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Bon voyage to old cars?

The U.S. is losing its cultural icons as more vintage autos are migrating overseas.

At a time when a 1965 Ford Mustang can’t find a buyer
at $7,500 here in the United States, overseas buyers are
paying as much as $135,000.

It’s been described as the biggest loss of a national treasure since the famous art spoils of World War II.

Even before The Great War, American automobiles have been popular in foreign countries. Yet as much as Americans today embrace their Volvos, Mercedes, Jaguars, BMWs and Volkswagens, our own Chevrolets, Fords, Dodges, Oldsmobiles, Thunderbirds, Chryslers and Corvettes have always held higher court in such places as Australia, Japan and Scandinavia.

That’s not terribly surprising until you realize the numbers are becoming more tilted as the U.S. economy slips deeper into the worst recession since the 1930s.
And these are slipping away at an alarming rate. On any given day at Neptune International, a drop-off center in Los Angeles, over 500 cars are awaiting a six-month backlog to go into shipping containers bound for destinations as far away as Sydney, Australia, and Gdansk, Sweden. While there are a few foreign cars and a smattering of late model tin, most of these cars are from the 1950s and ’60s. Running the gamut from a 1947 Cadillac sedanette to a ’61 Ford Falcon Ranchero to a ’70 Dodge Challenger, they’ve all assembled here for their final run across American terra firma.

American cars have never been more popular abroad than they are today. Our cars are as much in demand in other parts of the world as rock ’n’ roll, tattoos, junk food joints, tight jeans and other icons of a more simplistic America. And for the same reasons: style, colors, pride of ownership. Today’s cars, while safe and economical, lack these virtues. Try remembering the last time you heard someone brag, “I just bought a new Lexus. You should see it — it’s white with a gray interior and has black sidewall tires!” Such sentiments are echoing around the globe.

Whenever the U.S. economy wavers, foreign investors rush in to harvest the fallout. When a hobbyist in the United States can’t get $7,500 for a 1965 Mustang because of a wilting economy, the same car will bring $135,000 in places such as northern Europe or the Far East. The cost to ship a car overseas can average $4,500 depending on distance, but to the overseas investor that is a trivial expense compared to the mark-up, and the car doesn’t even have to be in original condition, either. Some of these cars are so hopelessly modified, serious U.S. hobbyists won’t touch them, but to the overseas markets, that means little. Just to have any vintage American car is a rare, albeit expensive, luxury. As far back as the 1990s, a 1959 Cadillac four-door cut down into a convertible would bring $200,000 in Japan, a country the size of California, but which has worse parking congestion than New York City.

Back in the 1950s, some 80 percent of all convertibles built by General Motors, Ford and Chrysler were delivered new in California. Because of climate conditions there that permit cars to stay on the roads indefinitely, there were still plenty of these cars left in existence by the early 1970s, when overseas interests began to heat up. Now, it’s been more than 20 years since vintage cars, not just convertibles, were seen in daily use in California.

In the 1970s, they began migrating to the rust-belt areas of the northeastern United States, where rust-free cars have always commanded higher prices than in the laid-back southwest. But by the 1990s, the overseas markets began snapping up vintage U.S.-built cars in record numbers.

What appealed to America a half century ago is now selling to the rest of the world. No longer just transportation, they are now vanishing art. One Scandinavian even sports a tattoo of a yellow 1956 Ford Sunliner on his arm. 

Since the early 1950s, Cuba has had an embargo on cars leaving its shores. Many of the poorer countries in Central and South America have similar laws. These old laws were meant to keep what few automobiles they had within their borders, not because they were collectors items, but because they were needed. As these countries began to recognize their own forms of national treasures, that focus has shifted.

After his execution, Saddam Hussein was found to have hidden a small collection of 1958-’61 Fords and Thunderbirds. In Southeast Asia, federal governments still maintain fleets of 1950s U.S. cars for their dignitaries.

Today, soaring prices and fever-pitch demand for postwar U.S. cars have caused many countries, particularly non-industrialized nations, to enact laws prohibiting the few U.S. cars they have from being taken out of the country. Canada now bans cars more than 50 years old from being exported.

Actually, there is an American Car Club of Sweden that enshrines an endless obsession for vintage American cars. Each summer, some 6,000 cars are gathered for display. Cars include a 1950 Pontiac, ’60 and ’61 Chrysler Imperials and ’59 Dodge and Oldsmobile convertibles.

Arnie Chaplain, a San Francisco car enthusiast, has begun liquidating his collection of vintage Corvettes. In June, he sold a yellow 1968 coupe for $8,000. “In better times this would have brought close to $30,000,” Chaplain said. The car is on its way to Norway, where it is expected to fetch $170,000. “There’s no market left here,” Chaplain mused. “Nobody can afford it, everything costs too much.”

Steve Luth, a California Edsel enthusiast, has been selling his collection on the Internet. One recent sale netted him $14,000 for a pretty 1958 convertible that would have brought twice that figure a year ago. That car is headed overseas.

Recreational items, such as vacation homes, sail boats and vintage cars, are always the first to go when America has to tighten its belt. And the recent spike in gasoline prices coupled with the present economic crash hasn’t exactly enabled Americans to hang onto their cultural treasures, either.

The realities of these trends are going to hit Americans hardest when the economy recovers. By then it is expected there will be so few of these cars left, they will bring prices only a small fraction of the population will be able to afford. And it will be virtually impossible to ever bring any back from overseas.

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