Cars

By DIANE STRUZZI

NEW YORK—Elliot Cuker is driven by impulse and the prospect of a good profit. As the owner of Cooper's Classics Ltd., a used-car dealer and restorer in Manhattan, Cooper fuels his business with what he says is an ability to create trends.

"I anticipate that certain cars will become popular," he said. "I have an intuitive feeling about design and the way a car is put together."

Four years ago. Cuker began specializing in Jaguar XKEs, made during the 1960s and 1970s. He would buy them for $12,000, refurbish them and sell them for around $100,000.

"People were buying them because they began to realize that this was a valuable car because of what I was charging for it. That's how you make trends and lots of money."

But marketing a car through inflated prices and massive advertising is risky, said Ed Jurist, president of The Vintage Car Store, a 30-year-old classic-car dealership in Nyack, New York. Jurist said he currently has four restored Jaguar XKEs in his showroom, all selling at reduced prices. Rarity, beauty and an open configuration—a convertible car—is what enhances an investment and increases value, he said.

The classic-car market, which is gently maneuvering its way through some economic curves, has been affected by a general decline in collectibles of all kinds. In the last year, the marketplace began to unravel, due to the recession and overzealous investors. But serious car collectors will not be hurt by the recession. Jurist said. Those who jump into the market without any understanding of what a classic car is could be slaughtered.

But the really super, great cars are still holding their own," he said. "The cars that are the prime specimens of their make and type are never out of style and never lose their value. They are like great art."

Howard Kenig, CEO and editor/publisher of automotive information Group in Detroit, agrees that collecting cars is like acquiring fine paintings and sculptures. In the 1990s consumers are veering away from the purchase of luxury items, he said, and that .has forced prices down and ripened the investment arena. 

"Cars as art have substantial collectible value," he said. "The cost is reduced in a soft market and presents an opportunity for someone who wants to invest and be into cars when the market hardens. If history is any teacher, then there's inevitably a euphoric period following involvement in a war. If we see that euphoria post-Iraq then such things as cars will increase in value substantially."

The current recession has been an advantage for dealers and investors, allowing them to capitalize on lower prices for vintage cars.

"I have a tremendous amount of cash. I'd like to buy every car I could and put every single one away in a warehouse and then open the doors three years from now." Cuker said.

Jurist agreed that the classic-car market is primed for buyers, but added that good judgment backed by knowledge of the vintage-car industry is essential. Novices may be susceptible to fakes and may suffer from a false surge in the marketplace.

He recalled that less than a year ago some classic Ferraris were valued at $340,000. The market has since plummeted because there are few buyers willing to pay that price.

"Now you can buy the same Ferrari for $175,000 or $180,000," Jurist said. “Speculators are not serious collectors. They just watch for a trend and jump in without any knowledge. Then they sell to each other, pushing the price up. But then there's no buyer down the line and the market crashes."

When David Hirsch bought his 12-cylinder E-Type Jaguar convertible from Cooper's Classics, he did not want it for investment purposes. He said he purchased the car because he liked its aesthetics.

"I always wanted a toy like that," said Hirsch, who works for an investment company in Manhattan. "But I don't believe over the long term cars appreciate any faster than inflation. Plus you don't get any income. If you buy a building, you get a return. With a car it costs money to service it. I had serious problems with the car from Cuker and have since returned it. "

Cuker admits that quality control is the most  - challenging part of his business. Maintenance is a continual effort. But the sensation of driving a classic car is worth it. It's like getting behind the wheel of a "rolling sculpture," he said.

"You have this experience rather than something that will sit in a bank vault," Kenig said. "It transcends the economic state of the market."