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.

Can one collector influence a market? Yes, if he's the late John O'Quinn, a billionaire Texas class-action attorney who amassed over 1,000 cars and then died in a car crash before his plans for a museum could come to fruition. The market for historic hot rods was driven upward, for a time, by Ralph Whitworth, a wealthy enthusiast, who planned a museum in Winnemucca, Nevada, but was forced by the recession to divest of most of his cars at a $17-plus million RM Auction at the Petersen Automotive Museum just last year. None of us are getting any younger. SRP predicts we'll see more choice rods, customs, and muscle cars at auction in Scottsdale, Arizona, in January. Mecum, Barrett-Jackson, and RM will lead the way and some of this Monterey enthusiasm is bound to trickle down to the modified cars we like. But be wary.

There are very smart hot rod buyers out there-guys like Richard Munz, Kirk White, John Mumford, Ross Myers, Bruce Canepa, Bob Everts, and Bruce Meyer. They already own many significant cars; and they'll step up for the right one. So if you see them bidding, as the song goes, "you'd better step aside." That said, they can't buy 'em all.

Here are the insider auction tips and techniques you need to know, to be a successful bidder.

Collector car auctions are exciting, fast-moving, entertaining, and deadly serious events. But whether you're an experienced veteran or a first-timer, don't even think of bidding unless you ...

1. Always do your homework before the auction
Know what you want to buy before it's on the block. The more specific you are about a make and model, or a specific hot rod or custom car, the better. Check out auction websites to see if the car you want is listed. Find an auction calendar in Keith Martin's Sports Car Market magazine www.sportscarmarket.com or Hemmings Motor News www.hemmings.com, then order the specific catalog.

Got a Jones for a '68 Barracuda like you had in high school? Check out the latest value in Cars That Matter www.carsthatmatter.com. Go to auction websites to compare past sales. Consider past results just a guide however, not a hard standard. Buy a marque/model-specific reference book www.motorbooks.com), and decide which features, engine, transmission, etc., you want.

Know up front if you want a roadster, coupe, custom, or a resto mod (a muscle car with modern upgrades like disc brakes, radials, improved shocks). That way, you don't get your purchase home and wonder, "what was I thinking?"

Join Goodguys, NSRA, the HAMB, Hotrod Hotline, and KKOA (if you want a kemp). Their classifieds will give you a few choices and prevailing asking prices. Sign up with the relevant marque club, like National Corvette Restorers (NCR) or the Pontiac GTO Club before you hit the sales. Their monthly newsletters/magazines are packed with information. (For club listings, seeHemmings' Collector Car Almanac).

2. Target the nicest car you can afford
Restoration is always more expensive than buying a car in good to excellent condition. The auction catalog description is only as valid as the information the owner volunteered. Read between the lines. Catalogs often ramble on about the glorious history of the model or hot rod being offered. Somewhere in the text, you may discover this particular car is a re-body, or its engine numbers don't match the chassis, or they aren't correct, or the engine isn't the original. Any of those factors drive the value down. Be wary. As Ronald Reagan said, "Trust, but verify."

Ensure there's a clear, valid title with no liens. If you're unsure, have a knowledgeable friend or an expert technician thoroughly examine the car. Review service and restoration records if they're available. Never bid impulsively or spontaneously on a car on the block that simply catches your eye. You'll regret it.

3. Obtain expert help
It's OK to bring a restorer or knowledgeable friend with you. If you can't, seek out authorities who know that car or model and ask questions. The man standing next to you may be an expert who's just waiting to talk about the car. Inspect a car very closely before it goes over the block. Read all the display material. Check the car mechanically. Many auctions have independent diagnostic services on site. For a fee they'll examine the car and give you an evaluation. Get to the auction a few hours before the sale begins so you can look at cars and select the one(s) you want. If you can talk to the owner, do so. If he (or she) will start and run the car for you that's even better.

Jay Leno, who has an impressive collection of cars and motorcycles, says, "Buy the owner, not the car." Leno tries to establish a rapport with a seller, evaluates what he says about his car, and can prove it. Then Leno judges the individual (as well as the car, of course) and makes up his mind.

Testdrive the car, if you can, and note any visible problems. If you don't feel qualified, retain an expert to help. Make a fair offer, bearing in mind any work that's needed. If you're bidding at a vintage car auction, know your limits and the car's real value so as not to overbid. Arrange for shipping with a reliable specialist transporter. When the car is in your garage, examine it closely again, and make any needed repairs before registering it and taking it on the road.

4. Always have a number in mind
Once you've made a bidding decision, know when "your" car is going to be offered for sale. Know what you want to pay and be ready to bid. Remember to add in auction company commissions and fees to get the full selling price. Stay within your limits. Use pre-bid time to pick up tips, talk with other bidders, and examine the car from every aspect. Remember, when a car is actually on sale, everything happens very fast. Look to see who's bidding. If you spot one of the high rollers discretely raising a paddle, consider bidding on another day.

There's a palpable tension in a live sale, so if you've never bid at major auction before, learn what it's like by bidding at a smaller auction, even a charity event, or on eBay at sale's end, so you've had practice bidding under pressure. With bid paddles waving, tensions mounting, the auctioneer shouting, and the price rising rapidly, it's no place for on-the-job training.

5. Work With the ringmen (and women)
Top auctions have ringmen (and women) stationed strategically in the bidding area. Find the closest one and identify yourself. Tell him or her the car you want to bid on. Be near them when "your" car comes up. Their job is to ensure your bid is recognized and to keep you on top of what's happening. They know who's bidding, they'll coach you on when to bid, and when to wait. They're wired into the auctioneer's platform, so if you don't hear the bid, or need a clarification, they'll get it. They WANT you to buy the car, so they're "sort of" on your side. Don't ever reveal how high you're prepared to go, but be alert and ready to bid. The ringman will tell you when it's your turn. Know where you want to start. Stay cool.

If the car fails to sell on the block, try to find the owner right away, along with an auction company representative, and negotiate a deal. (Tip: the owner is usually that sad-faced guy walking after his car). Both parties would prefer to sell that car, right there, right now, rather than ship it home, so both sides are willing to compromise on price and commission. And you'll be the winner.

Have fun, but be prudent. Vintage cars have vintage brakes and steering, very few safety devices, and they may have long-distance limitations. Until your "new" car has proven itself on the road, be cautious.

With the strong interest we currently see in building and driving rods and customs, and the eligibility of hot rods and custom cars for Concours classes, SRP believes it's only a matter of time before prices begin to head upward again. Learn successful auction techniques, do your research, and be ready.

(Editor's note: If you need to ship your car to an auction company location, or you've just bought a car and want to ship it home, SRP has worked with and has had success with Intercity Lines (800-221-3936, www.intercitylines.com) or Reliable Carriers (877-744-7889, www.reliablecarriers.com).

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