Against a background of falling stock markets, quarantined ocean cruise liners, regional lockdowns in Europe, stockpiling of toilet rolls and cans of beans – not unconnected, I’m sure – and the substitution of handshakes with elbow taps, over 1,000 classic car enthusiasts found their way to share the air in the grand Queen’s Stand at Ascot Racecourse on Saturday for what was Historics Auctioneers biggest ever sale, with almost 200 lots on offer. Until fairly recently, classic cars were seen as a safe place to put your money, with people buying classics and simply storing them in the hope that in a few years they would have doubled their money or somesuch. The last couple of years has seen that investment strategy take a hit, but maybe the recent stock market turmoil – my pension has taken quite a kicking recently – would trigger a reverse in recent falls?
All this aside, attending classic car auctions is a never less than fascinating experience, for me, anyway, particularly when a good number of the lots on offer are cars I would love to be able to add to my sadly only theoretical collection. Saturday’s venue was one I have driven past many times before but, not being interested in horse racing, have never been inside. Ascot Racecourse hosts the world-renowned Royal Ascot meeting, attended by the Queen and society’s well-to-do, as well as a whole bunch of people who can’t hold their drink.
A little history to begin with. The first horse race held at Ascot took place in 1711, at the instigation of Queen Anne. The meeting rapidly grew in popularity and by the middle of the century was a well-established event, attracting people from all over the country, especially nearby London. It’s royal origins and continued patronage also meant that it attracted many society types, and by the early 19th century formal attire became the only acceptable clothing to wear particularly if one were fortunate – or connected – enough to be invited to the Royal Enclosure, which was opened in 1822, a tradition that persists to this day.
In 1961, the Queen Elizabeth II Grandstand opened at a cost of £1m, but the current Grandstand that you see today cost no less than £220m when it was built in 2004/5 and opened in 2006. It was within the walls of this magnificent structure that Saturday’s auction was held, with some of the lots on offer certainly a match for the surroundings. One thing that I hadn’t expected, though, was that this magnificent building had no heating, except in the bathrooms – it seems that as all doors and windows are open on race days, heating was deemed superfluous. Whoever deemed this was wrong.
We featured two of the cars on sale as our Prime Finds over the last couple of weekends – a 1965 Chevrolet Corvair Monza convertible and a 1966 Panhard 24 CT Coupé but besides both these very cool cars there were numerous other lots among the total of 187 that caught my eye. These included two (originally three but one was withdrawn) BMW E9’s – one a project – as well as a host of cars that I would need a lottery win to be able to afford. Among those that I would love to be able to add to the garage in my mind were a wonderful silver 1969 Lamborghini Islero S with an estimate of £270,000 to £285,000, a fabulous 1960 Facel Vega HK500 (seen by our own Zack Stiling at the London Classic a few weeks ago) was expected to reach between £115,000 to £128,000, and a superb red 1970 Maserati Ghibli SS for between £220,00 and £230,000. In the event, only the Lamborghini sold, reaching £296,800 (including Historics’ 10% commission – all the sold prices I quote will include this) – it’s stablemate 1983 Espada didn’t even attract a single bid.
As well as these beauties there were numerous delights from Mercedes-Benz, Jaguar, Ferrari, but also more humble fare, such as a wonderfully eccentric 1986 Austin Maestro Countryman that found a probably equally eccentric buyer at £4,980 and a very sweet 1969 Morris Minor Van that sold for £7,560. Sale prices ranged from below £4,000 to £310,000 – the day’s highest price, achieved by a very smart metallic green 1970 Aston Martin DB6 MkII, but such a car would surely have fetched at least £50k more not so long ago?
So, arriving in time for the pre-sale viewing at 8.30 gave me a chance to take a good look around before the bidding started, and with so much on offer (I shall ignore the forty 21st century cars on offer, as they are of little interest to us), there was still a lot to take in, so I’ll start with one of my great favourites, the BMW E9 .
Of the two 3.0 CSi’s on offer, the 1975 project car, that was going to soak up a few tens of thousands of pounds as it was very untidy, went for £16,800 against its estimate of £16,000 to £20,000. The Polaris Silver example from the same year – which had been the subject of a £110,000 restoration between 2014 to 2018, and yet – lovely as it was – didn’t look like it, surprisingly missed its relatively modest estimate of £40-45,000. Either buyers couldn’t believe that someone had spent so much on a car that was worth half that, or they just weren’t impressed by the work and figured they’d be spending some more (they would, but not much, I don’t think). In any case I think it’s pretty clear which was the better deal… sometimes it really does pay to look for a car that’s already had the work done!
Disappointingly, neither of our Prime Finds sold; the Corvair – which was in excellent shape– bafflingly stalled at £12,500 against an estimate of £16,000 to £20,000and the Panhard – which I initially liked even more, although closer inspection showed lots of detail work was necessary even if the body and interior were largely OK – struggled to a mere £7,750 before being withdrawn, well shy of its low-end estimate of £12,000.
One of the more intriguing lots was a red 1968 Trident Clipper GT; this late ‘sixties product of Blackpool was one of a mere 30 built in total, and this one had a couple of especially rare features, being the only one with a factory-fitted Essex 3.0-litre V6 and one of four with the flip-front, clamshell-style front end. It’s also thought that this car is probably the original 1967 pre-production show car. However, it was extremely scruffy, was clearly going to need a lot of work and sold for only £9,056. Potentially a terrific project, though.
Unusually, there was a pair of Porsche 914’s on offer, with one particularly appealing to me, in yellow with 2.0-litre engine, manufactured in 1976, the other a red example from 1975 with the 1.8-litre powerplant. These, too, didn’t seem all that expensive, though they were well short of concours, with the former going for below estimate at £11,886 and the latter not selling. Both were US imports and therefore wore the unsightly heavy impact bumpers, but these can be replaced.
Indeed, Porsche’s in general didn’t have a great day – a beautiful Bahama Yellow 1968 911S and an exquisite 1966 short-wheelbase 911 in Polo Red both failed to attract a buyer. They were expensive, with bottom end estimates of £130k and £110k, but these were not unusual prices for such perfect early 911’s not so long ago. Just nine of the 17 Porsche’s on offer sold.
However, there were several classics that outperformed expectations – a 1957 Mercedes-Benz 190SL (one of the most elegant cars ever built) went for £112,000, and a trio of Ford’s did well, the star performer being a cool 1980 Capri MK III 3.0S in gold with brown vinyl roof, which took £23,772 against a high estimate of £16,000. Another strong price was reached by a very well-patinated 1964 VW Split-window Panel Van which celebrated the model’s 70th anniversary by comfortably beating its higher estimate of £16,000, reaching £21,280. In fact, over 20 cars exceeded their top estimate, including a 1994 Rolls Royce Silver Spur which sold for more than twice it’s top estimate, as well as a 1974 E-Type Roadster at just shy of £130,000.
Fascinatingly, not one, but two Mercedes-Benz 600 “Grosser” limousines from 1972 and 1964 came under the hammer, major restoration projects both. They sold for £15,734 and £20,720 respectively – it’s worth pointing out that an excellent Pullman version was sold by Historics at their November sale for £240,000, so while these would be less valuable, there’s certainly some headroom for the restorer, although these are very complicated limousines and will assuredly be six-figure restoration projects.
Interesting Americana besides “our” Corvair included a reasonably tidy 1965 Cadillac Calais (a model new to me) that went for a very modest £6,792, making it a lot of car for the money, and a trio of genuine muscle cars – all from the same private collection – in the formidable shapes of a black 1970 Dodge Challenger SE RT440 (6-pack) with just over 30k miles on the clock, an Alpine White 1970 Plymouth Barracuda 440 (6-pack), and the “fastest truck on the planet”, a 454cu.in Chevrolet El Camino pick-up. The Dodge and Plymouth shared not just the unibody platform, but also the 440cu.in. Hemi engine and the triple twin-carburettor set up to which the “6-pack” refers. These two variations on the same theme looked brutish and powerful – probably because they actually were, very – but of the two, only the Plymouth sold, and only just, for £73,580. The El Camino, however, was another that sold above estimate, the hammer falling at £42,560.
Another car that I was personally interested in was a 1983 Mercedes-Benz 280 CE; these stylish coupés look good in most colours but I particularly liked this one in Signal Red with cream leather interior. The W123 series were among the last “bulletproof” Mercedes, and this one found a buyer for a mere £5,824, not bad for an admittedly imperfect – mainly the interior, which needed a refresh – but useable everyday classic.
Of the Youngtimers on offer, the one that perhaps stood out the most to me was the 1995 Peugeot 306 Cabriolet that had just 70 miles under its wheels – effectively a new car that had been kept as part of a private collection, the mystery being why anyone would choose to store such a relatively ordinary car from new. It sold for £9,520, a bargain, I would suggest, as was the black 1996 BMW M3 Evo E36 that reached only £12,500 before being withdrawn – the previous E30 generation is already a stone-cold classic, fetching prices in the £50k and up range, and surely this will be, too, so it’s failure to sell was unexpected.
Bargain of the day? Well, quite possibly that Peugeot 306 but the one car I would have loved to take home, money no object, and despite the siren call of the Islero, was that absolutely perfect 1966 SWB Porsche 911, which could have been mine for somewhere around £110,000, and as it didn’t sell, maybe there’s a chance for me yet… oh wait..… but I can dream!
With so many lots on offer and such a busy and noisy saleroom, the auctioneers – assisted occasionally by motoring presenter Vicki Butler-Henderson – managed to maintain a pretty respectable pace of 24/25 cars an hour, and they had to work hard for their money.
Was the sale overall a success? First impressions were that perhaps it wasn’t, with numerous cars failing to sell initially. However, the final results (which are available on the Historics website), were perhaps better than might have been anticipated, though they were boosted by the number of cars sold with no reserve. So to a few statistics, and I’ll stick to the cars and vans (there were nine non-car/van lots).
Cars sold below estimate – 23
Cars sold within estimate – 33
Cars sold above estimate – 23
Cars sold without reserve – 35
Unsold – 73
Of 187 car and van lots in total, 114 or 61% were sold, 31% of those without reserve, with sales totalling over £4m. 39% unsold on the day though compares favourably with the 50% figure at Silverstone Auctions recent sale at Race Retro, so I would imagine Historics were reasonably satisfied, although I’m sure they would have preferred some of the higher-priced ticket items such as the two 911’s, the Ghibli, the Facel Vega and particularly the gorgeous and unique 1956 EJS Coventry Climax Special, which reached only £80k towards its lower estimate of £180,000, to have sold – after all, higher sale price, higher commission. Nevertheless, despite it being clear that the “good old days” are not back, there still seems to be plenty of interest and movement in the market – ultimately, as always, it’s all about the price someone out there is prepared to pay.