Deal or no deal?

| 6 May 2011

It’s a thought that must have occurred to everyone who has spent a fair amount of time immersed in the classic world: ‘I reckon I could make a few quid by “dabbling” in old cars.’ Sure you could. I reckon I could as well. Or at least I did. After all, I have done fairly well over the years with my own cars, usually selling for a small-to-middling profit a few years down the line (if you forget the cash spent in keeping the car on the road and gently improving it). In fact, I’ve only ever made one substantial loss on a classic (a 1967 Mercury, in case you were wondering – sadly, I think I’d do rather better from it now). I’m practical enough, I can do the odd bit of mechanical and body work, and I’ve a decent grasp of the classic market. So I’d make a half reasonable classic dealer, right?

Er, wrong. And that point has just been proved in the most graphic way. Purely in the interests of research, of course, a few of C&SC’s budding dealers (myself included) spent knocking on £1500 of the magazine’s cash on an ageing left-hooker Mercedes, in the hope of selling it for a tasty profit in continental Europe. I hasten to add that we had our eyes wide open: we could see that it was far from perfect, but could also see the potential in this unpolished Stuttgart gem. A little bit of bodywork, a little bit of mechanical fettling and it would surely have the buyers knocking down our door...

The rude awakening came very quickly. Rather than taking the car straight from the auction lot to the office, our nominated ‘car lot’, I couldn’t resist driving it home… I’ve always fancied an old Merc saloon, you see. Of course, it then broke down on my driveway. The nail-biting began. A couple of hundred quid lighter, and with a bit of professional help, we had it going again – and revived our dreams of a tasty profit. Those fantasies continued to build after a fairly trouble-free run to Techno Classica Essen. But three days at the show opened our eyes: for some reason, none of the punters could see the appeal of the tatty, base-model Benz, preferring instead the shiny – and rather more expensive – fodder on the dealer displays.

So no, it didn’t sell, and yes, we still have it. In a way, I don’t really mind – I rather like having the car around, even if our publisher (on whose credit card the Merc’s cost still languishes) is rather less impressed. In a way I guess it’s reassuring to know that I am far too much of an enthusiast to be a proper wheeler dealer – and the same goes for most of the C&SC team. As soon as you take personal possession of a car and start to feel an affection for it, you struggle to see it as a commodity and your tone takes on the desperation that buyers sense – and run a mile from. You only have to witness the number of projects that pass through our workshop to see that we just can’t resist a lost cause and are sucker for anything ‘in need of a little tlc’ – particularly if we kid ourselves that we’re getting a bargain.

Nope, to be the kind of person who can make a living from classic cars you need a certain ruthlessness as well as a good eye: you can love old cars, sure, but you also need to resist being blind to their faults – and if they are insurmountable, you must walk away. Or just accept that you might have another addition to the fleet for a little while.