With the U.S. economy slowly emerging from a recession, the jobless rate pinned at a dismal 8 to 10 percent, new car model sales off by millions of units, capital gains tax regulations about to change for the worse, and our enthusiast population inexorably aging, is this any time to buy a hot rod, custom car, or muscle car?

We think the answer is yes. But, consider these caveats: The state of the vintage car market is continually changing. The annual Father's Day Weekend L.A. Roadster Show has long been a barometer. This year, the swap meet was the largest anyone remembers. The annual SO-CAL Speed Shop open house was packed with newly built cars. Attendees speculated about the August Monterey, California, auctions, held in conjunction with the Pebble Beach Concours d'Elegance, and the largest concentration of cars for sale in mid-year anywhere in the United States.

Last year, the August Monterey sales totaled $120-plus million. This year, with five auction houses vying for competition over three days, and several choice rods in play-like the legendary Chrisman Bonneville coupe, Ed Roth's "Tweety Pie" roadster, the restored, ex-Charles Marr/Jerry Huth chopped '40 Mercury, a stunning green Carson-topped convertible that was built before World War II, the chopped-and-channeled ex-Art Lellis '39 Ford, a Hot Rod magazine feature car in the '40s, a cherry black deuce three-window with a built flatty and Kinmont brakes-guys were waiting for records to be broken.

It didn't hurt that while celebrating its 60th year, the Pebble Beach Concours featured a superb class of dry lakes and Bonneville racers-and the paddock at the Monterey historic races was dotted with hopped-up coupes, roadsters, and woodies. The fact that historic hot rods and sports racers are welcome at these premier events encourages buyers to seek them out and restore them, driving prices upward further still.

At Monterey, as auctioneers like to say, the money was in the room. When the last hammer fell on Sunday, August 16, Sports Car Market magazine's preliminary estimate was an astonishing $172 million in cars sold! Selected vintage-street and competition Ferraris, as well as classic Delages, Delahayes, and Duesenbergs, were routinely multi-million-dollar sales. A sleek '38 Talbot-Lago T150 brought $4.6 million and a Ferrari LWB California Spyder went for $7.3 million. At Mecum's lively Hyatt Regency sale, a thundering '66 427 Cobra, built for Le Mans with very interesting history, was hammered and sold for $700,000; a '67 L-88 Corvette brought $1.2 million; and Reggie Jackson sold a four-cam 275 GTB for $1.6 million. Obviously, there are still a lot of discretionary dollars available in the rarified world of the top car collectors.

But a lot of hot rods and custom cars stalled. The Chrisman coupe, which brought over $660,000 at the RM Joe MacPherson estate sale, was a no-sale at Mecum at $475,000. Ed Roth's Tweedy Bird didn't fly, nor did the Art Lellis Ford, which went to $80,000 (failed to meet reserve, did not sell). John Mumford stole RM Auctions' little black deuce coupe, which was loaded with period speed equipment, for only $115,000. One ray of hope was the ex-Gerry Huth chopped '40 Mercury Custom, Bonhams' impressive $166,500. And that, in our opinion, was a steal, considering the high quality of workmanship on the car.

Posies "Extremeliner" brought $137,500-decent money for an older custom-while John D'Agostino's "Golden Star" '58 Olds went to a new home for just $60,500. The biggest surprise was the '34 Packard "Myth" custom, a design by the late-Strother MacMinn, built by noted restorer Fran Roxas, for an astonishing $407,000. If you wanted Ed Roth's "Road Agent," you could have had it for $154,000.

Muscle cars were erratic. At Mecum a rare '71 Corvette ZR2 brought just over half a million dollars, and a '71 AMC Javelin Trans Am racer notched $770,000, but many other nice examples, including several deuce roadsters, attracted just average bids and a lot of sellers were disappointed.

Here's the kicker: a '61 Ferrari 250GT Short Wheelbase Berlinetta, known as a "SEFAC Hot Rod", because it was one of less than 20 examples fitted with a lightweight body and a hopped-up V-12 engine (Bruce Meyer owns one of these), brought a world record $6.1 million. It took an Italian hot rod to show the way.

Experts predict this may be just the beginning for an even more dramatic increase in auction interest and car prices. Why? Because the stock market is terribly erratic; interest rates have tanked; even real estate is iffy; gold is boring; and investors are putting their money into tangible, collectable items like paintings, sculptures, and yes, collector cars and even hot rods and customs.