Taking down from the shelves my bound volumes of Motor Sport to indulge in some research, my eyes strayed from the task had embarked on to more interesting items encountered as the pages were turned. I was reminded of motoring I had accomplished years ago, from an uninspiring 1,158 miles in a week in a Ford Squire (it sounds pretty dismal now but wasn’t such a chore when this was a new car) to going, within the space of ten days, twice to John o’ Groats and back from Land’s End and then from Hampshire, with a call at the office and an Oulton Park race meeting thrown in for good measure, using Austin A50, Simca Aronde and Bristol 404 cars, not to mention helping to get a Citroën 2 c.v. slowly up and less slowly down BwIch-y-Groes 100 times and a Mercedes-Benz 300SL coupe from Land’s End to Scotland rather rapidly. I am not so ambitious now, even if I do commute to the office from Wales and back in a day, which the excellence of a modern BMW 2500 renders reasonably painless.
Next, my attention was diverted to the advertisements in these old volumes. Do you know, only a decade and a half ago you could have bought a Riley Lynx from the Trade for £115, a 3 1/2-litre SS100 for £195, an open 3-litre Vanden Plas Bentley for £295, a 1925 Star for “£60 o.n.o.”. Or how about a Riley 9 for £85, a Continental P.II Rolls-Royce for £595, a Type 57 Bugatti saloon for £485, a Speed Six Bentley Windover saloon for £375, an ex-Gerard Brooklands-model Riley 9 for £225 or a Type 35B Bugatti for £295? That is how the Trade valued such cars in 1956 and they were newer then and less likely to have been modified or abused than is the case today.
Does devaluation of the £-sterling explain satisfactorily the enormous increase in the prices of pre-war cars which was soon to take place ? I don’t think it does. The £ devalued by 33 1/3% between 1957 and 1970, according to figures in “The Pound In Your Pocket”, by Peter Wilsher (Cassell, 1970), but the value-adjustment on old cars is way above this. I decided to look at pre-war cars advertised in Motor Sport in 1957, of a kind unlikely to be all that much in demand and therefore rare today, and ask myself whether I could buy similar cars today, adding 33 1/3% to the prices and overlooking deterioration in use/storage over 18 years! An Alvis Firefly “any trial”, so presumably taxed, £45; Minerva limousine, “new tyres, overhauled, good body, taxed and insured”, £120; Alvis Speed 25 Charlesworth saloon, “mechanically excellent”, £105; MG M-type, £60; Riley Gamecock, £80 o.n.o. Where now, or two years ago for that matter, could you buy a Firefly Alvis for £60, a Minerva for £160, an Alvis Speed 25 for £140, an M-type MG for £80, or any kind of open Riley 9 for under £107?
So is the law of supply and demand to blame ? Possibly, for no longer do the Club circulars, those of the 12/50 Alvis Register and Riley Register, for instance, carry many, if indeed any, advertisements for pre-war models, and certainly no longer at low prices.
Or could it be speculation, greed, grab-grab, call it what you will, which has, for many years now, priced most pre-war cars, never mind whether they are vintage or p.v.t., out of the reach of so many enthusiasts who would otherwise buy and run them ?
The situation is certainly rather remarkable. I recently saw a post-vintage Swift Ten saloon standing outside a country garage, on deflated tyres, very rough in paintwork and upholstery, and enquired its price; I was told the best offer so far received as £800! As much is now expected for a pair of Lucas brass sidelamps as you would have paid for a couple of Ruby Austin Sevens in running order only a few years ago, according to a recent VCC circular, but in 1955 you could have bought from a garage a rebuilt road-equipped Type 35A GP Bugatti for £60 less than the price at which a 1938 Austin Big Seven saloon was being advertised a couple of months ago by a well-known motor museum.
Why ? I know that the prevailing high labour costs have to be taken into consideration where restored cars are concerned, so that very high prices are perhaps justified in the case of rare but sought after veteran and vintage cars in thoroughly sound condition. What I do not understand is the overall inflation of prices of almost everything on wheels which is old. After all, vintage cars, unlike vintage wine, do not exactly mature with age. Any car is likely to be somewhat past its prime after 50,000 miles or so and possibly require non-existent replacement parts. Many of the 1930s and 1940s vehicles were never inspiring to drive when new. Yet the prices asked (not necessarily realised!) continue to escalate. Where, today, could you buy a two-seater Speed Model Bentley for £650, a 12/50 Alvis two-seater for £120 (“no haggling”—I should think not!), an overhauled Austin Nippy for £65, a 1921 Crossley tourer for £145, a Sunbeam 16 tourer for £150, a rebuilt Anzani Frazer Nash for £225; not to mention a taxed and MoT-ed Chummy Austin for £65 or a 1935 Speed 20 Alvis, “a good runner”, for £20 ? Yet all these were advertised in Motor Sport a mere nine years ago. Even Rolls-Royces were comparatively inexpensive then—a 20/25 Windover saloon for £585, an open P.II from a purveyor of horseless carriages to the nobility and gentry for a mere £1,350, and a 20/25 Thrupp & Maberly saloon with “a slight timing rattle which bedevils so many elderly Rolls”—and you can say that again, another nine years on!—for £445, to mention but a few.
I am not aware that there has been all that much intensification of old-car interests between 1963 and 1972 and study of the motor-copers’ advertisements would seem to indicate that there are now more rather than fewer old Rolls-Royces on the market, almost as if they are being made elsewhere than in Derby or Crewe!—which cracks on the head to some extent the supply-and-demand argument, applied to the last 15 years, during which old-car prices have risen so sharply!
A cursory look at motor economics indicates that the price of a small hand-built sports car, disregarding p.t., increased by roughly six times between 1937 and 1972, or 21 times between 1956 and 1972. Thus the Austin 7 you could buy for £10 (or £5 ?) 35 years ago should be worth £60 (or £30?) today in the same condition as it was when sold at the lower price, or the 12/50 Alvis two-seater which, as we have seen, was offered for £120 in 1956 be worth £300 today, with the same proviso. But can they ? On the same basis, a good 30/98 Vauxhall which sold for £90 or so before the war should today cost about £550, and a sound, original GP Bugatti, available for under £70 in 1937, be procurable for some £400. And where can you find a completely restored P.II Continental Rolls-Royce tourer today for £3,400? As an example of prevailing prices, let me quote from a recent Club list, not Trade or auction-sale prices : a 12/50 Alvis with replica body, £1,100; a 12/60 Alvis, £1,000; a 4 1/2-litre Bentley, £6,000; a Brescia Bugatti, in pieces, less body, £1,400; an M-type MG, £500; a 3 1/2-litre p.v,t. Bentley, requiring complete restoration, £350.
In fact, prices ever increase as more and more rubbish comes on the market—vintage cars which require complete restoration, are complete with everything except on engine, have an engine but no body, and so on—anything goes. It is not only old cars which are expensive—an early AA badge was valued in excess of £1,000 the other day. . . .
This unhappy inflation is not confined to the pre-war cars many of us would like to buy were these not priced so absurdly. What caused the VSCC, originally a Club for cars of up to 1930 with the emphasis on sports models, to bring in selected cars of up to 1940, and to include racing machinery down to 1960? The VCC originally catered only for pre-1905 veterans but has reached out for “Edwardians” down to 1918. The VMCC has abandoned its pre-1931 rule and now tolerates any motorcycle built before 1947. The JCB Historic Championship is extending into the realms of sports cars down to 1964, and the HSCC is said to be thinking of including cars like lightweight Jaguar E-types, Lotus Elites, GTO Ferraris, Porsche 904 GTS and AC Cobras in its itinerary; these are already collectively catered for by the Cussons Championship, as “classic cars”.
Breathing down the neck of projects to expand old-car interests are photostat copies of original publications, reproductions of original drawings and paintings, and those horrible replica Edwardians and oldsters propelled by concealed modern power units (complete with self-starters), of which one got itself onto the Madeira Drive during last year’s Veteran Car Run. Personally, I refuse to recognise such bogus insults to the genuinely historic and I hope that those who stoop to such ridiculous imitations will at least be honest enough to make a confession similar to Picasso’s—”From the moment art ceases to he the food that feeds the best minds, the artist can use his talents to perform all the tricks of the intellectual charlatan. Most people can today no longer expect to receive consolation and exaltation from art. The ‘refined’, the rich, the professional ‘do-nothings’. the ‘distillers of quintessence’ desire only the peculiar, the sensational, the eccentric, the scandalous, in today’s art. And I, myself, since the advent of Cubism, have fed these fellows what they wanted and satisfied these critics with all the ridiculous ideas that have passed through my head. The less they understand them, the more they admire me. Through amusing myself with all these absurd farces, I became celebrated, and very rapidly. For a painter, celebrity means sales and consequent affluence. Today, as you know, I am celebrated, I am rich. But when I am alone. I do not have the effrontery to consider myself an artist at all, not in the grand old meaning of the word: Ghetto, Titian, Rembrandt, Goya were great painters. I am only a public clown—a mountebank. I have understood my time and have exploited the imbecility, the vanity, the greed of my contemporaries. It is a brief confession, this confession of mine, more painful than it may seem. But at least and at last it does have the merit of being honest.” (From “Libro Nero” by Giovanni Papini, edition Vallecchi, Florence, 1951.) Although if the EEC removes old cars from public roads these bogus cars will presumably come into their own and I shall probably join the queue for, say, a replica HRG with a Cortina GT propellant beneath its bonnet. . . Which wouldn’t tread too hard on the corns of Father Time, because real HRGs were made after the war. But it really is getting for too complicated—and expensive!*
Perhaps, after all, it would have been easier to have collected matchbox tops. Or are these now either too standardised to be fun, or priced beyond our reach by avid speculators ? — W. B.
* The perennial argument in favour of rising prices of old vehicles is that they are thereby better looked after and preserved more carefully, but I do not recall any particular vandalism of vintage cars when prices were sensible a decade ago. The prevailing speculative values are sending good vehicles into exile in distant lands and keeping others off the road as too “expensive” to use—all credit to those VSCC members and others who drive—even race—their historic heirlooms, with scarcely a passing thought for the Sotheby or Christie hammer ! — Ed.