Mary shares experiences from 20 years in the auto industry selling classic cars internationally with her husband.
Selling Classic Cars
For 20 years, my husband and I sold classic cars, both in the States and in the UK. It is a business that can be exciting, infuriating, profitable, and risky.
Don't think you have to be a classic car enthusiast to sell them—you don't. It's best if you aren't. The person buying the car has likely been reading books and compiling information about his dream car and knows virtually everything there is to know about it. You don't have to compete with that. The reality is, you are just a middleman bring the right car to the right person at the right time.
I have seen numerous people who love classic cars and think they can sell them. They make critical errors that cost them a lot of money. I want to share with you a few things we learned in our years of doing this business.
Our First Classic Jaguar
Although my husband had been selling modern cars, this Jaguar was our first classic. When we advertised it, the phone didn't stop ringing. That was a Eureka moment for us, and it set the course of our lives for the future.
We had a wide assortment of classic cars over the years. Those that my husband saw value in we bought. Did we make money on all of them? Almost all. They all sold one way or another. Although we had a few American classic cars, the majority were European classics, some of which we shipped back to the UK and the rest of Europe.
While waiting for them to sell, I drove some. These were ones that had enough space for kids and shopping and weren't likely to leave me stranded somewhere. When I was in California, I drove a classic Cadillac Eldorado convertible, it was white with red upholstery, and I always thought it should have had a set of horns on the front. It was reminiscent of something you'd expect to see in Texas. Although I liked the Cadillac, my favorites were our VW convertibles. In California, I rarely had the top up, as it was the perfect climate for them.
When we returned to the UK, I was driving cars we had in stock more often than not. These included a Riley Elf, classic VW Beetles, a Bristol, an Aston Martin DBS, a Volvo Amazon, a Morris Minor, and various Mercedes and Jaguars. My husband used to joke he had a hard time getting me out of the Aston Martin when it came time to sell it. I will admit, I loved that car. Although if I had to have a classic car for everyday use, it would have to be a classic VW Beetle convertible. I was making the mistake of getting too attached to a vehicle, and as any car dealer worth his salt will tell you, that isn't a good thing. The idea is to buy and sell, and do it again and again.
If the car was either a restoration project or extremely valuable, such as the Lamborghini pictured, we wouldn't drive it at all.
These photos were scanned from old negatives I had stored in a box, hence their low quality.
Advertising Your Classic Car
Love it or hate it, you'll need advertising. Times have changed since we started, and now, you have the potential to advertise on the internet on sites like eBay or on your own site. Advertising is going to be your biggest ongoing expense, with the exception of purchasing your cars. Sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn't; that's the hard truth.
It always amazed me that at the drop of a hat, everyone would lose interest in buying classic cars. As in any business, there are downturns, but we were advertising internationally so when one market dried up, another opened. If the dollar dropped against other currencies, it made our cars look reasonably priced to a European.
Depending on the car, you can advertise locally which is cheaper. Let's say you have a classic VW; those could be advertised locally, as they aren't that rare unless it is an early model, and your profit margin may not justify advertising it internationally.
If you have something a bit more special, then you should be targeting an international audience. Magazines such as Classic Car, Hemmings, and Classic & Sports Car are your best bets, especially if your car is European.
Advertising is the biggest headache and cost you will have. When you decide to advertise and you have no calls, it is an awful feeling. You feel as though you have wasted your money. Each month your car isn't selling, it's costing you money in advertising and is deteriorating.
If you're serious about starting a classic car business, then not only will you be advertising your cars, you should consider running ads saying you buy classic cars. Some of the people who call you will be ready to sell and others may only want a valuation of their car. There is money to be made from giving someone a valuation. The price you would pay is not the price of the valuation.
Don't Renovate, Just Sell
I am sure you've read about someone who bought a car, renovated it, and sold it for a staggering amount of money; we've all read a similar tale. What you don't read is how much they spent on it doing the renovation.
Trust me, I have been there and seen it.
Unless you can do the work yourself, which includes not just the engine, but also the bodywork and painting, you will be spending a lot of money. Hiring professional people to do the work is expensive. Hiring a friend who thinks he's a professional will work out even more expensive when you have to redo his work.
We have had cars restored from the ground up, and it isn't worth doing. When people tell you how much they sold the vehicle for, most don't tell you what it cost them to have the work done. Not only is it challenging to find a qualified person, but also the correct parts. I liken it to people who gamble: they tell you how much they win, but they don't tell you about their losses.
Premises or Working From Home
If you are only going to be selling a few cars per year, you may be able to do this from your home. This, of course, will depend on where you live, who your neighbors are and how discreet you are.
No one wants a bunch of people parking outside their home and coming to look at cars. Plus in some neighborhoods, there are often regulations about the number of cars you can have at your home. If you have a garage, the classic car is best kept in there as they are more likely to deteriorate than a modern car.
If you decide to rent or buy a unit to sell cars from, your costs immediately increase.
Expect additional costs including:
- Rent or mortgage payment
- Phones/ internet
Buying Your First Classic
If starting a classic car business is something you wish to do, you will already have an idea about different models and will have been checking prices. The time to start is now. You don't have to be an expert, you just have to buy the car for a good price. Start doing some research as to the price of cars in the magazines listed above.
As with any car, you should make sure the person has all the documentation in place. Check that the VIN number matches that on the document. If they have had work done and kept the receipts, so much the better. Depending on the condition of the car, you may be able to drive it away, you may not. Start now to build a relationship with a towing company. When we were doing this we had one towing man who was fantastic. He would not only pick up cars and bring them to our house, he also would take them to the docks where they would be put in a container and shipped back to the UK. On one occasion, he traveled halfway across the USA to pick up a car for us.
Once when he received a frantic call from me, he dropped everything he was doing to come and help us. We had a 1929 Rolls Royce Sedanca de Ville that rolled out of the driveway and into a 4-lane road. We lived on quite a busy road, and the thought that someone might hit it was nerve-racking.
I am including an image of the model so you can see the size, however, ours was a restoration project and didn't run. The sheer size of it and the slight incline back to the garage made it impossible to move it without a tow truck.The car had come to rest in the center of the road and most people just slowed to ogle at such an unusual car and the two people standing in the road directing traffic around it.
Don't Spend Anything on the Classic Car
You may think I'm being pedantic about this, but let me tell you, with a classic car, there will always be something else that needs fixing.
Let me give you an example. My husband allowed our son to buy a car with the money he'd save. He bought a classic Mini, it was a great car but it needed a new battery. When someone came to look at the car, we gave the car a jump start but told the man, it would need a new battery. My son was excited, he knew if he paid for a battery, the man would buy it. My husband discouraged this thinking and guess what, the man bought it without it being replaced knowing full well he would need to purchase a new one. If you think this is being unnecessarily tight, it isn't; it's business.
Who Buys Classic Cars?
People who buy classic cars are different than ordinary car buyers. Sometimes they have been searching for a long time to find a car they have always dreamed of owning. We had one gentleman arrive after reading a review about our car in one of the classic car magazines. As soon as he arrived we knew it was sold. He asked if he could telephone his wife and he was almost in tears when speaking to her. He had finally found the car he had wanted for years.
A few more things to mention: if a man arrives alone you are more likely to make a sale than if he is accompanied by his wife. If they arrive in a Volvo, you have virtually no chance of selling to them. This may sound like a far-fetched statement, but in my experience, it's true, I have seen it happen several times.
We advertised in international magazines, and when someone flew over to the States from Europe, just to see a car, we knew there was an excellent chance of making that sale. This happened on numerous occasions as most Europeans wanted to buy a car from somewhere dry, such as California. Rust on classic cars is a big problem throughout many parts of Europe; this is why many choose to buy from the dry hot states.
Congratulations, You've Made a Sale
You've just sold your first classic car, what do you do? You have a few ways to go here, but reinvesting the money in another car is the best thing if this is to be a long-term occupation. Pat yourself on the back and move on to the next deal. If you're doing this as a business, you need to treat it as a business. While you are waiting for a sale to happen, you should be lining up your next deal.
You should always have enough capital on hand. If someone is desperate to sell, they may take a lower price, but they won't wait for you to get enough cash together. You need to keep your finances liquid.
This article is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge. Content is for informational or entertainment purposes only and does not substitute for personal counsel or professional advice in business, financial, legal, or technical matters.
Questions & Answers
Question: I own a 1969 Cutlass Supreme. What would be a good starting price for it?
Answer: Your best bet is to look at others that are the same model, year and condition. Places such as Auto Trader and eBay are good places to start.
If you are serious about starting a business, then be prepared to sell for less than you think it's worth. I have seen so many people think they have a business because they have a car (or cars) but never sell anything because they are overvalued.
Question: What do you think about focusing on one bread and butter brand, eg: MG's Lotus and becoming a known expert, selling parts, wrecking vehicles etc. as a business? Do you, the author of this article, have any experience of the Australian market?
Answer: No, I don't have any experience with the Australian market. (Don't let your location blinker you though).
You can, of course, do as you say, and specialize in one type of car. However, there is a reason you don't see many people doing that with classic cars. They don't make enough money from it.
The internet has changed many things and the car market is no different. If people are wanting information about a car, they will go online and find that information. You could share your knowledge over the internet, thus increasing your audience. If people are coming to you in person or over the phone for advice, they are likely not spending money, they are brain picking and wasting your time.
If you are breaking down cars, you can sell the parts over the internet to capture a larger market. If you are wanting to earn a living from it, then buy cars and flip them for a quick profit.
Don't limit yourself, you have many options. Make a simple website or blog about classic cars or one type specifically and monetize it. Share your knowledge there, what you know has value, don't give it away for free.
Sell parts locally and online. Avoid a brick and mortar store, keep your overheads low.
Remember you don't only have an Australian market, you have a worldwide market. People won't travel to you to see a common car, but they will consider flying down there if you have something special. They then would ship it back to their location.
© 2017 Mary Wickison
Mary Wickison (author) from Brazil on July 25, 2019:
Thanks for your questions. Let's start with your first one.
You can ask whatever price you want, but if you want to sell it, then it needs to be at a price that a buyer is willing to pay. Don't expect anyone to pay more because you put too much money into.
I don't think your term of 'sharks' is appropriate. They are businessmen, not collectors. If you plan to start a business in car sales, you need to be moving cars. Anyone can buy a car, and say 'it's worth twice what I paid for'. To them I'd say, " Prove it".
I can't tell you how many people over the years I have seen that think they can be car dealers. Most are wannabes who think it's easy, it isn't. If you and your partner are too scared to take the plunge, then don't do it. Liking cars is definitely not enough. You have to have the skills of an entrepreneur. From reading your questions, I don't get that impression that you are business minded people.
Regarding the way to get out of the car you overspent on, good luck. No matter what medium you try to advertise, the buying public are not going to pay you over the odds. You are going to have to accept your misfortune and chock it up to a lesson learned.
A couple of things I can suggest is don't pay for advertising because it will put you even further into the hole on that car.
The second is, write an article and submit it to a magazine or newspaper. Include pictures of the restoration project as well. If they decide to run your story, you may be in with a chance of earning a bit more and it will be free advertising.
Good luck with whatever avenue you choose to take.
Mark on July 18, 2019:
Hi there Mary,
I love your article, thank you so much for sharing your experience and valued knowledge.
I have a couple of quick questions for you ;
1) In your opinion, is it acceptable to ask a much higher than market value price for a vehicle if it is an extremely clean example but NOT a rare or unique car ?
2)a) Again, in your opinion, what is the best way to sell a classic car for the most amount of money ? Online, magazine or concession by a already recognised dealer ? (I only ask question 1 & 2 as I brought a rotten classic Mini five years ago and spent way way too much time and money on it to get it road worthy, so I am now trying to recuperate my costs - I didn't want you to think that we were sharks looking for a quick 'flip')
2)b) What is the best platform to the above question ? I.e If the best way to raise the most for your car is to sell via the internet, which is the best, most prestigious website ?
3) You say that you sold a lot of cars abroad and that on several occasions people flew over to view the cars and then brought them there and then, what is the best way to advertise globally ?
4) My partner and I would dream to do what you and your husband have done, that is, successfully buy and sell classic cars but we are too scared to take the plunge ! We are both petrol heads and she, probably like yourself, has the eye and knows what will be easy to sell (based on a few previous sales) I, on the other hand would buy anything as my heart rules my head
Mary Wickison (author) from Brazil on April 04, 2019:
Honestly, the hassle you are having, in my opinion does make the profit worth it.
When my husband and I were in this business, we never shipped into the US, only out.
It would be wrong of me to give you legal advice. For importing vehicles into the USA go to US government website for importing.
The amount of vehicles you can sell without a dealer's license is dependent on which state you're in. There again, you should be contacting that Department of Motor Vehicles for clarification.
In my opinion, you'd be better off, buying and selling classics within your own state.
Pragueprado on April 04, 2019:
Hi Mary, I've been googling for days but haven't been able to find answers to all my questions - perhaps you'll be able to help.
I live in Europe most of the time, but return to the US a couple of times each year (I'm dual national). I noticed a while ago that there are classic cars in the EU that are more desirable (more valuable) in the US, and that as long as they're over 25 years old and mostly unmodified, it's relatively simple to get them into the US.
So, the first year, I bought a classic car in Italy, shipped it to the US, registered it in my home state (paying all applicable taxes), drove it for the summer, and then sold it. Although I sold it for more than I had in it, I don't want to know what my hourly wage was.
Back in the EU, I found another classic. It's now on its way to the US where I will again register it, use it for the summer, and then attempt to sell it. This is taking place about 10 months after the import of the last one. However, the person handling the paperwork for me has let me know that while I can probably get away with a Single Entry Bond this time, if I import more than one a year, I will need to pay for a continuous bond.
So, that's one thing - can you confirm that if I import more than one classic car into the US each year, I need a continuous bond? I'm posing this question assuming that you also had cars going to the US, and not just to the UK - apologies if that's a wrong assumption.
The other question is how many cars I can import and sell each year before I'm considered a dealer and therefore need a dealer's license. My intention would always be to register the car in my name (paying all taxes), and keep it and use it while attempting to sell it. I am fully aware (after all my research) that "title-jumping" is illegal in all states, but that wouldn't work when importing classic cars from outside the US, because potential buyers are quite rightly concerned about titling gray market cars with all the paperwork (some of it not in English) in another person's name - so I have to title it in my name in order to have a US state title before selling it.
So that's the other question - do you have any thoughts on any legal steps necessary, or hurdles that need to be jumped, for someone who might import a maximum of 3 or 4 classic cars into the US each year? Yes, the intention is to eventually sell for a profit, but the cars would certainly be titled in my name and kept at my place before selling (and these aren't the kinds of cars that would be parked outside the house with a, "For Sale" sign on them).
Many thanks for any light you can shed on this.
Mary Wickison (author) from Brazil on October 23, 2018:
My advice is don't get an investor. Start trading your way to more stock. You'll have enough problems to worry about such as fluctuating exchange rates, car prices, and finding that elusive buyer.
You don't need to be worrying about payments to an investor as well.
The fewer fingers in the pie, the better you'll be.
Gianni on October 16, 2018:
Hello Mary, i am Car Dealer and started last year with selling Classic cars from Europe. My big Problem is to get the Capital to buy more inventory, what you suggestion? i am looking may be for an investor... Thanks
Mary Wickison (author) from Brazil on February 06, 2018:
You're thinking along the right lines, the profit has to be there before you buy.
Our best deals came from running an advert in the local paper and from driving around and finding cars, in garages.
david tingle on February 06, 2018:
finding the right place to buy is an issue for me. auction website listings will be seen buy other dealers and enthusiasts and usually find a price which would mean theres not much profit in it for me
Mary Wickison (author) from Brazil on October 30, 2017:
If you're wanting to do this for a living, then don't specialize. Although it may sound ideal to be the 'go to man' for Firebirds and Camaros, it won't consistently put food on the table.
I can tell that you have a love for these cars and that is not what you need. That is the difference between an enthusiast and someone who can earn well from the business.
You do not want to get attached to any car or sit on it for too long. That just sucks money out of your pocket. Then what happens is the car begins to owe you money so you put the price higher and no one will buy it.
The key to making money selling classic cars is to flip them quickly. Take your profit, and invest it in another car.
I remember one time we had the buyer and the seller at our place at the same time. It takes nerves of steel to pull a deal like that off, but my husband did it and both parties walked away happy. We had a healthy profit and didn't need to outlay any of our own money.
Remember you make your money when you buy the car not when you sell it. Keep available cash ready because when a deal presents itself, no one is going to wait for you to get the cash together.
This may sound harsh, and it should because it isn't easy to do. I have seen so many wannabe classic car dealers but virtually all fall by the wayside. The classic car market can be volatile and you need to have enough captial to see you through the lean times.
The key is to flip them quickly and whatever you do, don't restore it. That is a moneypit and you won't recover your money. Leave the restoration for the end buyer.
nick on October 29, 2017:
what do you think about classic 67-69 firebirds?
Gonzalo Delgado on June 19, 2017:
Thank you Mary, I will speak to them first thing in the morning.
Mary Wickison (author) from Brazil on June 19, 2017:
That you will have to ask an accountant. If you are going to be self-employed they will tell you what expenses you can offset against your business and the amount of tax which will be incurred. For the legal requirements in your area, you should speak with your chamber of commerce.
Gonzalo Delgado on June 19, 2017:
Hello Mary, I imported a 56 Victoria Fairlane to California. Love it, has the V8 wide block engine and the iron cast radiator, all original except the color is not the original I think is better. My question is when I sell the car what do I do to pay taxes or how does that work. I am looking to create a joyful business out of buying and selling classic cars. However, I am concern on how taxes work when you buy and sell them.
Mary Wickison (author) from Brazil on May 08, 2017:
I too love them although as a day to day car they can begin to show their age. Currently, our vehicle is a VW Kombi. We use it as a utilitarian vehicle here on our farm. It has carried everything from goats to 300kg of fish food.
Classic cars can be a profitable business but not all cars are popular or profitable. It takes a good eye to see the value, luckily my ex had a good eye for deals.
Don't believe everything you read in classic car magazines, they too deliver alternative facts.
Thanks for reading.
Shauna L Bowling from Central Florida on May 08, 2017:
I love classic cars. They have so much more character than today's cars. I think it's wonderful you made a living from selling classics. I never would have thought of it. I'm sure it can be quite profitable.
Mary Wickison (author) from Brazil on April 03, 2017:
It was an adventure. Vintage cars seem to have more personality to them than today's cars. I also think the styling, although not aerodynamic, was beautiful on many classic cars.
Thanks for your comment.
Dora Weithers from The Caribbean on April 02, 2017:
Not happening for me, either but I enjoyed reading of your adventure with classic cars. The fun part came through.
Mary Wickison (author) from Brazil on April 02, 2017:
You are a classic in the nicest possible way.
The phrase, "They just don't make them like that anymore" springs to mind.
Vintage cars, wines, and cheese, these improve with age why not us?
I hope you're having a peaceful Sunday.
Bill Holland from Olympia, WA on April 02, 2017:
Not going to happen, but cool idea. It just occurred to me that cars I owned as a late teen are now classic. LOL I guess that means I'm a classic as well. I certainly feel like a dinosaur. Does that count? :)