We’ve come a long way from the time when Lord Montague of Beaulieu bought a 1923 La Buire at auction for £60 and exclaimed, “This unrealistically high level of bids can only be attributed to sales hysteria!” But spending serious money on a collector car is certainly nothing new. In 1979, Christies staggered not only the automotive auction world, but the mainstream press when it sold a 1935 Mercedes-Benz 500K roadster for the then-outrageous sum of $400,000.
Trends in what collectors will spend big dollars on ebb and flow like the tide at the Bay of Fundy, making speculation on what’s going to be hot next year a dangerous business. Ask anyone who built a slew of custom hot rods, figuring that after 2003, custom cars were a license to print money at Barrett-Jackson. In 2004, customs made up the bulk of the top ten auction cars sold at that auction. In 2005, there were two customs in the top ten cars. In 2006, there were none.
Which brings us to the tricky business of profiling the Bonneville Special, and trying to evaluate the trend that’s going on at Barrett-Jackson today. A trained chimp could figure out that when a Hemi ‘Cuda convertible sells for $2 million that muscle cars are hot. He’d only have to look at what else sold for big money over the last five years to figure that one out.
But when a car like the 1954 Bonneville Special sells for $2.8 million (without premium), is it a trend or an anomaly? Sure, last year’s tremendous sale of the Oldsmobile F-88 concept car for $3 million gave us an indication of where one-off, custom-built GM show cars were headed. But when the gavel fell at $2.8 million for the Bonneville Special, there was almost an atmosphere of anti-climax, especially given all the hype.
Is $2.8 million something to cheer about, or an indication that maybe the tremendous dollars traded for these cars will cool faster than they’ve heated up? Naturally, $2.8 million is nothing to sneeze at. But some experts were expecting the Bonneville Special to outpace the $3 million F-88 by at least a million, and some were eagerly speculating that the car would crack $5 million.
There is a finite stockpile of these cars available at any given point. And, like vintage lithographed automotive posters from the 1920s, they were never considered to be valuable when they were new. They were often crushed as soon as the show circuit was completed. When the F-88 sold last year at Barrett-Jackson, one of Harley Earl’s designers, David North (who also worked up the design of the original Toronado), told Hemmings Classic Car that show cars and prototypes like the F-88 and the Bonneville Special were never intended to leave the building, but through diversion, skullduggery and sleight-of-hand, a small few managed to be snuck out Johnny Cash-style, one piece at a time.
So, obviously, their rarity makes them inherently valuable. But there are at least two more restored versions of the GM Futurliner bus in existence, and seven more that are unrestored from the original twelve built. Yet, when it came up for auction, the one-of-twelve Futurliner bus outgunned the one-of-two Bonneville Special by almost $1.3 million.
Condition may have had something to do with the sales number the Bonneville Special generated. In this case, better may not actually be, well, better. The F-88 showed that certain patina a vehicle gets when it’s stashed away in a barn, under nothing much more than a cotton tarp. When it was presented, it was certainly in decent condition, but it wasn’t perfect, by any means.
The one unanimous comment about the Bonneville Special, however, was that it sure looked better than it ever did when it was on the show circuit. Under the hood, the engine gleamed, and the twin suspenders Harley Earl finally kicked off the rest of the Pontiac line’s hoods in 1957 shone with a perfection that could only be generated by a master restorer. It just didn’t have the more “out-of-storage fresh,” original appearance that the F-88 did.
So what’s going to be the big draw next year? Success breeds success, and the masses are always clamoring for a sequel, but there simply aren’t enough of these cars around in top-notch condition to satisfy the current demand… unless someone decides to liquidate the Banshee.