Which electric cars will be lusted after by collectors?
According to Hemmings, which bills itself as the world’s largest collector-car marketplace, the 1901–1903 Oldsmobile Curved Dash Runabout is #1 on the list of the top 100 most collectible American cars. They put that list together for their 100th edition back in 2013.
They have a methodology of sorts, but I enjoy working up an approach from scratch and then comparing to actual experts to see how bad my thinking is.
First, a couple of provisos. I don’t have the collector’s gene in any way, shape, or form. I don’t collect anything except experiences. I don’t pay much attention to collectors of cars or car collections or the like. I only watch Jay Leno’s Garage when he has an episode on an electric car, and then only new ones.
So, why do I think I can put a decent attempt at answering this together? I pay a lot of attention to the electrification of transportation. I write about it regularly. I pay a lot of attention to various quirks of human nature. I’m fascinated by behavioral psychology, cults, religious beliefs, and absurd ideologies such as Libertarianism. And I make stuff up well. That last one is probably most important for the purposes of this answer.
That all said, collectibles are almost entirely irrational. Baseball cards? Comics? Stamps? Art deco glass? A good friend of mine has the collector’s gene. He likely still has a transit pass from every station in the TTC in Toronto, including from the day the Shepherd Line opened, when he stopped at every station and picked up a transit pass just so that he would have a complete set. Helping him move was painful.
But the irrationality falls into several categories (that I’m somewhat making up).
Intentional marketing of rarity
This is a good one. There isn’t a facet of human weakness that someone hasn’t figured out how to exploit. Baseball cards weren’t distributed evenly between bubble gum packs. Some cards were intentionally less frequently delivered. It created rarity and hence collectability.
Lululemon is very good at this. They release specific items in specific colors and fabrics at specific stores for short periods of time. And then the items show up on eBay at premiums.
From an electric car perspective, then, we can look at cars with very short production runs. Numbered editions, basically.
Best in breed for this category is the NIO EP9. 16 of them were made in total, at $1.2 million each. Oooh, cachet.
Errors in production
This is half of stamp collecting it seems. Glitches in printing drive up prices. And then there’s the Wicked Bible, which omitted “not” from a commandment, leading to an injunction to shag your neighbor’s wife. That one picked up $15,000 at auction recently for one of the nine printed in 1631.
For this one, I’m going to say it’s a toss-up, but I’ll probably give up the ball to the Fisker Karma. This is partially because the entire thing was an error in design and manufacturing, but also because you could fit your full thumb between body panels. It was so shoddily built that it’s amazing the wheels turned. It has the advantage of rarity as well, since it sank without a trace. It wasn’t fully electric, but you wouldn’t actually want to run the engine, which is why it’s in the next category too.
Laughably bad crap
The Aliens action figure set for 4 year olds with a disemboweled figure. The Jar Jar Binks candy tongue. GI Joe shampoo. I guarantee that these live on as collectibles for someone, somewhere.
Back to the Fisker Karma. I can’t confirm this, but I’m pretty sure it’s the only car in recorded history with its exhaust pipe in front of the driver’s window, so that when it isn’t running solely on batteries, you’ll be sucking back some of that good old-fashioned hydrocarbon pollution with a side of carbon monoxide. And that’s without talking about its car control and entertainment system, which seem to be designed to be entertaining mostly to people who think horrible user interfaces are fun.
Really weird stuff gets collected. Elephant leg umbrella stands are a horrible example. Some people can’t get enough of that stuff. Nazi paraphernalia is another awful example. Basically, anything involving death, dismemberment, or horrible pain is quite probably collectible.
In this category, I’ll put the one-of-a-kind Tesla that saw the first semi-autonomous driving death in Florida in 2016. The Uber that killed a pedestrian in Arizona is undoubtedly also the focus of some twisted purchasing campaign, but it wasn’t electric so will be left out.
Sets of things
The collector’s gene is an odd thing, akin to obsessive compulsive disorder and hoarding disorder. If a collector has one of something, often they can’t stop until they have a complete set of that thing. A great deal of marketing of crappy stuff is aimed directly at that psychology, from chess sets to coin sets to stamp sets. For people selling stuff, the collector’s gene is the gift that keeps on giving. This is very hard and expensive for most people to apply to cars, however, as the automotive industry has infinite variation and numbers of vehicles. It doesn’t lend itself to sets. Usually.
In this case, electric car collectors will end up with a Tesla Roadster, a Tesla Model S, a Tesla Model X, and a Tesla Model 3. They won’t be able to help themselves, and I’ve seen example pictures from driveways. I’m not sure what they’ll do when the Tesla Semi and new Roadster come out. Those are step changes. An intervention will likely be in order.
Okay, now we’re actually getting into something of some minor merit. It’s kind of cool to have the first of something. I can see why it would be cool to have a low-VIN 1964 Ford Mustang (without having any desire to have one myself, even if given it as a present).
The first dozen or hundred Tesla Roadsters should sell for a premium. Although, that theory is challenged by a 2013 auction which saw the Roadster pictured, a Signature 100 Series, go for only $58,000, and the second European-delivered Roadster go for about the same. But really low-VIN Roadsters haven’t been on public auction blocks that I’ve discovered. The first five Tesla Model S cars probably would sell well in auction. Maybe the first three Tesla Model X SUVs as well.
As a callout, very-low-VIN Tesla Model 3, Chevy Bolt, and Nissan LEAF vehicles could probably find interested collectors as well.
These are things that actually changed the world in some way. The first laptop computer. The first telephone. The first cellphone. The first internet router. The first computer punch card. The first elevator. These are the groundbreakers.
In this category, the first handful of electric cars from 1832 to 1900 are the obvious choices, whichever ones exist and in whatever shape they exist. And, of course, the ill-fated GM EV1. It contains being a first-runner in modern EVs, notoriety in the form of its own documentary, and rarity since GM destroyed almost all of them. But not the one that sold at auction in 2008 for $465,000.
Actually one-of-a-kind things
There are actual rarities in the world. The Mona Lisa. Falling Water. The Wright Flyer. The distinction most of these things have is that they are in very well funded museums.
In the electric car category, there is one that stands out, if anyone can actually ever get it. The low-VIN, original Tesla Roadster that was shot into space. If anyone ever snags that and brings it back, only billionaires need show up at the auction.
Now that I have my guesswork out of the way, what attributes for collectibility do Hemmings consider important, and how would they apply to EVs?
Collectibility, Desirability, Hallmark Status, Distinctive Styling, and Popularity
Hmm. … That first one seems a bit tautological. Let’s set that one aside. The entire list is remarkably subjective in fact, as a scan of the list of 100 shows. Basically, these guys love American auto history, which doesn’t necessarily lead to the most interesting of choices. Variants on Trans Ams and Corvettes only go so far.
In fact, the lack of precision in understanding what makes something collectible seems to be endemic to automotive journalism. The Las Vegas Review-Journal asked a bunch of industry people and they all had different answers and a fair amount of arm-waving in the answers. For what it’s worth, the Las Vegas Review-Journal piece had one person suggest the BMW i8 was his number one with a bullet, which left me scratching my head. Cool Rides Online does somewhat better with its list of Classic, Antique, Muscle, Rarity and Age, but how exactly Age is different than Classic or Antique is at best fudged as well. Jalopnik’s best suggestion is irrational nostalgia, which sounds about right but doesn’t really provide much guidance. The Chicago Tribune did a piece on collectible cars a year ago, and only one of the experts asked mentioned electrics at all, before going on to talk about a bunch of other cars.
If you have a few hundred million dollars, then you can be Jay Leno and follow his maxim:
“It should be of technical and historical significance. It should be fun to drive. And it should be attractive to look at.”
That’s probably as good an assessment as any, and many of the cars I’ve suggested fit the bill.
Have a different opinion? Make your case in the comments.
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