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Apr 07, 2005
Iron Giants - Forbes

L.A.'s Petersen Automotive Museum has gathered the classic muscle cars of the '60s and '70s. Their brawny beauty hasn't changed, but the price tags have.

Long before airbags, headrests, cup holders and other such clutter, there were muscle cars. Muscle cars had light bodies and heavy engines. Muscle cars had hood vents and fins and paint jobs that dared you not to race them. Muscle cars inspired the Beach Boys, Jan and Dean, and even French crooner Serge Gainsbourg to write hymns in their honor.

They had two doors and two doors only, and you were expected to roll down the window manually-air conditioners, electric openers and other such wimpishness were for your grandma's sedan (and damn it, even she was dreaming of a shiny red Super Stock Dodge). Then, by the mid-'70s, the Clean Air Act, soaring gas prices, Ralph Nader and other horsemen of the apocalypse had corralled these lead-spewing gas-guzzlers into the used-car lot of history. No Frenchman has since written a decent song about an American car, or about anything else American for that matter.

And that's where that story would have ended. But then the generation that grew up with muscle cars suddenly got rich enough and sentimental enough to restart the party.

Step into the "Musclecars: Power to the People" exhibit showing through June 5 at the Petersen Automotive Museum in Los Angeles, and see a '67 Dodge Coronet displayed like a rare statue. A closer look reveals that the car lacks hubcaps, radio, heater and windshield wipers. Since this was one of a limited number of Coronets built for racing, buyers never even had the option for these features.

"Serious racers in the '60s and '70s didn't really care about heaters or those sorts of things," explains Leslie Kendall, the museum's curator. "The only thing that mattered was the performance you'd get when you'd strip the car down to its body and lumpy engine."

One of the more eye-popping cars in the exhibit is a green 1969 Dodge Charger Daytona with a sloped nose cone and high rear wing-perfect for streaming down the straight roads and vast spaces of what was then America's expanding interstate highway system.

The Ford Mustang, whose ubiquitous hood scoop is probably the most prominent icon of the muscle car era, is also in the exhibit in the form of the Boss 429. Built in 1969 and 1970, this model's rarity is a testament to NASCAR rules, which stipulated that carmakers had to sell at least 500 units of a given model in a year to make it legal for competition. So Ford simply shoehorned a massive 429-cubic-inch engine into the body of a Mustang hardtop, sold some 1,358 units at a loss and sent the Boss 429 to the races.

In 1969, you could have bought this car straight from the dealer for about $5,000. Ontario-based RM Auctions, which specializes in vintage cars, recently sold a good-condition model for $146,000. That might have been a bargain.

For the past five years, auctioneers and dealers have seen prices for muscle cars accelerate faster than a Camaro with a bear on its tail. "Muscle cars are undoubtedly the hottest market segment. In the '70s you couldn't have given them away; now it's quite common to see these things go for $100,000 or a lot more," says Terrance Lobzun, a spokesman for RM Auctions.

Indeed, at the Barrett-Jackson vintage car auction held this January in Scottsdale, Arizona, 84 muscle cars fetched more than $100,000. Barrett-Jackson was so confident of the strong market that for the first time none of the cars had reserve prices.

But when baby boomers start paying six figures for 40-year-old Chevys, some market watchers start scratching their heads.

"It's beyond stupidity," says Richard Lentinello, editor-in-chief of Hemmings Muscle Machines. Lentinello is one of many experts who worry that muscle cars are being priced at unsustainable levels. Don't tell that to Bill Wiemann, a businessman from North Dakota who recently paid $2 million for a '71 Plymouth Hemi Cuda convertible, then the highest known amount ever spent for a muscle car. "I would already be able to turn around and sell it for more," says Wiemann, who in fact sold a different Hemi Cuda convertible in January for $3 million. "The market for rare muscle cars still has a long ways to go."

Wiemann's $2-million car is rare indeed. Only 11 '71 Hemi Cuda convertibles were ever made. But, to gain perspective on just how steep the run-up has been, consider that five years ago one of these cars sold at auction for $400,000.

"These kind of extreme price run-ups are unlikely to hold," says Lobzun.

Are we at the top of the market? "With cars that were $100,000 three years ago now going for $300,000, I think there's probably not much further it can go," says Tom duPont, publisher of the duPont Registry, which tracks collector car values. "But most of those are very rare limited-edition cars. The normal cars of the era have not hit that curve yet, and that's where I see opportunity." Many experts concur, citing mass-produced classic Corvettes, Pontiac GTOs, Camaros and Chevelles-many of which sold for less than $20,000 at January's Barrett-Jackson auction.

"I think some of these cars could well see a 20-percent increase," says duPont.

But there are pitfalls. For starters, car condition is vital. High mileage or signs of wear can have devastating effects on value. Authenticity is another major worry. Factory-made originals with matching numbers and parts are one thing, but the constant tinkering of the original automaker or subsequent owners who might have switched around engines and other parts creates complicated valuations. For instance, a mint-condition clone of that $2-million Hemi Cuda convertible just went for $92,880 in the January Barrett-Jackson auction-the $1.9-million difference being that the clone had a different engine from the one it was born with. And while it might be easy to track the limited number of '71 Hemi Cuda convertibles out there, it's much harder to track the parts and provenance of more common muscle cars-and, even if it weren't, at the end of the day, no one is certain how to value a perfect clone.

The bottom line? This is a complicated market that has experienced a dizzying and sudden price run-up fueled by enthusiasts. Unless you can match wits with the best of them, it's probably best not to expect to get anything in return for your investment but love and lots of time under the hood.

Those looking to relive the magic without getting their fingers dirty on the weekends can welcome the return of muscle-car features from automakers eager to cash in on a new craze. Check out this year's Ford Mustang GT with fastback styling and forward grill or the Pontiac GTO with hoodvents for its 400 hp engine. And later this year Chrysler is planning to reintroduce the Dodge Charger as-ye gads!-a sedan. A four-door Charger? The muscle-car generation has definitely grown up.

"Musclecars: Power to the People" runs through June 5 at the Petersen Automotive Museum, 6060 Wilshire Blvd., Los Angeles, CA, www.petersen.org.

   
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