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At Auction, American Cars Are Often Not Valued as Highly as their European Counterparts

In the 1950s, the Australian Broadcasting Commission presented the radio show “Incognito,” which featured two musical performances, one by an Australian artist and the other by a foreigner.

At the end of the show, the audience members were invited to guess which performer was Australian. Very often, they guessed wrong. The show had unwittingly uncovered a national inferiority complex the Melbourne writer A.A. Phillips dubbed “cultural cringe.”

It’s a situation that American car collectors might find familiar — they seem to value stylish foreign-made classic cars significantly more than their domestic equivalents.

It’s well-documented that American car design, craftsmanship and engineering suffered after the 1960s, but before that many American cars were elegant and well engineered, particularly those from the immediate prewar era.

The American carmaker Duesenberg pioneered the use of advances like hydraulic brakes, and the bodywork adorning prewar Duesenbergs, Auburns, Cadillacs, Packards and others was as elegant as anything in Europe.

In the mid-1930s, Duesenberg’s sister company, Cord, produced the revolutionary 812, which had front-wheel drive, futuristic styling, and an optional supercharger. It’s rare, however, for any of these cars to sell for what their European counterparts do, either in the United States or elsewhere.

According to Hagerty, the classic-car insurer and automotive entertainment brand, of the top 30 most-valuable cars ever sold at auction, only one car on the list, a 1935 Duesenberg SSJ, is American. It sold for $22 million in 2018.

This disparity is curious. Americans, unlike Europeans, often snub the classics built by their grandparents’ and great-grandparents’ generations.

A 1937 Mercedes-Benz 540 K Special Roadster, which brought in $9,905,000 at auction in California last year.Credit…Darin Schnabel, via RM Sotheby’s

At an auction in Florida in March, a 1931 Duesenberg sold for $4,295,000. Still, that was less than half of what a collector at a California auction paid for a 1937 Mercedes-Benz in August 2022. Both cars are exceedingly rare — each one numbered in the 400s — and could have legitimately been called among the best in the world when they were new, said Mark Hyman, a self-described “car nut” based near St. Louis, who has been dealing and collecting classic cars for more than three decades.

He said “cars like the Duesenberg have a cult following among those who simply must have the best of the best, but they tend to be viewed as more of a museum piece than a driver’s car.”

“Vintage European cars deliver a more sophisticated driving experience and are therefore used more regularly by their owners,” said Mr. Hyman, who also noted that there were many opportunities for owners of 1930s Bentleys and Alfa Romeos to take part in organized tours and rallies that push the cars quite hard, but fewer such opportunities exist for high-end American classic cars.

“Usability is a driver of value, and vintage European cars tend to be more sporting, they handle and brake more like modern cars, and people will pay more because of this,” he said.

One exception is the Cord 810/812.

“When they’re properly sorted out, they’re fast, and they handle very well, but the number of people who understand and support these cars is a fraction of what you see in the vintage Bentley world, and this in turn negatively affects usability and value,” Mr. Hyman said.

A 1937 Cord 812 Supercharged Cabriolet. When it was introduced in the 1930s, the 812 was a revolutionary model, with front-wheel drive and futuristic styling.Credit…Patrick Ernzen, via RM Sotheby’s
A 1930 Bentley 4½-Liter Tourer. Despite making similar horsepower to the 1937 Cord 812, the Bentley has tended to fetch much higher prices at auction than the Indiana-made Cord.Credit…Rasy Ran, via RM Sotheby’s

While a 1937 Cord 812 looks like a spaceship compared with an upright and traditional 1930 4 ½ Liter Bentley, they actually make similar horsepower. RM Sotheby’s auctioned off one of each recently, and the results were not close — $698,000 for the British-made Bentley, versus $184,800 for the Indiana-built Cord.

The inferiority complex isn’t limited to the grand, prewar classics. Second-generation Corvettes, with model years from 1963-67, known to collectors as the C2, are often regarded as a high-water mark, not merely for the Corvette, but also for midcentury car design in general, Mr. Hyman noted.

The designers Peter Brock, Bill Mitchell and Larry Shinoda all had a hand in the car’s elegant shape and details. It was the contemporary, and rival, of the British-built Jaguar E-Type, which is of similar size, performance and overall loveliness.

“The Jaguar is far more temperamental, over-engineered and has more pieces, many of which are fragile,” Mr. Hyman said. “But complexity can be appealing. It certainly offers a different experience, not unlike that of a complicated mechanical watch. A quartz watch might be more rugged and tell time better, but for people who equate complexity with elegance, it explains why the Jaguar can often sell for twice as much as the Corvette.”

Recent auction results back this up. This year, Gooding & Company sold a 1963 Corvette convertible for $52,640 and a 1964 Jaguar E-Type Roadster for $92,400 — cars that were in similar condition.

For Ramsey Potts, vice president of sales for Broad Arrow Group, the difference in values between American collector cars and foreign ones comes down to motorsports.

“I grew up outside of Pittsburgh with an uncle who owned Buick, Pontiac, AMC and Jeep dealerships, and while domestic cars filled our family’s garage, I was taken with the glamour and sophistication of sports car and Formula 1 racing,” he said, “and I just couldn’t find any of the domestic makers at the sharp end of the racing results I was following. I think it’s that way for a lot of collectors, and this shows up in the relative values that these cars have today.”

John Wiley, manager of valuation analytics for Hagerty, thinks the inferiority complex goes back to the beginning of the auto industry around the turn of the 20th century, noting that American cars seem to have been defined early on by Henry Ford’s obsession with creating transportation for everyone, whereas the European car industry maintained a focus on smaller volumes and catering to the wealthy for a longer period of time. Mr. Wiley said he believed that it was natural that cars built for the rich to be more sought after by collectors.

Bradley Brownell, the director of the Crawford Auto-Aviation Museum in Cleveland, said he believed that the lackluster American cars built in the 1970s and 1980s for prestige brands, such as Cadillac and Lincoln, tarnished the collectability of the older classics.

While it might be true that Ford’s mass-production methods defined the American auto industry, Mr. Brownell also points out that some truly special American classics were created during that time — they were simply overshadowed by the perception that all American cars were mass produced.

“Prior to the Great Depression, arguably the finest handmade cars in the world were built in America by Packard, Pierce-Arrow and Peerless, but only two of those three companies survived the Depression, and the third, Packard, has been gone for almost 70 years,” Mr. Brownell said. “Because of this, there’s a name-recognition issue among American collector cars compared to Mercedes-Benz, Bentley and Alfa Romeo, all of which are still around.”

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