The automobile restoration market is roaring like a supercharged hemi V8 from an old DeSoto, and the reasons are clear to Knoxville’s car collectors and dealers of both the exotic and the mundane from America’s motoring past.
First, says Claude Yow of Yow Auto Classics on Callahan Road, the appreciation in price of a well-restored vehicle, even one with modern modifications, runs much higher than prevailing interest rates, making ownership an excellent long- or short-term investment.
“The return on a 1957 Chevrolet in new or good-as-new condition has been running 18 to 20 percent a year over the past 15 years. That’s a lot better than you’ll get at the bank,” Yow says. But that’s only one reason he has 82 cars on hand, including 14 ’57 Chevvies, a complete restoration shop, a museum to show them off in, and a nice ’57 convertible to drive every day.
He’s been at it for almost 60 years and says “foolin’ with cars” is a hobby turned profession. He can afford them, too, and doesn’t care much whether they sell, although all but one of them—his first ’57 Chev restoration—are for sale.
Bill Reynolds, who’s been at it for decades, too, and maintains his Classic Car Sales lot on Broadway, says that affordability is key.
“People are buying these cars who couldn’t afford them when they were young,” says Reynolds. That’s a lot of people, when one considers that the baby boomers are just coming into their greatest wealth. Couple that with the investment factor, and the incentives to obtain pristine examples of older cars are manifest.
Reynolds, who once did a lot of performance and racing car work, says Knoxville has been a hotbed of America’s car culture since the whiskey-running days that peaked in these parts after World War II.
Although racing isn’t as much in the picture now, the hum of a well-tuned engine in a slick vehicle from the owner’s favorite period still has great appeal here.
“There are lots of restorers in town,” he says—tens if not hundreds, ranging from pros to hobbyists, who tinker with a project or two in their backyards. The techniques used are the same for all auto restorations, but the equipment, the attention to detail, and the workmanship make high-dollar differences.
Some, like Jack Smith, whose shop is on Tennessee Avenue off Western Avenue, specialize. Smith does almost nothing but Fords from the 1932-40 years. They are full-on restorations, to showroom condition. He says he’s done only a couple of hotrods, a couple of Chevrolets and one Packard, but it’s the Fords he knows best.
Smith built his reputation on meticulous work and knowledge of where and how to obtain the parts needed for those Fords. In his 28 years in the business, he says, he’s “stayed busy, doing all his work for customers who seek him out. “I own a couple of cars,” Smith says, “but I never have time to work on them.”
Like other collector-dealers, Yow, whose name comes from his German/Dutch ancestry, says that, although he still keeps a shop with a “rotisserie” for frame-up restorations and a mechanic and bodyman to do that work, he’d much rather buy cars fully restored. “It’s much cheaper, and it’s less hassle,” he says. Restorations “can get hung up on one part. I’ve paid $1,500 for one stainless-steel windshield trim strip,” he says. The appreciation rate makes buying already restored cars a solid business decision, he says.
When he does do a restoration, Yow says he gets parts “everywhere…all over the U.S., Mexico, Arizona and New Mexico, where it’s dry, and steel doesn’t rust, even Cuba, where almost all the cars are pre-’59.” Castro’s revolution there ended importation from the United States.
Yow’s museum, which you enter through a gift shop stocked with motoring stuff, is packed with glistening examples from the 1920s on up. Now 71 and retired from a successful seven-state beauty and barber supply business he sold in 1980, he doesn’t care much about selling his beauties. He says he sold 13 cars last year and seven so far this year, without really trying.
Yow’s company maintains a website ( www.yowautoclassics.com ) with its photos and price lists, from which he gets inquiries. He says he’s turned down $137,000 for his prized ’57 Chev convertible, redone in Matador Red and Shoreline Beige and modernized with air conditioning, power windows and door locks and other amenities, and that he sees such cars going in the $200,000 range. “Some people call a paint job ‘a restoration’; I don’t,” he says.
Yow gets around, too. He attends such auctions as the Kruse annual late-August sale in Auburn, Ind., now in its 37th year, which attracts up to 5,000 cars. Similar sale events, though smaller and less famous, have sprung up across the country and around the world, including those held here on occasion at Powell Auction.
Reynolds looks in at the auctions, too, but he doesn’t keep a website to show off his stock. “I don’t want one,” he says, “Too many kids and cons getting on there and bothering you for nothin’.”
David Greene, whose lot is packed with both his own and customer-consigned autos for sale, has been in the business about 30 years, he says, moving to Tennessee from Ohio 15 years ago and opening his Lenoir City outlet seven years back.
His showroom features a life-sized, guitar-slinging statue of Elvis, leaning against an ivory-colored 1956 Lincoln Continental. He has about 75 cars (and a vintage fire truck) on his lot right now, and he says about half are consigned. Of those he owns, the priciest is a black 1962 Pontiac Catalina two-door hardtop with a “bubble top” that was installed at his shop. He says he’s only known of two such vehicles, and the other sold for $125,000. The most expensive car he has sold was a ’68 Shelby Mustang Ford that brought $160,000.
Ross Marshall, an Australian whose love is British cars, especially Bentleys, owns Marshall Motor Group and is working on a Bentley Special project that has produced one beautiful roadster. He was in Malaysia last week negotiating a deal that may bring MG-TD replicas to the United States in large numbers. He lives and works in Knoxville because his wife is on the administrative staff at UT.
John Parrott, who describes himself as Marshall’s “flunky,” manages the lot in Marshall’s absence. A retired Oak Ridge National Lab staff member, Parrott says the collection there is “very eclectic,” and it is, with projects ranging from Rolls Royces, Porsches and Ferraris to a T-Bucket Ford street rod and a couple of Studebakers from the 1940s and ’50s. “We deal in anything that’s pretty much interesting,” Parrott says, and a lot of the current stock of about 40 cars and trucks is consigned to them by owners wanting to sell.
Highly visible from the interstate, the lot attracts customers who stop along the roadway apron and approach the fence to view the vehicles, especially when traffic is at a near standstill.
“There were some people from Dallas stuck in traffic who ended up coming in and buying a VW Bug, a Harley Shovelhead (motorcycle) and a trailer to haul ’em home on,” Parrot says. He says another trucker, who was having trouble communicating with Marshall, the Aussie, tried to buy a $29,000 1965 Chevy Impala Super Sport, thinking the price was $2,900. “I’ve made a big mistake,” Parrott quotes the trucker as saying when it came time to sign the papers.
Greying and grinning, Parrott says he is interested in the investment aspect himself. He says he bought a 1972 Ferrari 365 GTC for $43,000 two years ago, knowing that only 500 of them were made. The price for those models is now “pushing $90,000,” he says.
Though the restoration dealers and their customers toss the term, “classic,” around with impunity, there is a great deal of controversy over what a classic car is. The Classic Car Club of America limits the term’s use to autos built in the U.S. and abroad between 1925 and 1948, and makes very few exceptions to the list of classics it’s defined from those model-years. Anything older is an “antique,” and anything newer may be a “collectible,” but not a classic. Most states’ bureaus of motor vehicles, however, define any vehicle over 25 years old as an antique for registration purposes. Then there are hot rods, street rods, customs, trick trucks and a bunch of other terms.
Suffice it to say that, if the 1914 Cadillac with the serial number indicating that it has the industry’s first successful V8 engine is sitting in your grandmother’s garage, where her dad parked it under cover in 1917, your retirement is secure, replete with a Manhattan condo, a Bahamian retreat and a chalet in the Swiss Alps. That car would bring millions because of its rarity, age, and original condition.
Oh, and you can ship your ’55 Chevy Indy Pace Car convert around among them so you can have it on hand at each, all courtesy of your great granddad’s real or imagined foresight.