To most of us, a car gets us from A to B. But for some enthusiasts, a car is an investment piece that not only needs lots of love, care and attention, but also deep pockets. Gavin Foster chats to two car connoisseurs to find out more.
Some successful business people fill the dead space in their offices with coffee tables, couches, expensive artworks or massive pot plants. Others display trophies and sporting memorabilia. Gerard de Billot doesn’t have the time or the space for any of those though. His office – a building in a parking lot on the roof of a shopping centre in Ballito – doubles-up as a home for six of his valuable classic cars.
“My heart is really in American V8 muscle cars,” he says, “although I have others. If you ask me how much money I make on them, I’d have to say ‘nothing’, because I haven’t sold any, but the value goes up all the time and most are worth between 25 and 500 percent more than I paid for them.”
Gerard’s collection includes three Ford Mustangs, a 1938 Chevrolet pickup, a 1974 Ford Ranchero, a low-mileage as-new unrestored 1981 Ford Cortina bakkie, a very rare 1967 Oldsmobile Toronado, and a mint 1979 Ford Escort 1600 Sport. “That Escort has appreciated the most of all my cars,” he says. “I paid R40 000 for it eight years ago, and because of its condition it would sell for more than R200 000 today. I’d say the cars appreciate by between 15 and 20 percent yearly on average. Probably the most important thing is originality – that’s where the money is in the big ticket items.”
When it comes to collectability age isn’t everything. Rarity, desirability and condition are all important. Pre-1918 veteran cars, vintage cars from the years between the wars, and more modern classic cars all have their fans, and an outstanding example of a 1970s icon could well be a better investment than, say, a 1928 Model T Ford.
There are different ways of accumulating a decent car collection. Some people buy ancient rusted wrecks for a pittance, then use their own skills and energy to restore them without breaking the piggy bank. That way, if they’ve chosen wisely and worked properly they can reasonably expect to turn a decent profit if and when they ever sell them. Others, like Gerard, prefer to buy only original, low-mileage immaculate cars if possible. A third, also expensive option, is to buy dilapidated cars and pay a restorer to rebuild them. All see their beloved cars as investments, but in truth, many would be loath to sell them.
So, where do you start? Choose carefully, and when it comes to actually buying the car, hunt down the best available example you can afford. Above all, don’t pay more than it’s worth. Remember that you have to maintain and license the cars and have somewhere to safely store them. Gerard’s 15 cars are scattered around various garages, all equipped with air-conditioning and dehumidifiers, and he has two mechanics on call to keep them running.
Collecting can be addictive. “My best friend in London had 500 cars,” says Gerard. “He’s cut down to about 200 now but is trying to reach fifty.” Also, remember that the oldest cars aren’t necessarily the most valuable. You could pick up that running 90-year-old Model T Ford for under R200 000, while most 60s American muscle cars go for three times that.
Gerard’s most valuable car is currently in a container making its way to Durban from Silverstone Auctions in the UK. It’s far from original, but has an interesting past. Film star Demi Moore bought the 1969 Dodge Charger R/T as a gift for her even more famous then-husband, Bruce Willis, in the 90s and he subsequently had it converted to a near-replica of the car driven by the baddies in the epic 1968 Steve McQueen movie, Bullitt.
Willis kept the car until 2008 and then sold it for R1,2-million to British pop star Jay Kay of Jamiroquai, who spent a further R460 000 converting the V8 engine into a fiery 8.2-litre 700hp monster. Gerard in turn bought it on auction in February, and by the time it lands here the Charger will have set him back close to R2,5-million with commission, duties and shipping costs tacked on. “The auction attracted a lot of interest, and I’ve already been offered R3,5-million for it, but it’s not for sale,” he says. One of the two 1968 Chargers reputedly used in the movie was recently offered for around R12-million!
When Keith Gentles of Kloof sold his very successful security company about 15 years ago he thought he’d retire, but that was not to be. He’d always enjoyed owning and working on interesting cars, and soon found himself helping friends out with restorations and repairs. “It’s a proper business now with five people kept busy every day,” Keith says. He and his team do pretty well whatever needs to be done – refurbishing rusted bodywork, overhauling engines, fabricating parts, and sorting out upholstery.
“To rebuild any car properly is going to cost between R250 000 and half a million,” he says. “It’s an expensive game.” Those who are mechanically adept, on the other hand, can be spared much of the expense, and many of them do an excellent job. “There are a lot of people doing it on a shoestring budget,” says Keith.
“When it comes to the investment value, a lot depends upon what the car is. It takes the same hours of labour, it costs the same for spares, and it has to be done properly – no matter what it is. If you rebuilt an Austin-Healey 3-litre starting with a R50 000 car and ending up with something like the one standing outside, that’s an R850 000 car. That’s an investment.”