The Top-Down World

There’s one question overheard so often at a British car show that you have to work hard to suppress your natural strangling reflex. After a few idle questions about the paint job and how fast the car goes, the casual observer gets to what he’s dying to ask: “What’s a car like this worth?”

We obviously don’t have the luxury of opening up a NADA guide and finding a widely agreed upon price for one of our cars. It would be too complicated. Where your normal list of addenda might say “deduct 5% for manual transmission,” ours might say “deduct 20% if pavement is visible beneath driver’s feet,” “deduct 18% if passenger-side door is missing,” and the list would go on and on.

The price guides you find at newsstands for collector cars use a pseudo-scientific method of scouring through publications like Hemmings Motor News and averaging the prices people are asking for their cars. This means that the price guides are always going to be on the high side. There is, for example, in an issue of Hemmings, a TR6 priced “in the high $20,000s and worth every penny.” Now, if one of the price guide people try to factor this in, it means they up the price of all TR6s, just because of one guy’s exaggerated opinion of his car. Not a problem, I suppose, unless you’re the one trying to sell your own TR6 for what you believe to be a very reasonable $16,999 and not getting a single phone call.

It’s sobering to realize that our cherished old clunkers have no objective value. Like the proverbial tree falling in the woods, an old car is worth nothing until you find someone willing to pay a certain price. All we have are the “two chump” extremes: a price so low you’d be a chump to sell, and a price so high the other guy would be a chump to buy. If the chump extremes were separated by only a couple hundred dollars, buying and selling British cars would be simple, but they’re unfortunately separated by a couple of thousand dollars in the case of Triumphs, and even more in the case of really exotic machinery.

This means that you buy a collector car and only afterwards do you do the hard work of figuring out what price you should have paid. In the midst of buying, you’re filled with imagination and desire; your chump awareness is turned way down low. It’s only after your new purchase has spent two weeks in the shop that you rush out to compare figures in every price guide you can get our hands on. And you generally conclude that you paid too much.

But then, how do we determine value anyway? What value would you put on the feeling of skidding around pylons at an autocross? Of coasting down a highway into an autumn sunset? Of getting a thumbs up from somebody next to you in traffic? Of getting to know your fellow enthusiasts? These aren’t ordinary experiences, and enough of them can convince you that a TR6 is worth $16,999. So relax…

By John Paul Middlesworth

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