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PLEASURES OF THE ROAD : Investing for the future: Will the car you own be a collectible 10 years from now? : CASHING IN

March 12, 1989|PAUL DEAN | Dean is a Times staff writer.

Success in plying the collector-car market, say seers and sellers of fine automobiles, is simply a matter of playing the stock market's basic imperative: Given a lot of capital, a little common sense and patience, high rollers can't lose.

Consider. You have $1 million in hard cash. You can be sure that IBM or Eastman Kodak aren't going belly up anytime soon. By betting/investing in either certainty, you'll be retired to St. Croix in 15 years.

Similarly, sink that million dollars in, say, a couple of screamers from Porsche's recent 200-car litter of 959s. Or a matched set of Ferrari F40 super cars, final design of Enzo Ferrari, of which only 950 will be built. In 15 years (bearing in mind that in that same wink of time, the value of a Bugatti Royale jumped from $150,000 to $10 million) you should be able to buy St. Croix.

Or as world-wandering Thomas W. Barrett III, grand doyen and gentle dictator of the international-car-auction circuit, once said: "You never pay too much for the right car . . . you occasionally buy too soon."

But what for us with less money than sense? Where among us--in a Torrance showroom, on the Ventura Freeway, in myriad Recyclers, or in our own garage--sleep today's buys with promise of becoming tomorrow's collectibles?

"Whoever suggests the 1988 Fiero GT is probably right," believes Dean Batchelor, automotive author, former editor of Road & Track magazine and one-time manager of the stunning Harrah's automobile collection in Reno. "Pontiac chose to trash it when they'd got it just right. There's a feeling in the industry that we'll see it (manufactured) again . . . although I wouldn't want to bet a day's salary on that."

Batchelor, however, will bet on the Fiero's formula for probable longevity. It is a quick, attractive and an affordable car at $15,000. It has a history as Detroit's first courting of the two-seat market since the Corvette of the '50s. Until production was halted this year, the five-speed, V-6 Fiero GT was an enormously popular machine.

And in a recent survey by Road & Track magazine, the 1987-88 Fiero ("I wouldn't buy one of the early cars, they weren't that good," Batchelor warns) was the only contemporary American car tipped as a future collectible. In 12 years, predicts R&T judge Owen Ward, a collectible-car broker for Symbolic Cars of La Jolla, the Fiero should be worth $40,000. Correction, says David Brownell, editor of Hemmings Motor News. It should touch $60,000.

Batchelor--with Mike Frankovich, a representative of A. J. Risley Imports of Studio City, concurring--also likes the Cadillac Allante. This expensive, two-place convertible was introduced last year for those wanting to buy domestic while indulging a secret longing to tour grandly in the European image.

"If you asked me to pick just one car to store in a garage for 20 years, it would be the Allante," notes Frankovich.

Adds Batchelor: "It is a good car, it has the Cadillac name, it has a (Italian designer) Pininfarina body and it is a rare car because they (Cadillac) aren't going to build that many.

"Unfortunately, it is tremendously high-priced. But because of that, they are selling slowly, and if you could buy one from a dealer for $45,000, or buy a good used one for $40,000, you could drive it for a long time and not risk losing any money."

Therein, adds Batchelor, lies the first lesson for those seeking an investment they also can drive daily.

"I would never buy a car that I wouldn't like to drive for a while," he advises. "Because if it doesn't succeed as an investment, you'll at least be able to enjoy it."

Experts have developed several other rules of greasy thumb for those searching for a vehicle that in time will accrue more than rust spots and tin worms:

The notoriety of a car, even its ridicule and abject failure, may mean nothing but bucks in the future. Look at prices currently being asked for the Chevrolet Corvair condemned by Ralph Nader, the Tucker closed down by the Securities and Exchange Commission, and the Edsel that was shut out by everybody. Now think hard about the investment potential of a DeLorean.

The corollary of drivability is desirability, and what was fun and popular to own in the past may well be profitable to buy for the future. That's why 1955-56 Ford Thunderbirds currently are selling for $25,000 and you can't touch a Porsche Speedster of the '50s for under $25,000.

Benchmark cars--in the past they have included the XK-120 Jaguar, the early Corvettes, the T Series MGs, the V-12 Ferraris, the Ford Mustang and especially those tickled by builder-designer-chili-chef Carroll Shelby--are fail-safe propositions.

Whatever we hungered for in our youth but were unable to afford, we will certainly buy the moment our monthly disposable income tops $100. Therefore, nostalgia for the era isn't the only reason why the Chevrolet Bel Air, the early Corvettes, all the be-finned and be-chromed and behemoth American land yachts of the '50s are doing so well in the '80s.

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