It seems to be that time of year again. With the flamboyant prestige of Monterey firmly in the rear-view mirror and Scottsdale still a few months away, aside from the random regional auction and a handful of “swap meets”, the talking heads in the industry have nothing to do and subsequently start getting bored. This means returning to the traditional wells looking for content. That seemingly always includes the obligatory “next big thing“ list. Normally, these are pretty good and generally I agree with most of them, but this year they seem to be falling into one of two categories: way ahead, or way behind. Now, I’m certainly not one to say that a 2016 Cadillac won’t be collectible someday, or that it may not already be painfully obvious to everyone on earth that things like Ford GT’s already are (OK, I’m totally being sarcastic about that second one. If you don’t know that Ford GT’s are collectible, you should probably stick to folding up baseball cards in the wheels of your Huffy), but I like to think that we should be able to expect more from the people and publications that supposedly know this stuff inside and out.
Knowing that I am an executive in the collector automobile auction industry and spend a seemingly absurd amount of time analyzing results/market data/etc, people often assume that I possess insider information and in turn ask me to be their “psychic friend”, stare into my crystal ball and predict future collectible trends and the next “hot car” on the market. While somewhat true, this is typically like predicting the weather; lots of unforeseen variables and the environment can change quickly, but like the weather guessers, there are a few tried and true factors (that borderline common sense), that anybody who’s paying attention can put to work for them.
General rules to follow include cultural and generational shifts, entertainment and media, overall economic health, historically proven market success from a brand standpoint, perceived blue chip collectability, a particular cars impending life cycle/legal shifts, overall availability and more. There are also enormous benefits from just plain studying raw data. This cocktail formula is usually how I form my opinions and make projections. It’s not necessarily “rocket science”, but it’s still certainly a science.
With that said, here are ten cars (in no particular order) that I’m personally paying attention to and recommending to anybody who asks…….
The original automotive object of desire for the first wave of gadget geeks and techies alike, the balanced and beautiful Acura NSX is the engineering tour de force that literally jump started the Japanese performance rise to power that Lexus and so many others can say “thank you” for now. Not since the Datsun 240Z has there been a more efficiently balanced performance car that is just as perfectly suited for back road “twisties” as it is for playing hooky and sneaking over to the local track for a couple of quick hot laps. Additionally, the bullet proof reliability of the NSX will find you hunting late apexes on your way to work the next morning. Although its rise has already begun (IE if you want one, don’t delay), there’s still a lot of room to grow with the NSX. Consider a low production Zanardi Edition or later model fixed headlight version, as values there have really yet to begun to take flight.
BMW M3 Lightweight (E36)
Sexy, soulful and superlative, first generation E30 M3 values have absolutely exploded in the last few years. The simple fact is however, is that the word is largely out and they are no longer “Nurburgring’s best kept secret” – take the next step, and invest in an E36. Raw, uncompromising and most importantly advanced, but still not overly technical, this car is the definition of “The Ultimate Driving Machine”. The CSL (AKA Lightweight) was additionally one of the lowest production M3’s ever and it was “speculated” that prior to his death, actor and generational automotive icon Paul Walker and his partners were trying buy up every Lightweight produced. They were doing it for good reason. Special Edition E36’s present an enormous investment upside. Just imagine what’s going to happen when the legal smoke clears and his “horde” trickles on to the market. If you can find one, don’t hesitate. Buy it now and thank me later.
Any Front Engine, Turbo Charged, Japanese Sports Car Making More Than 250HP, Produced Between 1992-1998
Just as Americans experienced in the late 1960’s and early 1970’s, Japan had a four-wheeled performance war all their own at the beginning of the 1990’s. Favorable exchange rates and a renaissance of largely home market dominated technology and manufacturing advances allowed the big Japanese brands to target and invade markets around the globe with exciting, affordable and highly influential automotive gladiators which instantly infatuated a generation of young dreamers, which for many have remained obsessed well into adulthood. Nissan was first out of the gates in 1990 with the sleek and powerful re-spun 300ZX Twin Turbo. With aggressive, hip and brilliantly endearing marketing (twin… turbos….kick…..in….) and 300 hp on tap courtesy of its rock solid VG30DETT engine, the 300ZX instantly created panic among the ranks at GM, sending Corvette designers scrambling back to the drawing board and putting Porsche Ad Execs on the immediate offensive. The result was instant engagement to the tune of nearly 40,000 sold in its introductory year and as such, Mitsubishi’s 3000 GT, Mazda’s FD era RX-7 and Toyota’s 4th generation A80 Supra were soon to follow. Although forever grouped, these are vastly different cars. With its massive girth, all-wheel drive and comfortable cabin the 3000 GT VR4 (the only trim level worth considering here) was a marvelous grand tourer, in sharp contrast to the lightweight and hi revving FD RX-7 which was about handling and efficiency. The 300ZX and Supra were more closely aligned, but the Toyota was more exotic, more powerful, carries a substantially more developed relationship with the media and pop culture and as a result is overwhelmingly the one you to buy. That’s not to say that the Z is some kind of uncollectable slouch. In fact, a final year “essentially new” example boasting delivery miles and all the right equipment, just sold on eBay a week ago for over $90,000. Either way, these are all fantastic cars with a ton of investment potential. Look for low mileage, manual transmission equipped cars in their (increasingly rare) stock turbo trim levels. Also keep in mind that sales on the cars dropped substantially every year they were offered (hence why I’m only recommending cars produced 1992 or later – they made A LOT of 300ZX’s early on, and Supra’s and FD RX-7’s weren’t even available until then) and refinement subtly increased year after year, so find the latest car you can. If Acura’s NSX was Japan’s Ferrari, these cars were the Hemi Challenger, Chevelle LS6, GTO Judge and Boss Mustang. Plan accordingly, because the tsunami is coming.
Another weapons grade automotive investment that could likely be grouped in with its market competitors (Testarossa, 930, and to an extent the 308/328 and the highly underappreciated Lotus Esprit), the unbelievably iconic Countach gets its own mention for no other reason that it stands alone in its sheer volume of wide sweeping, drooling admiration for its era. Gracing the walls of nearly every kid’s bedroom on the planet for a generation, this car single handedly started the “Supercar” phenomenon. Make no mistake however, these are absolutely terrible cars. Hot, horribly uncomfortable, impossible to see out of, steer, manage at low speeds and generally live with, with a build quality that resembles a balsa wood model airplane in the hands of a 9-year-old, they are still by far the most important and desirable cars of the 1980’s. To this day, only the Mercedes-Benz 300 SL Gullwing commands the same level of unabashed presence in any environment. For even those who know zero about cars, the Countach will forever and always: “make them look”. These cars are artwork in motion and will remain as such moving forward, forever. Are they expensive now? They surely are! Currently and routinely selling for $300,000 – $400,000 or more (original MSRP around $100,000 – so already a great investment if you got in early and managed to not break it), this is a drop in the bucket. These are future 7-figure cars and once they reach that point, always will be. If you can swing the current price of admission, there’s very little downside to investing in a Countach.
Ferrari F355 – 6-speed Manual
Reminds me of the scene from Mad Max when the mechanic says, “she’s the last of the V8s” with that toothless grin on his face, drooling with excitement. The 355 is the last of a design series of an era, featuring the recognizable cues that generations since 1947 instantly understand to purely define the word “Ferrari”. The F355 is comfortable, usable and achingly beautiful (FAR better looking than the 348/360/430/etc) with (in my opinion) the most operatic symphony of cylinders ever produced by any marque of any era singing just behind your ears. F355’s are an absolute joy to operate and they are unquestionably at the low point of their value cycle right now with deals to be had. Are all F335’s created alike? Sadly, no. The F1 transmission is clunky, unreliable, overly ambitious for its era and thus should be avoided. Additionally, they are nowhere near as fun to drive. The simple fact is that no other singular element is responsible for the pure visceral and emotional experience than a manual shifter, and as currently being demonstrated by its equally extraordinary bigger brother, the 550 Maranello, values will continue to blatantly reflect this. Grab the round “fits in the palm of your hand like it grew there” shift knob, exercise your left leg and let your right foot steer.
SR I Dodge Viper Roadster and Early SR II Viper GTS/ACR
Another end of an era offering, the Dodge Viper is the last of the stripped down, unapologetically American, purely illogical, politically incorrect, pavement crushing, biceps on wheels. Sure, FCA is somewhat trying to resurrect a similar brand of fury with the Hellcat and Demon cars (which will most certainly also be collatable someday), but with their electronically controlled everything, they just don’t feel anywhere near as authentic. The reality is, that not since Carroll Shelby’s 427 Cobras has there been a more thoroughly absurd automotive predator stalking the streets than the Dodge Viper and it has captivated imaginations across the globe. Armed with a howling 8.0 litre, 400 hp V-10 and void of drivability standards like ABS and traction control and pesky creature comforts like windows, door handles, a roof and prior to 1994 things like air conditioning, the SR I roadster was about as pure a driving experience as available anywhere and certainly wasn’t for the faint of heart. Moving forward, any “civility” provided by the added roof line real estate and additional options in 1996 with the release of the Shelby Daytona inspired SR II GTS was quickly negated by an additional 50 hp under the hood. For those who were starting to feel “too safe” in the covered car, 1999 saw the introduction of ACR package which deleted basically everything inside and further pumped up the suspension. Don’t get it twisted, every Viper wants to kill you and that “danger factor” is what will add to future collectability. The first year, 1992 “in the wrapper” cars and uber low mile 1996 GTS or 1999 ACR examples will lead the pack. There’s definitely great, low mileage examples available for very reasonable prices right now. If you want one, it’s best not to wait, because they won’t stay that way for long.
Alfa Romeo 105/115 Series
Sort of the odd man out on this list, one would think that an offering of this era would be pretty close to reaching its ceiling. The reality is, that the Alfa 105/115 Series cars have rapidly and quietly become the “it car” of the youthful hipster elite and the “Social Media Influencer” crowd. This means there’s a whole bunch of newer enthusiasts that haven’t yet reached their discretionary earning years that are utterly and totally obsessed with these delightful Italians. How has this car become a “requisite” item on the “I’m cool and I know it” list? Drive one and find out! These little gems are everything that’s wonderful about old cars rolled up into one incredibly charming package. Solid ergonomics with alluring period appeal, beautiful Bertone design, enthusiastic performance via a superb suspension, engaging shifter, that wonderful Alfa Twin Cam and oh, the noises it makes! The Alfa 105/115 is almost “geek squad” cool, easy to maintain (for a vintage Euro car) and can spark both great ramen shop conversation and inspire you to own an extra set of wheels with “stickies” for occasional weekend warrior track duty. Barrel of monkeys vs 105/115? Advantage Alfa.
1983-1987 Toyota Corolla AE86
Light, swift and nimble, the short wheel based, rear wheel drive Toyota AE86 is not only the original drift machine, but also appears in a laundry list of video games and stars in the popular animated series Initial D. Originally offered in the USA in three trim levels (DX, SR5 and GT-S) in two body styles (2-door coupe and 3-door hatchback). These are not the cars you want to buy. In addition to being neglected, abused and generally hacked to pieces (factory presented examples are RARE – there’s likely more LaFerrari’s on the streets than stock US spec GT-S’s at this point), as generally the standard, most of the cool trim levels were never available here and remained JDM (Japanese Domestic Market). Fortunately, these cars have all reached the ends of their 25-year importation barriers and are exceedingly becoming available on American soil. Cars to seek out here are JDM GT-APEX and GTV examples of the Corolla Levin (fixed headlight – not available here) or Sprinter Trueno (flip up headlights – sort of available here) trims as close to stock as you can find them. If the boxy, retro styled AE86 isn’t for you, another “drift hero” to consider is the later/final US production “Kouki” era 1997-1998 Nissan 240SX (or Silvia in Japan). They present a lot of the same virtues in a slightly sleeker package.
1999-2004 Saleen SC281/S351
Let’s face it, the 1990’s were a bit of a challenging time for America’s favorite pony car. Early SN-95’s were far closer associated with sweet sixteen gifts for high school cheerleaders than melting tires at stop lights. Luckily, in 1999 Ford said enough and gave the Mustang a much needed (although still inadequate) boost of horsepower and a “New Edge” face lift. This refreshed Mustang was more angular, tougher looking and overall much more exotic. Once again, the special editions and tuners/builders began to take notice and hit their respective design tables. Racing legend Jack Roush jumped in the game, as well as Ford’s SVT division, but nobody made them sexier than California’s Steve Saleen. Much more aggressively styled, Saleen made run of the mill, everyday Mustangs into certified supercars. For an entire generation of enthusiasts who didn’t have Carroll Shelby to look to, Steve Saleen filled that void and did it brilliantly. As a result, the collectability of his creations is inherent. Every level of Saleen, whether coupe or convertible is simply exhilarating. Brash, loud and firmly planted via Saleen’s outstanding suspension upgrades, strongest investment potential will come with 1999’s one year only S351, ultra-low production Cobra or “Extreme” (S281E) models. All are lower production throughout their runs and much better equipped inside than SVT’s Cobra R and none have the polarizing “Target shopping cart” styling, which make the “R” a potentially questionable buy looking towards the future.
Nissan Skyline GTR
What else is there really to say? The Skyline GTR is probably the most important and anticipated gray market automobile of all time. Action movie icon, star of virtually every automotive focused video game going back nearly two decades, mainstay wall decoration of every carcentric millennial on earth and unattainable unicorn for so many for so long, the Skyline GTR is the Hemi ‘Cuda, L88 Corvette, Bullit Mustang, Lil’ Bastard 550 Porsche and Lamborghini Countach all rolled into one. First produced in 1989, R32 Skylines have been trickling into the US for some time now. AWD, lightweight and much more powerful than advertised, they dominated racetracks when first released and have a loyal fanbase of dedicated enthusiasts aside from those just holding out and cutting their teeth while waiting for later models. The R33, despite its better weight distribution, additionally robust performance (first sub 8-minute production car around the Nurburgring) and much improved aerodynamics has always been somewhat considered the “awkward middle child” of the bunch. These will likely provide an excellent budget option for the common man moving forward and offer a tremendous ownership experience for those just looking for a way in. Introduced in 1993, R33’s will begin to make their presence known on our shores very soon. The unquestionable crown jewel for collectors and investors alike with be the R34. Most closely aligned with Paul Walker’s character Brian O’Connor from The Fast and the Furious franchise, these are the cars that everyone of a certain age has been dreaming of for basically their entire lives. Refined, beautifully chiseled, high performance and endlessly desirable (especially in Bayside Blue), Nissan also produced nearly a dozen limited production, special edition versions that will have serious collectors licking their chops for decades. The biggest downside of the R34? Early examples weren’t produced until 1999, so we still have a few years (2024) to go, before they become cleared to travel American roads. So why are they on my list if you can’t even get one? The simple fact is that the feeding frenzy that will occur once the R34 is allowed on our shores will be legendary and money will certainly be made hand over fist as a result. Start preparing now. Get your paperwork in order and establish a delivery channel. Heck, rent warehouse space in Osaka and start hording V-Specs, Nurs, S Tunes, R Tunes and Z Tunes. Be on the front lines as soon as the floodgates open. When it comes to R34 GTR’s, the earliest birds will most certainly be rewarded with only the most handsome of worms and you absolutely want to be that bird.
Darin Roberge is President and CEO of Motorwerks Marketing and is a Marketing and Media Consultant in the Specialty Automotive and Live Events industries. Darin has been named a Business Trendsetter by Arizona Foothills Magazine, is a two-time nominee to Phoenix Business Journal’s 40 Under 40 list and is one of Sports Car Market Magazine’s 40 Under 40 for 2017. Learn more about Darin at www.DarinRoberge.com