Invasion of the Bug-eye snatchers
Jay Leno's got a lot to answer for
The parts of the dirt bike's transmission are spread across my workbench, like an explosion in a gear factory. Despite the seeming chaos of gears, splined shafts, thrust washers and snap rings, I'm making steady progress reassembling all the parts into their aluminum alloy case.
Although it takes vision and a bit of faith on my part, I know that, some day, the assembled motorcycle engine and transmission will find their way back into a frame that has been sandblasted and powder-coated, and eventually an almost-new 1970 Yamaha enduro bike will be the result. Five years ago, I would have been lavishing this kind of care on a sports car-an old MG or Triumph. Or maybe something more exotic, like a Lotus or Alfa Romeo. But thanks to a bunch of guys with more money than sense who have stolen my old car hobby, that's no longer possible.
Within the last 10 years, it was possible to buy a reasonable automotive restoration project for a reasonable price. By that, I don't mean a car so eaten by rust that its structure is left sagging by gravity. A couple of hundred dollars would have provided many hours of mechanical diversion before subsequently providing many years of driving enjoyment. The insanity of classic car speculating that occurred in the early '90s had ended. And besides, the low-cost end of the sports car market hadn't really gone as crazy as the market for Ferraris and Mercedes-Benz gullwings. Even if you were an enthusiast of modest means, you could afford to buy and rebuild a pukka British sports car or perhaps a BMW 2002 or Fiat Spider without first robbing a bank. But the world has changed.
Actually, two things have changed. First, old car buying suddenly became cool. Celebrities and talk-show hosts with collections got attention, so others followed. This pushed up prices of the most desirable cars and it wasn't long before collector car auctions were viewed as entertainment. Television made it worse. Somehow, the process of buying a collector car has become a spectator sport. Badly dressed men and women are showing the world they've made it by attending a televised auction and purchasing an old car for 10 or 20 times the sum it fetched a few years earlier.
Fantastic prices have been especially evident among muscle cars from the '60s, but some European cars have been caught in the frenzy. Bug-eye Sprites now regularly hit $12,000 to $15,000. Original Mini Coopers can easily reach those levels, while a charming old MG TC (whose usefulness on modern roads is questionable) can easily reach $35,000. At least these have some value as a part of automotive history. But how do you explain the Triumph Herald-engined Amphicar selling for $40,000 to $50,000 or a Fiat Jolly beach car regularly finding buyers in the mid-$20,000 range? There can't be that many people who need a wicker-basket automobile to drive to Sunday brunch on Martha's Vineyard.
The other change is more subtle. For many, it is no longer acceptable to show up at a club meet or driving event with an old car. Shabby is not chic among this crowd and they are willing to spend extraordinary amounts to restore ordinary sports cars into something they never were. Flawless paint jobs, lustrous chrome and perfectly aligned door gaps are wonderful goals, but all are secondary to the joy of driving an old car. If you want to spend the time and money to reach such perfection, that's fine, but don't look down your nose at my scruffy but mechanically sound and largely original version.
As more people push the limit on their cosmetic restorations, the price of admission keeps rising. Suddenly, even a rusty pile of parts for a Bug-eye Sprite costs more than $5,000. And having spent $5,000, would you really trust yourself to put them all back together? Risking a few hundred dollars' worth of investment with your high school mechanical skills is one thing, risking five grand is something else. Today, I can't justify what it would cost to buy another Jaguar XK150, Morgan Plus 4 or Lotus Super Seven like I used to own.
If you enjoy working on old cars, there is an upside to these rising prices. Parts for common models are now more available than ever, making it easier to maintain a safe and reliable vehicle. Useful modifications have been engineered to solve specific problems and correct original weaknesses. And because values of cars have risen, it actually makes some sense to keep in circulation what would have been a marginal car, rather than scrapping it for its parts.
Still, it's sad that future generations of enthusiasts are being priced out of the market. There is something magical about the first time that straight-six Jaguar engine responds to a prod from the throttle, the flex of a Morgan as it rolls over a bump, or the joy of being up to your armpits in an MG gearbox as you try to figure out how it all goes back together.
So, in addition to a motley collection of shabby old cars in my garage, I now have a half-dozen or so old motorcycles. You can buy them all day long for a couple of hundred dollars apiece, they possess an amazing amount of technology in a compact and lightweight package, they don't take up much space, and they're easy to work on. Funny, we used to say the same thing about old sports cars.