be.

Disappointing Ferrari sales, particularly of the 1950s and ’60s era, were a theme of the year, and one of the most curious sagas involved Artcurial’s Ferrari 250 LM, chassis no. 5901. Originally offered at Retromobile in February, its top bid of €20m was rejected in the room, and it didn’t sell. It was then offered at a one-off sale in Paris some months later, and eventually sold for €15.8m. That one had to hurt…

Bonhams’ 1967 Ferrari 412P at Monterey also disappointed – it was expected to sell for more than $40m, but just the one bidder wanted it, and was made to wait to have his $30.25m bid accepted as final, according to those in the room.

Similar shock, going the other way, came in February at Silverstone Auctions’ (now known as Iconic Auctioneers) Race Retro sale, with a 1987 Ford Sierra RS500 Cosworth. The auctioneers had set the world record for the model with £132,750 in 2022. Fast forward to a chilly day in Warwickshire, and the new world record was four times that at, on the face of it, a scarcely believable £596,250. Look into the history of this particular car, and the reasons why a Dubai-based online bidder stuck it out become clearer (more details here); this was pretty much an unrepeatable offer. Subsequent sales of the RS500 bore this out; while there was a slight uplift, no other road-going example got close.

As pointed out by Hagerty’s John Mayhead in this article, it all reflects a growing trend towards millennial-interest cars. The ongoing growth in pre-merger AMG sales bears this out; Broad Arrow broke the record for a Mercedes-Benz W124 E-Class twice in the space of a few lots at its Amelia sale, with $885,000 struck. A key driver behind these figures is homologation for use on US roads; pre-merger AMG cars were not imported as separate models. AMG USA sent over the bits to a North American base and had them assembled there in very small quantities – that’s what’s driving the difference between pricing on these AMGs.

The Porsche market has had a challenging year. The 75th anniversary of the brand saw a huge number of Porsches pass through auctions, and while there were some successes (most notably the White Collection from RM Sotheby’s, which sold all but one), there perhaps weren’t the headline-news sales we might have expected. Simply, there was too much choice – if your taste was for a particularly rare 911 variant from the 1990s, for instance, you often had to wait a few months for another one to appear. Perhaps the greatest illustration of that was the battle of the Porsche 964 RSR 3.8 Strassenwagens. Porsche Motorsport built only two examples of this ultra-hardcore 911, and lo and behold, Bonhams and RM Sotheby’s each had one for sale within days of each other in the autumn. While both cars sold within estimate, could either have achieved more with a little more distance?

On the subject of head-to-heads, the battle of The Wolf of Wall Street Lamborghini Countachs provided a duel between Bonhams and RM Sotheby’s. RM Sotheby’s deployed first with a car used by the film for the bits that didn’t involve a drug-fuelled ramble from country to club to home via several parked cars and other obstacles. Bonhams had the actual car that was bought and pretty much destroyed in pursuit of the director’s vision – Martin Scorsese refused to use a glassfibre replica because it “wouldn’t fold up right”. The auction result was surprising, to say the least – RM Sotheby’s sold its car, despite it appearing in the film for just a few seconds ($1.655m), while Bonhams was a no sale, bid to $1.55m.

Celebrity sales were an interesting side point to this year’s sales. In previous years the King of Cool, Steve McQueen, would have provided an extra layer of glitz to a car’s sale, but this year has perhaps seen his pulling power wane. At Monterey, RM Sotheby’s ex-McQueen Ferrari 275 GTB/4 sold for 40 percent more than the usual price for one, at $5.395m, but this was a significant haircut for the owner, who’d paid $10m for it.

Vintage cars have provided an interesting counter-point to all logical thinking. It’s been generally accepted that pre-war cars are a victim of shifting tastes for more modern machinery; indeed, a couple of luminaries at an industry talk at Auto e Moto d’Epoca cast gloom and doom on the matter. Only that’s not really been the case, as backed up by anecdotal conversations with enthusiasts, the ready enthusiasm for vintage events in both Europe and further afield, and some eye-opening auction results. Gooding & Co. did very well at Monterey, with $4.075m paid for a 1912 Simplex 50HP Toy Tonneau, $4.515m for a 1933 Alfa Romeo 8C 2300 Cabriolet and £4.735m for a 1914 Mercer Type 35-J Raceabout. This wasn’t isolated, with Bonhams getting good money for its vintage cars at various sales throughout the year, too.

The why? The answer depends on who you talk to – at the inexpensive end of the market, the dip in values has made vintage cars accessible fun for younger enthusiasts, one that they can modify, compete and enjoy “without listening to the moans of rivet counters”. The ‘pure mechanicals’ appeal, too: “No silly electrics to mess with” was another choice quote. Then there’s the general sense of driving a piece of tangible history.

At the higher end, however, vintage cars offer entry to a select number of events. There is, of course, a broader element that applies to both ends of the market – the pre-war era is a topic regularly referred to in the wider general culture, via films and TV shows; take the worldwide phenomena of Peaky Blinders as a good example.