Hobby Horses

By Vicky Katz Whitaker

August 21, 2009 5 min read

Admit it: There's something that tugs at you when you see an old Model T Ford with antique plates chugging down the highway.

Or how about the rocket fins on that showroom-new-looking '59 Cadillac Sedan De Ville? Wouldn't you like to own one of them?

Go right ahead: Car collecting is a big hobby in America and worldwide, spawning clubs, shows, competitions, specialized libraries and museums that pay tribute to automobiles that have come and gone since the late 1800s.

But if you're worried about making the next mortgage payment or sending your kids to college, find another pastime.

"It is not an inexpensive hobby," said John Giudice, president of the North Jersey Regional A's, a New Jersey club composed of Model A Ford collectors. "It may even be as expensive as joining a golf country club, gambling [in] Atlantic City or a frequent European vacation. It's your choice."

What makes the hobby so pricey? Time, labor and materials, the same things that make regular car repairs so costly -- except in this case, the search for hard-to-find original parts and skilled craftsmen add to the tally.

"Original interior upholstery kits may be found for most cars with the cost starting at several thousand dollars and ranging much higher," explained Giudice. "Installation may be possible by a patient and handy individual. As far as body work, it is very expensive to repaint and have repairs made. Few car guys have real good experience and facilities in this area, so the job is normally farmed out."

An antique or collectible car may need restoration from the ground up. In these cases, the car body and running gear, or chassis, must be completely removed from the frame so that each individual component can be restored to original condition.

Still, there's something rewarding about turning an old heap into a showpiece, even if you're not looking to sell it at a profit.

Most serious car collectors hone in on a particular group of vehicles, mainly defined by year of production, brand or type. These include classics (usually limited edition luxury cars built between 1925 and 1948); antiques (made before 1916); collectibles (cars 25 years or older, but mainly from the '50s and early '60s); muscle cars (mid-size street cars built in the '60s and '70s with large, powerful engines); street rods (pre-1949 mechanically or cosmetically altered vehicles); and exotics (high-end sports cars).

When it comes to joining the ranks of car collectors, it pays to do some research first, said Brent Walker, a Californian who specializes in buying and selling collectibles. That includes, but is not limited to, going to car shows and auto auctions, joining car clubs, doing plenty of reading and tapping the expertise of those with experience. You may also have to do the math to see if you can really afford the hobby, particularly if it will impinge on family finances or a spouse or partner wants the money for another project, Walker added.

Car collecting is a hobby that can be fraught with unanticipated expenses, from having to make costly repairs to finding a place to store the car. Licensing, transporting and dealing with insurance restrictions all need to be considered as well. Plus, "you are always buying 'as is,'" Walker pointed out. "You will be responsible for everything from the moment you sign and pay."

If you're a novice looking for that first car, have someone knowledgeable about the particular car model and year check the car out. "For example," Giudice said, "Ford Model Ts were produced over a 20-year period. Find one with original brass and you have a winner.

"Experienced mechanics knowledgeable about a particular car and era are the best bet for providing you with a realistic appraisal of authenticity and mechanical condition. Even if you are mechanically inclined, you may not be aware of the mechanical nuances of, say, a 1934 Franklin."

And, as Walker has observed, "most cars for sale are '20 footers.' They look great from 20 feet away. You only notice the flaws up close or during detailed inspection."

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