In love with old cars? Check this guide

January 18, 1993|By Ted Shelsby | Ted Shelsby,Staff Writer

LAUREL -- You might shed a tear or two after reading James H. Lawrence's latest book.

Mr. Lawrence is publisher of CPI, a value guide to collector cars, and for most motorists, it reads like a story of missed financial opportunities.

Remember that 1964 Impala convertible you let go for $1,200? It might be worth 10 times that much today.

And that '65 Mustang ragtop you didn't buy from your brother-in-law because you thought $1,500 was too much money? Well, today it could bring $15,000.

And your dad's '48 Buick wood-paneled station wagon? If you had just parked it in the garage, you could now have something worth nearly $32,000.

These are just a few listings from the latest issue of the CPI quarterly handbook that traces the value of more than 3,300 foreign and domestic models that have become collectibles.

The listings range from the Kaiser Henry J, your basic transportation compact of the early 1950s, to the racy Ford Mustangs and exotic Ferrari Testarossas that Don Johnson drove in the "Miami Vice" television series.

"Collector car means different things to different people," said Mr. Lawrence, "but my definition is: a car worth more than its utility value as transportation." He said the motivating force behind the interest in various cars is nostalgia.

"In the '50s it was styling," he added, "but in the '60s performance was what it was all about," as engines grew bigger and more powerful.

Working out of a small office in the Laurel Lake Executive Park, Mr. Lawrence, his son Eric, and a small staff collect auto price information from around the world and publish it in a shirt-pocket-size booklet similar to the used-car price guides published by the National Automobile Dealers Association.

James Lawrence, 69, had been editor of the NADA guidebooks for about 25 years until he retired four years ago. He said the idea for the collector car guide originated in 1976 with Peter MacGoldrick, a Baltimorean with an interest in old cars. Mr.MacGoldrick noticed that the NADA books only covered cars 7 years old or newer. The first CPI (Cars of Particular Interest) guide was printed in 1977.

Mr. Lawrence, who first served in an advisory role, took over publication of the guide in 1988. This was also about the same time the value of collector cars started zooming up until peaking in the late 1980s. Eric Lawrence, who serves as managing editor of CPI, said the 1980s price boom resulted from speculators buying the cars as investments and had little to do with the real value of the vehicles.

Prices have fallen since 1989, Eric Lawrence said, but seem to have stabilized in recent years.

Take the case of your brother-in-law's Mustang convertible. Eric Lawrence said it cost a little over $2,000 new.

"The price peaked at about $20,000 in 1989," he said, "and now you can buy a good everyday car for about $15,000."

The most expensive car listed in the latest guide, according to Eric Lawrence, is a 1971-73 Ferrari 365 GTB4 Spyder. One in top condition will set you back $675,000.

James Lawrence, who drives a '71 Dodge Challenger convertible, one of only about 2,000 made that year, said he advises against the purchase of collector cars as investments.

The cost of upkeep, insurance and storage could gobble up any profit to be made from its sale, he said. "Buy it because it will be a great deal of fun to own and drive," he said, "not because you think you are going to get rich some day."

In the past, the CPI guide has been sold primarily to the professional market, explained Jack Tomalis, an editor who specializes in European cars. Insurance companies subscribe to to determine the replacement value of cars and to price policies. Motor vehicle administrations use it to determine the tax on new registrations. Auto dealers are another big customer.

Mr. Tomalis said their new market, and one that is growing, is to the general public.

"Most collector cars are sold between individuals," he said. The subscription price is $20 annually. It is printed quarterly.

James Lawrence said the company is profitable but for competitive reasons declined to say how profitable or to disclose sales or circulation, other than to say the company sends out thousands of guides by first-class mail each quarter.

In terms of total circulation, CPI is probably the second leading collector car price guide, behind the Old Car Price Guide, Mr. Lawrence said as he slid his hand along the sloping roofline of a 1969 Mustang Mach 1, with a 351-cubic-inch Cleveland V-8 tucked under the hood.

"Nice car," he said of the vehicle that listed in the latest price guide at $8,400 in average condition. "Nice car."

HOW MUCH FOR THAT CAR?

Selected cars and their prices as listed in the CPI Value Guide.

Prices are based on auctions, dealer sales reports and club

newsletters.

LOW: Intact, functioning car that can be restored at reasonable cost.

AVERAGE: Clean, front-line ready, car.

HIGH: Car that requires nothing. It may be a show car, but not

100-point car.

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