Feature Story

BUSINESS: "DIFFERENT" USED CAR LOTS

by Bob Hagin

May 10, 1996

Mainstream used car sales operations in this country come in many sizes and shapes. They run the spectrum from megastores offering hundreds of late-model vehicles recently coming off-lease, to the "bone-yards" selling older cars that provide a runner at minimal cost. And by offering transportation, they all have something in common.

But there is another type of used car lot that specializes in impractical autos; often weird, and to most car buffs, items of wonder and excitement. These are the "specialty" stores that offer a plethora of unusual cars purchased for investment, fun or as an ego booster. These dealers sell cars that shoppers won't find along Auto Row and are close to belonging in auto museums. I've listed some of these "specialty lots" which offer some or all of the following types of used cars:

MUSCLE CARS - A very popular seller in the specialty used car market. Muscle Cars are mid-sized American two-door sedans circa 1964 to 1971 into which the factories shoe-horned huge, high-horsepower V8 engines. They enjoyed a peak of popularity a couple of years ago but they're still very desirable. In the stores we visited, we came across various Dodge, Plymouth, Pontiac, Ford and Chevrolet versions. We also noticed several others parked outside many of the dealerships and found that their owners had come in just to "talk shop" with the salesmen.

SPORTS CARS - These are "traditional" in the sense that they're usually two-seaters (MG, Porsche, Austin-Healey, etc.), and originally built on the premise that in a sports car, performance should preempt carrying capacity. Some stores specialize in one model (there are many Corvette-only used car lots around the country) while others concentrate on one nationality (British, for instance). Even hybrids that were assembled by former owners are "hot," as I came across a Volvo-powered '52 MG TD with motorcycle-type front fenders at one location.

CLASSICS - Classic cars are the thoroughbreds of the used car business. They are usually custom-built giants of the '20s and '30s and are becoming very scarce as they disappear into private collections. You'll find them in used car operations that specialize in custom-built Packards, Pierce-Arrows, Rolls-Royces and even an occasional Duesenberg of that era. Most are very large and usually in the six-figure category.

VETERANS - Your grandfather would feel right at home among the veteran Fords, Chevrolets, Buicks and Oldsmobiles that I found in pristine condition at several locations. Most were built from the late '20s to the late '40s and could driven on modern highways, albeit in the slow lane. Almost all were lovingly restored by serious private owners who sold them in order to undertake another restoration project. One that I really liked was a black '37 Ford four-door sedan, a twin to the one I sold in 1958. I sold mine for $400 while its twin was going for $14,500.

EXOTICS - Whereas all the lots I researched had a sprinkling of contemporary Ferraris, Lamborghinis and Lotus', most of these high-profile cars are found in operations that concentrate on very expensive "toys." I was told that the era of the million-dollar used Ferrari is over (and many speculators lost big when the bottom dropped out) unless it's an ex-race car with irrefutable documentation. Special Porsches such as the turbocharged models fall into the Exotic category as well, and there seemed to be lots of them on the various car lots.

RACERS - A recent phenomena is the popularity of vintage car racing and the rush of nostalgia-driven enthusiasts searching for old racers so that they too can get in on the fun. Everything from ex-Indianapolis and old international Formula One machines, to homemade amateur sports car "specials" of the '50s are being restored to better-than-new condition (often by the used car operations themselves) for anxious buyers. I found one of these "home-builts" in Monterey (CA) and it had been restored to a condition that was much better that it enjoyed when I first saw it 1949. Almost all of the specialty used car dealers I visited had one or two of these single-purpose racers in stock.

STREET RODS/CUSTOM CARS - More than one of the used car specialty shops that I encountered (both in person or via advertisements) carried a couple of archetypal '50s street rods or custom-car "lead-sleds." California Custom Cars of the mid-century have become very "in" and contemporary custom car shops are grinding them out in great numbers. Originals from those days are especially hot sellers and once they hit the used car market, they are quickly snapped up by buyers who want to either relive their own salad days or experience those days second-hand.

Business is good at these unusual used car lots. Buyers are knowledgeable, enthusiastic and easy to sell. As one salesman told me, "If a prospect wants a particular type car and we have it, he can't drive down the street and find another one just like it."

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