Car lovers invest in classics and customization
by Staci Giordullo
The average American owns one or two cars. Chris Willett owns 47. His collection runs the gamut from a World War II ambulance to several rare Audis, but he specializes in the restoration of the BMW 2002 — a cult classic from the '60s and '70s — and serves as president of his local BMW club.
When asked to name the top car in his collection, the Las Vegas resident hesitates as if he was just asked to name his favorite child, but contrives a politically correct answer: "They're all special to me," he says.
For die-hard car aficionados, nothing speaks to the heart more than discussing the love affair they have with their classic or custom vehicles. But the $2 billion car restoration industry appeals to more than your average gearhead. Nearly one in eight Angie's List members taking an online poll say they own a classic, custom or restored vehicle.
Recapturing memories through restoration
Willett started working on cars as a hobby in his teen years and recently turned that passion into a restoration business, Only02. He says the majority of classic and custom car owners he knows are driven by a personal connection to their ride.
"Most people aren't in it for the money — they just love the cars," he says. "A lot of them had these cars in college or their parents had one, and they're trying to recapture the memories."
Rolland Johnson, founder of highly rated Sterling Coach Restoration Inc. in Pickerington, Ohio, says people come from all over the country to get their cars fixed at his shop.
"It's a passion for them — there's a story behind every car," he says. "They're trying to relive the past and the good times."
In the last few years, Johnson says he's noticed a switch in the restoration industry. "Some of the cars of the '20s and '30s are disappearing because their owners are passing on," he says. "We're finding people are now more into muscle era cars — cars of the '60s and other baby boomer favorites."
Determining exactly what is a "classic" car can vary depending on whom you ask. There are seemingly countless clubs and associations across the country for every year, make and model of car that was ever built.
However, with 60,000 members, the Antique Automobile Club of America is the largest organization for car collectors. Anyone can become a member, but in order to participate in club events, your vehicle has to be unmodified and at least 25 years old.
"It's a modern pastime," says spokesman Tom Cox. "As you get older, you may not be able to play baseball or football — but you can work on your car. You can show it and be involved."
Cox says the fervor Americans have for older cars stems from a simple premise. "It's about freedom and originality," he says. "Working with antique cars is a labor of love. It's a great opportunity to enjoy something that will give you something back on your investment."
Collecting antique, unmodified cars definitely appeals to many — Cox calls his fellow fanatics "automotive archeologists" in pursuit of the preservation of history.
Cars with personality
On the flip side however, is the business of customizing a car to specific tastes.
The custom car industry has exploded in recent years as is evident with the number of TV shows and magazines dedicated to the topic.
"We love the ability to take something that's a part of our history and to improve upon it," says Jim Rowlett, marketing director of the National Street Rod Association. "People like cars that have a particular personality and look different than everything else."
You can customize a car by altering it to increase performance or stylistically. Both methods started gaining popularity during World War II. Raw materials such as rubber and steel were being utilized in the war effort, leaving car manufacturers to pay top dollar for their share.
Few Americans looking to buy a new car could afford the increased prices, so they began fixing up the ones they already owned. Or, if they grew tired of the way it looked, they modified its appearance.
A street rod has undergone some type of modernization, whether it be to the engine, transmission, or other interior refinements. While all street rods are custom, not all custom cars are street rods — which must be at least 30 years old and driven under its own power. A new car with a personalized paint job can be considered a "custom" car.
However, the modernization of street rods disqualifies them from most classic car clubs.
A recent NSRA policy change has broadened the age of eligible cars from those built before 1949 to those made just 30 years ago. Rowlett says he expects this will significantly increase the organization's membership, now at nearly 50,000. "I'm excited because my 1982 Corvette is almost eligible!" he says.
Investing in a labor of love
Rowlett says the uniqueness of classic or custom cars — unlike the mass manufactured vehicles of today — is part of the hobby's allure. "Nowadays, all the cars basically look the same," he says. "That's not the way it used to be."
Angie's List member Paul Manion belongs to Willett's car club and owns four BMWs — the newest is 23 years old. "I enjoy working on them in my free time," he says. "I just bought one for my 16-year-old son."
Manion says he got into collecting vintage cars after a bad experience with a new American car in 1976.
"I kept it for 15 years and it was just a piece of junk," he says. Then he met a guy with an old BMW, bought it, and he was hooked. "It ran and handled great," he says. "Nothing ever goes wrong with these cars."
Member Kimberly Smith of Pittsburgh has a different take, pointing out that you need to allow time to learn the quirks of an old car. "It's not going to run like new," she says. "It's not as reliable."
Despite the challenges, Smith says she's wanted a VW Beetle since childhood.
"When I was little, my great aunt had an old Beetle and I just fell in love with it," she explains. She is now the proud owner of a 1971 Beetle she's lovingly named Ruby Redbug. "Every time I get in that car, it puts me in a good mood," she says. "One of the coolest things is that I have to give myself an extra 20 minutes wherever I go because people want to talk about my car."
At the end of the road, regardless of their motivation, classic and custom car owners are a devoted bunch.
"A lot of times people will spend more on their cars than they do on their families," says Marc Haddix, owner of Revenge Customs in Indianapolis. He sees a lot of zealous customers like Smith and her Ruby Redbug. "There hasn't been a Volkswagen Beetle I've worked on that doesn't have a name. And you have to refer to that car by its name — or else you get in trouble."