Donald Osborne's Rules of Collecting: buy the right classic car!

Part 3: Don't buy the wrong one just because it's a bargain. And don't do as Jay Leno's Garage star Donald did when he wanted a special-bodied Fiat...

Most enthusiast collectors, even the most focused among us, have succumbed every now and then to the 'bright shiny object' syndrome. You know what I mean – we carefully consider our needs wants and desires in a vehicle we would like to own.

We then consult the experts, study the market, read the literature, view, inspect and sometimes even drive examples good, bad and similar in order to refine our acquisition brief. All this is to ensure that what we actually acquire is that what we set out to and that it meets our needs as completely as possible.

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This is what I try to do when I buy a car and of course it’s a service I provide for many of my clients. It seems quite simple, actually. Asking a few key questions leads to others and before long it’s quite clear not only what would be best to buy, but also the kind of budget that makes for a comfortable, dare I say, satisfying purchase.

Listen to Royce and Franklin

What gets in the way sometimes however, is a common human trait – the unquenchable desire to 'get a deal'. While Henry Royce has been quoted as having said 'The quality will remain long after the price is forgotten,' the source of the thought goes back to Benjamin Franklin. This always astonishing Renaissance man stated 'The bitterness of poor quality remains long after the sweetness of low price is forgotten.'

And that is much closer to the heart of the challenge here. If we make the purchase price of a vehicle the key determinant then strange things can happen. Not least of which is the bizarre phenomenon of 'random negotiation'. What does this mean? I will share a few examples.

I generally dislike selling one of my cars myself, directly to an individual. I’m not referring to those situations where a friend or a client who knows me well expresses an interest in a car I have on offer. That has always gone well, and it’s comforting to me knowing that a car I care about has gone to a good home.

Will you take an offer on that?

On the other hand, there are those would-be buyers who want to engage in an endless email and photo exchange on a vehicle that has already been described and pictured in great detail. These are they who, despite the fact the car has been identified as a 'Green hardtop, with tan leather and four-speed gearbox, on sale at $65,000', will explain that as they were actually looking for 'A blue convertible with an automatic, could you take my offer of $45,000?'

I can understand that some people might want to have financial compensation for their disappointment, but why not actually look for the car you want, rather than offer less for the car you don’t? Because they believe that if they can get 'a deal', it won’t matter that they’ve not bought what they really wanted in the first place.

Now, if you find that as odd as I, keep reading. Let’s say you were looking for a new house. Based on the size of your family, your lifestyle and work obligations you knew that you required three bedrooms, three full baths, an eat-in kitchen, a fireplace, in a contemporary style all on a single level. Also important is a great deal of light, a swimming pool for exercise and a three-car garage, for your two daily drivers and one collector vehicle.

Imagine buying a house...

It should be located no more than a 30-minute drive to your place of work and be in an area that allowed easy access to cultural activities, such as museums, concerts and galleries. Your comfortable budget for the new home is $600,000, for a place needing only minor cosmetics to move in. You begin to look in your preferred neighborhoods and see several logical choices.

Then, something else catches your eye. It’s a three-story log cabin, with two bedrooms, one-and-a-half baths, a small galley kitchen and an iron wood pellet stove. It’s surrounded by very tall pine trees, totally shaded and has a one-car open carport. It’s out in the woods, three hours from your office if both the weather and traffic cooperate and even further from anything remotely cultural. Oh – and it’s a bit of a fixer.

But... it’s on the market for $225,000. So, why not buy this one instead? Think of how happy you would be with the money you saved! That it doesn’t give you any of what you needed would be quickly forgotten, right? I don’t think so. I can’t imagine anyone who would – yet some of them do the same thing with a car.

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Applying the logic to cars

If you want to buy a car to enter the leading international rallies and tours, it has to meet strict eligibility requirements. There’s no use pleading with the organizers of the Mille Miglia Storica that they should accept your really lovely 1960 Alfa Romeo Giulietta Sprint because you paid so much less for it than you would have for a 1956 example.

Likewise, there’s a reason that almost any 1905 vehicle sells for rather less than any 1904 holding a VCC certificate. But these are obvious examples that almost everyone might understand. It’s something far subtler and ultimately more frustrating that can occur.

That happens when you’ve been searching for a particular car for a long time and seemingly can’t get it done. The temptation to fill an empty garage spot or the pull of unused available funds slowly burning a hole in your pocket gets too strong. Something appears that isn’t totally out of your area of interest but not what you’ve been seeking.

When Donald bought the wrong Fiat

The price isn’t out of line and it might temporarily scratch an itch. So you go for it. I love Fiat 1100/103s of the 1950s – they’re fun to drive practical and were built in a fascinating variety of factory and custom bodies. As I watched the more attractive custom-bodied versions creep out of my price range, I thought I’d buy a production sedan instead.

Eligible for everything from the Mille Miglia on down, I happened to be working in Italy as I began my search. While there, one came up in the Southeast US. I sent a friend to look it over, who reported that it seemed to look nice but was probably not equal to the quality of the cars I generally own.

But, it was already Stateside and less expensive than the ones I was looking at in Italy. I bought it sight unseen. It turned out to be a rusted mess, held together by the thick and shiny paint recently applied. It was a disaster, which I sold at a loss shortly thereafter. Lesson learned.

I freely admit that I am not the world’s most patient man. I have, as many do, a 'List' – a group of cars I’ve longed for and promised myself that opportunity, health and financial wherewithal present at the same time that I will own before I die. In the 40 years or so that I’ve owned cars, I’ve achieved my ambition several times.

Don't be impulsive!

Over the years cars have entered the list, very few have fallen off – but I have found myself in the position of not being able to acquire a list vehicle because I had recently made a more impulsive purchase and couldn’t muster the funds or the storage space.

Examples of that will follow in a future column. 'Close, but not quite there' might be a good title. I’ve been counselled by and observed the behavior of collectors I admire over the years and they all, to a woman and man, are patient folks. They’ve all acted quickly and decisively when the chance to own a car important to them has arisen, but equally had no regret over passing on 'something close' to what they really wanted.

Just as it makes little sense to buy that great looking shirt two sizes too small to wear just because that’s all they have in stock and it’s 50% off, I’ve long wondered and shared with clients and friends the question 'What IS the right price for a car you don’t want?' My answer is simple – there isn’t one.

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