Collecting classic cars has long been a passion for the rich, but the hobby has become serious business and offers savvy investors handsome returns, writes Winnie Chung
There is a slight May chill in the air as car enthusiasts descend on the magnificent grounds of Villa d’Este, the luxurious Lake Como venue for the annual Concorso d’Eleganza Villa d’Este, where some of the best classic cars and new concept cars are on show.
The foremost Italian classic car event is by invitation only and, hence, is a more modest show than the more public Pebble Beach Concours d’Elegance in Monterey Beach, California, every August, and Goodwood Festival of Speed in west Sussex, England, in November.
This year’s event is by no means any less riveting with a selection of cars that includes classic Ferraris, Aston Martins and a US$40 million Bugatti 57 SC Atlantic Coupé with a coachwork from Jean Bugatti that was built in 1938.
Drawing slightly more attention than the Bugatti was its owner, American fashion designer Ralph Lauren, who decided to make his first appearance at the show. Lauren has one of the best collections of classic cars in the world. Although he refuses to disclose how many cars he owns, estimates have put the number at more than 70. In 2011, he put 17 of them – including a Ferrari 250 Testa Rossa, a 1955 Porsche 550 Spyder and a 1955 Jaguar XKD – on display at the Musée des Arts Décoratifs in Paris.
“I had another car here before but this is a fantastic car, and I’m really happy to be here.
Everyone is so excited. I’m a fashion designer, but to me cars are like moving art,” Lauren says. His effort to ship himself and his gleaming black Bugatti to Lake Como paid off: the car won Best of Show and also in its category, plus Lauren walked away with a unique model of the Lange 1 Time Zone crafted exclusively for the event by Saxon watchmaker A.
Lange & Söhne, which is sponsoring the event for the second year.
Lauren is in the highest echelon of the world of classic cars, a strata that includes serious collectors such as comedian Jay Leno, the Sultan of Brunei, and Hong Kong’s Michael Kadoorie, chairman of utility firm CLP Holdings and Hong Kong and Shanghai Hotels, the owner of The Peninsula hotels, whose own collection includes a 1912 Rolls Royce Silver Ghost believed to be one of only five ever built.
Collecting classic cars has always been a passion for the rich, but in the past decade or so, the hobby has also become serious business and brought savvy investors some very handsome returns. According to The Wealth Report 2013, released last month by Knight Frank, the value of classic cars has gone up by 28 per cent in the past year and a staggering 430 per cent in the past decade. This compares with 6 per cent and 183 per cent for art, 2 per cent and 146 per cent for jewellery, and 3 per cent and 182 per cent for wine over the same periods.
The marque topping the 2012 classics chart is Ferrari, with values of top-end models going up by 55 per cent, compared with 24 per cent for Mercedes- Benz and 13 per cent for Porsche. The most expensive car ever sold on auction has been the US$35m Ferrari 1962 GTO 250, made originally for British racing legend Stirling Moss. Coming in a close second is a 1960s Ferrari Spyder sold for US$27.5m last month at Pebble Beach.
Unlike other forms of investments, which might require only technical or business knowledge, most collectors who splurge on classic cars do so to feed their passion and not with profits in mind, says Carson Chan, Asia managing director for auction house Bonhams, one of the few multicategory auctioneers dealing with classic cars.
“When you say that it is the most successful alternative investment, I think it’s just at the top levels,” says Chan, himself a vintage car collector.
“It’s just like art. It’s a bit like gambling – people tell you how much they won, but they don’t really tell you how much they have put into the game. There are some real classic car fanatics who may buy a car for HK$800,000 and then put more than a million into restoring it. I think first and foremost it has to be something you really enjoy. There is nothing sadder than a non-car enthusiast buying a vintage car.”
In Hong Kong, cars need to be more than 25 years old to be considered “classic”.
There are 1,600 classic cars registered with the Classic Car Club of Hong Kong, although Chan estimates the real collector numbers to be much higher.
“The serious collectors will not want to be known,” Chan says.
“The more significant and important buyers prefer a high level of privacy, and you won’t see them joining any clubs. A lot of the cars at the overseas shows are owned by Hong Kong people. Some of the collections are quite impressive.”
Elton Lau, a local collector and consultant for the Classic Car Club of Hong Kong, agrees that most Hong Kong vintage car lovers start collecting out of sentimental value and a passion for cars more than for investment.
Traditionally, European cars have been more popular in Hong Kong because of the right-hand drive but over the past few years, Lau has seen a growing increase in Japanese cars, especially among the younger collectors who have been influenced by Japanese manga culture. “The film Initial D that was released a few years ago made the Toyota GT 86 very popular,” he says.
Chan and Lau agree that Hong Kong, where space is severely limited and humidity is high, is hardly the ideal place to keep vintage cars. Collectors have been known to hire containers or buy up parking lots to keep their cars at the right humidity.
There’s also the problem of finding the right mechanic to handle repairs, especially if you are new to the hobby. Lau’s advice is to hang out with other car enthusiasts who are always ready with a few tips.
“Someone always knows someone [who can help],” he says.
Despite the logistical and technical problems, Chan expects the classic cars trend to grow. “The culture is already seeded here with our colonial background and by those returning from abroad. It’s just natural progression. Once you have owned the latest and the newest, you begin to understand and appreciate the heritage and you’ll start looking for earlier models.”
And his advice to newbies? “First figure out which car you like. It’ll be easier to start with more recent models and work your way backwards.”
Hong Kong has had a thriving classic-car community for decades. Since 1979, the Classic Car Club of Hong Kong has evolved into a social East-meets-West forum for restorations, and Sunday morning drives and shows.
"The club now has about 600 members, and they own about 1,800 cars in Hong Kong," says its chairman, Ian Foster. These models represent some of the most pristine and expensive classics in Asia, and include vintage models that have often been sourced from dealers and auctions worldwide, and painstakingly preserved against local humidity.
The local classic scene is growing, Foster says, an Irish architect with a classic DeLorean and several old motorcycles. "Very expensive cars are [increasingly] coming to town: Mercedes Gullwings, Aston Martin DB2, Lamborghini Miura," he says. Such multimillion-dollar models could be the highlights of the club's biggest event of the year, the Chater Road Show in Central on October 13, alongside the pride and joy of increasing numbers of smaller-budget devotees, Foster adds.
"More younger members are joining the club," he says. "As long as the car is more than 20 years old, it is considered a 'classic', and now we have Celicas, Nissans and Datsuns that would have been common in Hong Kong more than 20 years ago."
The show could also feature restored Volkswagen Beetles (advertised online for over HK$130,000), sparkling MGBs (HK$70,000 to HK$250,000) or even early Mazda MX-5s (from HK$30,000) that might still be driven to work by their devoted owners.
The classic bike community is as staunch, and among 30 collectibles will join more than 300 of the latest machines at the Motorcycle Show 2013, also along Chater Road, on October 27.