Bob Lichty looks forward and back on the hobby
When we went to work at Old Cars Weekly in 1978, the founder of the company — the late Chester L. Krause — told us about his “dream team” of people who had once worked for him and went on to other careers in the old-car industry. One of those people was Bob Lichty.
A few years later, we heard through the grapevine that Lichty was looking for a job and willing to return to Wisconsin to work for the company. He was hired and came back with a lot of additional hobby knowledge that he had acquired and which greatly benefitted Old Cars Weekly. He also gained some notoriety for the car cartoon drawings that he created to fill odd spaces in the OCW layouts.
Bob and I worked together for the next six years or so, then Bob’s taste for wanderlust took him in different directions. He worked for Carlisle Events and The Blackhawk Collection before moving to Ohio to open his own collector-car dealership called Motorcar Portfolio (www.motorcarportfolio.com) in Canton, Ohio. With his extensive old-car industry knowledge, we felt that Lichty’s perspectives on the current state of the hobby would be appreciated by the readership going into 2020.
“We’re not going to ask you the obvious things like whether interest in prewar cars is declining or whether the cost of restoration work these days is drastically rising,” we told Lichty. “It’s likely that most hobbyists and collectors know about those trends, so let’s talk about things that no one else discusses.”
Old Cars: You have been in the hobby for a long time and have worked many places in addition to running two collector car sales businesses, such as Motorcar Portfolio, which you operate today. Do you think that the collector-car field is still a place where people who love classic cars can build a career?
Bob Lichty: Actually, I do. My career focused on the automotive print industry, event promotion, auctions and car sales. All those areas are still alive and doing well. Maybe print media is being dominated by electronic media, but I believe there will always be a market for print as well. I think having a love and passion for whatever you do almost guarantees that you will find a path toward a rewarding career. I love what I do. I always say, “If I worked this hard at something I hated, I would be rich by now.”
Old Cars: Why did you get into the collector-car business in the first place and how does this business contribute to society today? A doctor or teacher or engineer can point out how their jobs benefit mankind, but in what ways does the old-car hobby benefit humanity? How can we in the hobby do better at that next year?
Bob Lichty: I had no choice, because I was a “car guy” from birth. Before I knew colors, I knew every car brand that drove down our street. I went to art school specifically to work on car magazines. My first “real” job in the print industry was assistant to the publisher at Hemming’s Motor News. That gave me a good start, but I feel my career at Old Cars Weekly over about a eight-year period was the real key. Chet Krause was a wonderful mentor. As far as what the old car contributes to society, I feel history in general is important. It puts what we do today into perspective. I don’t think enough priority is given to history. Publications like Old Cars Weekly and book publishers help put it all in perspective. Reporting on the news of the hobby helps the rest of us keep track as to where things are and where they’re headed. Having a hobby like old cars is truly fulfilling for many people. I have to be around old cars.
Old Cars: Most hobbyists say that young people aren’t coming into our hobby, but the Hagerty collector car insurance company recently reported that they get significantly more requests for quotes from “millennials” than any other group. Do you see a lot of younger people getting into the hobby in your area?
Bob Lichty: Yes, I agree with the insurance company. I have heard for 50 years that young people do not appreciate old cars and are not coming into the hobby. But the truth is you hear this from old people who expect young people to embrace the same cars they do. This could not be further from reality. Young folks like younger cars. I see this in the Radwood craze for ’80s and ’90s cars as an example. Folks my age regard those cars as used cars, but they are what turn ‘millennials’ on. I can remember one of my bosses early in my career referring to post-World War II cars as used cars.
Old Cars: Membership in car clubs is dropping almost across the spectrum of interest. Do you think this is just going to continue in 2020 or are some clubs learning new ways to reach and help potential new members? What clubs do you think are still growing?
Bob Lichty: The changes in club membership are part of the same problem. Clubs that focus on one type of car or one vintage that appeals to an aging membership will surely face diminishing membership. Limit that to specific years of cars and they are doomed to seeing membership decline. But clubs that develop new ideas or welcome later-model cars will flourish. Again, clubs such as Radwood focus on the cars the younger people like that are growing in interest.
Old Cars: Here in Wisconsin hot rodders and hobbyists are up in arms about how the Wisconsin State Patrol is interpreting vehicle equipment laws, but on a national level, politicians are pushing electric cars and trying to outlaw fossil fuels. What do you think the biggest threats to old-car collecting will be in 2020? How can hobbyists work best to protect their right to own, drive and collect old cars next year?
Bob Lichty: I don’t think we will see serious threats to the hobby as soon as next year. I think the electric car revolution needs years to develop into the backbone of car use, but that is likely. I hate to be pessimistic, but long-term we might see a day when older gas-powered cars will be regulated to limited facilities. That’s no different than people who love horses who go to an equestrian center to enjoy their hobby. We already see clubs and tracks devoted to high-end car use and enjoyment.
Old Cars: Is the hobby all about auctions, high values and money in general? Or is it really driven by historical interest, nostalgia, memories, family activities and fascination with the past? What are the big motivations of the typical hobbyist and will they stay the same, grow or wane in 2020?
Bob Lichty: I see both areas having their place. I know people who are only about the money; cars are an investment to them and they constantly worry what their car is worth. When values took a drop this year at the big auctions, these people claimed doom and gloom and that the market was falsely collapsing, rather than just adjusting. On the other hand, true hobbyists could care less and a decline in market values only widens the choice of cars they can afford.
Old Cars: How has the hobbyist changed over the years since you started in the hobby? Are the changes you see in hobbyists for the better or worse? How will hobbyists evolve in 2020?
Bob Lichty: I don’t think hobbyists have changed terribly much. I think modified cars have become more accepted; the divide between restorers and hot rodders has become less polarized than years ago. I doubt this is bad. However, automotive history is super important. I would hate to see the day when all older cars were resto-mods. I hope our children will always be able to see an original or well-restored example of most every car. The Antique Automobile Club of America (www.AACA.org) plays an important role in providing at least one venue where authenticity and historical value are paramount. I pray we will never see the day that AACA accepts modified cars at the Hershey meet. At Hershey we have at least one place where we can see the past in pure form.
Old Cars: As a hobbyist and a collector-car dealer, I’m sure you remember how it was in, say, the 1970s, when the hobby was growing. You could find cars on the street that really looked a lot older than current models, buy them for a few hundred dollars and “flip” them to a collector for a tidy profit. Can you still do this in 2020 or are the dynamics of the hobby very different now? Why don’t you see old cars on the streets anymore?
Bob Lichty: Yes, seeing old cars on the street as daily drivers is rare today by comparison. However, when I had my car store in California in the late 1970s, I was selling a lot of 1955-‘57 and 1962-‘64 cars that were easy to find. But keep in mind, they were only 15-20 years old. Go to any cruise-in today and half the cars are late-model Mustangs, Corvettes, Challengers and Camaros. So, not much has changed in that respect.
Old Cars: Over the years, the meaning of the word “restore” really seems to have changed. Years ago, restore used to mean you brought a car back to showroom condition. Today, a restored car has chameleon paint, 18-inch “dub” wheels and a GM LS1 engine. What does restored mean in 2020 lingo?
Bob Lichty: I think a true restoration by definition is still the same: the car is restored to factory-correct specifications. A car that is refurbished or turned into a highly modified (resto-mod) version of an old car is just that. It is not necessarily bad; it’s just semantics. A restored car is just that — restored. It’s no different than when a car is original and unrestored, but repainted and modified back to something like it was originally.
Old Cars: Does the hobby have a future? What is that future going to be like? Are the changes you’ve seen good or bad? What changes do you expect to see more of in 2020?
Bob Lichty: Of course I see the hobby having a future. It may not be the same hobby I have loved for over 50 years, but I see younger people enjoying cars as much as ever. How we enjoy old cars, which ones remain popular and whether modern high-speed highways will permit use of old cars are all questions to be answered. Change is not always bad and it just might fit your definition of fun. Let’s hope our automotive historians can keep it in perspective for years to come.