Donald Osborne's Rules of Collecting: Part 1

The star of Jay Leno's Garage and an expert in classic car values, Donald introduces his first of a fortnightly column – and harks back to his nine-year-old self

Hello! Some of you may know me from the writing I’ve done on classic cars and the people that love them in publications from Sports Car Market to The New York Times, or perhaps from my work in television on Jay Leno’s Garage where I appear weekly in my segment Assess & Caress with Donald Osborne talking about classic car values and where they come from.

I make my living as a valuer of classic cars, an historian doing research for articles, books, exhibitions and restorations, as well as a consultant on collection strategy, acquisition, use and sometimes sale.

In all the work I do, I start by asking questions. The majority revolve around what we appraisers call 'attributes, or characteristics, of value'.

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What are they? They include, but aren’t limited to, design, rarity, originality, historical importance, condition and usability. Where and how these factors come together and are important to the market for a particular car determines what you’re likely to pay when it comes up for sale.

Not every car needs to have full marks in every area of these attributes in order to be valuable and some, quite paradoxically, can have many of these traits and not be worth much money at all. For most questions I actually find an answer, but many more bring up still more questions – but that’s what makes this both fun and interesting.

I’m passionate about old cars (and trains, ships, airplanes, music, art and architecture but we’ll come to those later) and connect really well with others who share that passion. One of my favorite memories of the beginning of that passion is captured in a slowly curling square of Kodak photo paper with a development date of December 1964.

In it, I am a nine-year-old sitting in the backyard on folding chairs in front of the garage with my oldest brother Art, laundry hanging on the line beside us. I’m gesturing wildly and with great excitement, and on a table between us is the just completed model of a Lotus 29. I had begun reading voraciously his Road & Track, Competition Press & Autoweek, Car and Driver and Sports Car Graphic magazines and was completely obsessed.

Although it would be decades before I ever saw the typical hand gestures every race car driver uses to describe how he cut underneath a rival to steal a position on the track, I could swear it appears that I’m boasting to my somewhat disbelieving brother how I won the race with a dramatic move on the last turn of the last lap.

I still feel like that small boy today when a car lifts me to a place of wonder and delight. When that happens can be in any number of circumstances. All of us don’t have to all feel it in exactly the same way of course. You might love competing in concours d’elegance, sitting behind your gleaming car on a manicured lawn, sharing its story with visitors and friends.

Or perhaps it’s blasting through winding mountain roads for hours at a time, testing yourself and your machine on a multi-day 1000-mile rally in the company of a few dozen to hundreds of like-minded souls.

For still others, it’s the hours spent in silence alone, reading old magazines, books and files while researching the missing history or details of construction of a car about to be restored or preserved.

I find something fascinating and rewarding in all three occupations, as well as simply taking a drive alone in an old car, with no particular destination in mind or time schedule to get there. What’s your connection to the passion that draws you inexorably to classics?

My hope is that these columns will gently – and sometimes not so gently – guide you through the intricacies of survival and triumph in the art of collecting classic cars. My goal is to make as entertaining as it is instructive. I’ll share stories from my experience in evaluating, driving, buying and selling cars for friends, clients and myself over the past decades.

I think you might learn as much from my many mistakes as from any of my triumphs and you’ll discover that I am much better at giving great advice than following my own. All this might be of and help to you in finding the right questions to ask before you make a leap.

As I share these stories some common themes will appear – it’s only logical as I’ve had a long time to observe the market and more important the people and personalities that inhabit it. And at the end of the day for me it’s as much about the people as it is the cars.

I am a total subscriber to the Yellow Rolls-Royce idea of old cars – or furniture, art and architecture. I hope you know the film, a 1964 release written by Terence Rattigan and directed by Anthony Asquith. It featured an all-star cast including Rex Harrison, Ingrid Bergman, Shirley MacLaine Omar Sharif, George C Scott, Alain Delon and Jeanne Moreau.

The true leading role in the film however is taken by the 1931 Rolls-Royce Phantom II Barker Sedanca de ville, the 'Yellow Rolls-Royce' of the title.

We see it pass through three of the owners whose lives it impacts in a span of roughly ten years. From the brand new bright and shiny vessel of dreams to a bit more than a handy bus, it represents something very special in each incarnation.

Regardless of whether or not it was great cinema (and most think it wasn’t), the movie captured my imagination from the first time I saw it as a young boy. The reasons weren’t clear then, but as the years passed I realized that it was because it so vividly crystallized my feelings about how important objects of this sort interact with me as a human being.

We share a part of the lives of these wonderful mechanical creations, before they (hopefully) go on to touch the lives of others in the future. I have seen the evidence of this in my own direct experience as well as in my observation of others. For me it’s the real purpose of collecting and that which matters most.

Let’s go find out how you can find the best way for you to connect with your passion.

Background picture courtesy of James Bond (yes, honestly). Archive picture copyright Donald Osborne

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