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Since the early decades of the 20th century, cars have been ubiquitous. A fascination with automobiles exists today as much as in the past, and there is a flourishing field of collecting associated with it.
The internal combustion engine was invented in 1823. In the decades following, engineers built different vehicles that were powered by the new technology, no longer running on steam. The early years of the auto industry saw many specialty vehicles that resembled horse and buggy designs. As mass production techniques developed, however, cars became affordable for many, completely changing the landscape around us and becoming a major part of the culture.
The breakthrough came with Ford’s Model T, which was produced quickly with assembly line manufacturing. Between 1908 and 1927, over 15 million Model T’s were produced in the US. The Model T was also very affordable. In current dollars, the 1908 model cost $23,476. Over the next two decades, it became increasingly even cheaper. In today’s dollars, a 1919 Model T cost $8,499, and by 1925, a new Model T cost only $3,790. In 2018, however, a collector paid $110,000 for one of these classic cars.
Classic car sales account for billions in worldwide sales each year. Along with automobiles, there is a lively market for automobilia, which are artifacts and collectibles related to the auto industry. These may include items related to professional motor racing, like jerseys, or objects like steering wheels associated with certain car models. Some other collectible automobilia objects are hood ornaments (also called radiator mascots) and items related to vintage gas stations, like signs and pumps.
Automobiles are sometimes grouped by era. Those produced in the 1910s up to the 1930s are considered vintage or antique. Cars made from the mid-1930s up to the end of the 1950s are referred to as pre-war, war, and post-war era. Automobiles built in the 1960s through the mid-1980s are considered to be classic cars. These categories are, however, not universally agreed upon and should be considered flexible.
There are also different ratings systems for individual cars, based on their condition. Some auction houses may use these as guides, but they can vary based on country or organization. In the US, for example, the six category grading system is widely used, with category one being the top rating.
Automobilia value and classification varies since there is such a wide range. Within the category of radiator mascots, for instance, one classification is based on materials. Usually, nickel or brass are used, but in rare cases, glass ornaments have been produced, and are considered highly valuable.
In 2018, a 1962 Ferrari 250 GTO sold at auction for $48.4 million. In fact, Ferraris are consistently among the most expensive cars sold at auction. Some other brands that have brought prices in the tens of millions include Aston Martin, Bugatti, McLaren, Mercedez, Jaguar, and Alfa Romeo.
There are several factors that may contribute to a classic car’s value. Rarity is often important, so a limited production model can fetch a higher price. Another point to consider is aesthetic value, and whether the car has an attractive design. Nostalgia also plays a role. Certain automobiles can evoke an era for a buyer that is meaningful and that they may want to recapture.
The condition of the car is important. Has it been taken care of? Have parts been replaced, and if so, are those parts consistent with the original design? Generally, a car with original parts is most valued. Like many antiques, a record of the item’s history is important when selling at auction. For an automobile, that record is likely to be especially extensive and detailed, and it is very useful to have as comprehensive of a maintenance record as possible.
Previous ownership by a famous person or sports car racer will also increase the value of a classic automobile. For example, Greta Garbo’s Duesengberg Model J Victoria went for $550,000 in today’s dollars. O.J. Simpson’s 1993 Ford Bronco sold for twice its original price, or $75,000 in 2004.
Automobilia value is similarly tied to condition and rarity. Items like antique signs or even old-fashioned gas station pumps can draw high prices if they have outstanding or unusual designs. A brightly lit neon vintage BP petrol pump recently sold for £6250. Rare items like Lalique glass hood ornaments also fetch high prices. A collection of 30 sold in 2012 for an astonishing $805,000!
Leah Illingworth is a content specialist here at Mearto. She loves learning and writing about art and antiques each day in addition to exploring the history and stories behind art movements and objects.