Something of value?

By Martin Zimmerman | Los Angeles Times

Figuring out the value of a collectible car these days can be more like an episode of “CSI” than “Antiques Roadshow.”

Sure, a vehicle’s condition and rarity are keys to its price on the auction block, but potential buyers have to be as concerned with authenticity. Does it have only factory-installed parts? Has the engine been replaced? Do all of the identifying numbers match? Are the documents genuine?

“You want as much of the original product, the original DNA of the car, as possible,” said Colin Comer, a Milwaukee-based author and expert on detecting fake collectibles.

The problem is that some crooks are good at swapping out parts and serial numbers and passing off a backyard junker as a real and costly McCoy.

Some supposed collectibles, Comer said, are fixed-up phonies with “nothing more than a title and a potato-chip-size piece of the original car.”

The difference in value between a 100 percent original and one that isn’t can be significant. A 1971 Plymouth Hemi engine Barracuda convertible that fetched $2.4 million, including commission, at an auction a year ago was deemed nearly flawless – except that its engine had been replaced. No matter that the “new” engine was made at roughly the same time.

“If it had been all original, it would’ve brought $4 million,” Comer said of the ’Cuda, one of only 11 produced that model year.

McKeel Hagerty, whose company insures almost 600,000 collectible cars, said it has become easier in recent years to document authenticity.

The availability on the Internet of formerly hard-to-find information like vehicle histories makes it easier to check out the provenance of a vehicle. What’s more, the growth of enthusiast clubs for almost every model of collectible car has created a large body of lay experts who can vouch for a car’s authenticity or expose frauds.

Certainly, the market for collectible cars has been in high gear in recent years as wealthy baby boomers have bid up the prices of true classics like Ferraris and Duesenbergs as well as the beloved cars of their youth – in particular, the big-engined muscle cars that came out of Detroit in the late 1960s and early ’70s.

“They can afford to pay top dollar for a ’57 Chevy or whatever. It is an investment. If you buy it right, then it’s money in the bank,” said Fred H. Gittins Jr., a marketing consultant specialist and vintage auto appraiser with Kruse International in Auburn.

He suggests that potential buyers do their homework first; the Internet is a good place to start. If you’re going to buy at auction and you’re not knowledgeable about antique cars, then bring someone with you who is and inspect the car thoroughly.

“Unfortunately, nowadays, you can’t trust everything that people say … not everybody lists their cars the way they are,” Gittins said.

But he also acknowledged that cars that sit on display for years without being driven potentially could have repair issues that an owner might not know about.

“They’re antique cars, but they’re used cars. You can’t really put a guarantee on them.”

That said, “We don’t have a lot of problems, considering the amount of cars we sell,” Gittins said.

Stefanie Scarlett of The Journal Gazette contributed to this story.

Roadside assistance

It pays to do your homework before paying big money for a classic car. Here are some tips:

Educate yourself. Read books on classic cars. Or go online.

Check the paperwork. Verify what you can with registration, title documents and repair bills.

Check the numbers. If the car is a genuine original, serial numbers, the vehicle identification number and other identifiers should all jibe.

Inspect the car. If you’re buying in the area, it’s worth the money to go see it, or to pay someone to check it out for you.

Make calls. Track down former owners and talk to them. And call neighbors.

Consult the experts. Local classic car clubs can be a great source for expert advice. For expensive cars, consider hiring a professional authenticator.

What’s in a number?

More than just a random series of digits and letters, serial numbers, the vehicle identification numbers and other automotive fingerprints provide a peek into a car’s history. The VIN number 30837S105613 was lifted from a 1963 Chevrolet Corvette, as decoded by car detective Colin Comer. Here’s what the numbers mean, from left to right:

3: 1963; 08: Corvette 8-cylinder; 37: Coupe; S: St. Louis production plant; 105613: sequential vehicle identifier, the 5,613th Corvette built that model year.