Jay Leno Predicts Future Collectible and Classic Cars
By Jay Leno
Illustrations by Ian Kelsie
Published in the May 2009 issue of Popular Mechanics.
Stocks and bonds? I don’t know much about them. In fact, I don’t know anything about stocks and bonds. I’ve lost money in the stock market; come to think of it, I’ve lost money in real estate too. But I’ve never lost money on cars.
The reason is simple: I’ve always bought cars I really want to own. If you buy a car that you like, and it loses its value, at least you still like it. Besides, even if the car’s value does go down a little, it will come back up at some point down the road.
About 10 years ago, I had the chance to buy a McLaren F1. A new one was almost a million dollars. This was a secondhand car with less than 2500 miles, and it was $800,000. I thought, it’s crazy to spend that much money on a car. So I talked it over with my wife. And she said, “You’ve worked hard. If you want to get it, get it.” And I thought, ohhh … kaaay! So I bought it.
Last year, a McLaren F1 sold at auction for $4.1 million! I now realize this is the greatest investment I’ve ever made. In less than 10 years, I more than quintupled my money. Best of all, I have a car I really enjoy. But there are plenty of modern cars you can buy at real-world prices that are fun to own.
People ask me if they should buy a new car and tuck it away as an investment. I think it’s ridiculous to buy something and just squirrel it away. The fuel will eventually go bad, all the moving parts will still have to be lubricated, and you still have to insure it. Cars should be driven. If you let a car sit, you’ll eventually have to flush the fuel system, replace the electronics and more. Buying any car and putting it into storage for years gets you nothing. It’s a bad idea. You won’t be buying something you like—you’re just trying to make money.
There are plenty of guys who bought the original Dodge Viper as an investment. When that car first came out in 1992, it produced 400 hp, an incredible level of power for that time. People thought, “That’s it. They’ll never make a car more powerful. I’ll buy one and stick it in my garage.” Now, every day people call me: “Hey, I’ve got a ’92 Viper with 800 miles.” Sorry, I’m not interested. “Three hundred miles?” Nope. You didn’t buy it to own it.
But there are some interesting modern cars that are potential collectibles you can drive and enjoy—cars considered common transportation today. I think the first-generation Toyota Prius is a future collectible. Although it was technically innovative at the time, now it just seems cute. It’s kind of slow, and it doesn’t have tremendous range. But it was the first of its kind—the first mass-produced hybrid—and there’s an honest simplicity to that. So if you have an original Prius, in 10 or 15 years, you’ll meet people who say, “I bought one of those!” And they’ll want to relive the feeling of watching the little dashboard display jump from charging to consuming. That neat feature will bring back a flood of those memories.
It’s like when I talk to people who once owned early and mid-1960s push-button Chryslers. They say, “I learned to drive in one of those! You press the D button to go, and you press R for reverse.” They remember that feeling of freedom and American progress—simply pressing buttons to drive down the road. So cars with unusual features, technology that cars today no longer have, can be collectible.
Years ago, I was told Mustangs would never be collectibles because Ford built millions of them. We’re a disposable society. But eventually, we want what we used to have—the cars we ran into the ground. We’ve used most of those old Mustangs up, and now they’re gone. So the survivors are highly prized.
Once, when I was visiting England, one of my relatives said, “You like motorcycles—you should talk to our vicar. He has one.” So I met the vicar, who owned a ’66 Honda 160. I asked how long he’d had it. He looked at me kind of quizzically and said, “I bought it new.” He’d had that bike his whole life, and he’d maintained it. To him it wasn’t a collectible. Many of us would say, “Oh, I had one of those, and my father threw it away,” or “We gave it to a neighbor,” or “We rode it to death,” or “We finally broke it and got something else.” In other countries, because motor vehicles aren’t seen so much as appliances, they’re treated with great respect. This vicar had been riding that Honda 160 for 40 years! It was his only transportation. And it was a survivor.
That’s the difference. We want what we used to have. We get rid of it, and then we pay 10 to 15 times over what it was worth originally just to get it back—often to recapture whatever lost youth we thought we had.
That’s why I think the Mazda Miata will be the ultimate affordable collectible by, say, 2025. The first-generation Miata was extremely simple, and that’s part of its charm. Years ago, when we were restoring Mustangs, they seemed so complicated compared to a Ford Model A.
A brake-light switch? Why do we have to have thaaaat? In a Model A, you just strung together a couple of yards of wire and boom! You were done. So the early Miata, with no traction control, no stability control—no nothing—will certainly be a collectible.
I think the first-generation Taurus, the forward-looking aerodynamic sedan, will be collectible too. That was seen as a real styling triumph in the mid-1980s. Almost anything built before today’s government safety regulations could be collectible. In the future, cars lacking these systems will appear so odd to people.
Obviously, Corvettes and Ford GTs will always be desirable, because they were collectibles from the day they came out. Back in the ’60s, who would have dreamed that a Corvette would have 638 hp and get 20 mpg? That was unheard of!
It’s harder to predict the ones you don’t necessarily remember off the top of your head—like the first-generation Honda Insight. Only about 18,000 were sold worldwide. But look at them now and you think, wow, it’s a two-seater, it gets up to 70 mpg, it’s got an interesting shape and it’s very aerodynamic. Any car that was ahead of its time, or any car that had an interesting flaw—that’s what collectors want.
Just as the much-maligned Ford Edsel of the late 1950s is collectible today, so too will be the Pontiac Aztek in the future. No kidding—Azteks will be really collectible if there are any of them left. The Aztek is so odd-looking and weird that people want to collect them, like the popular “nerd cars”—AMC Gremlins and Pacers and Ford Pintos. Remember those VW vans with all the windows, or even mid-1980s Chrysler K-cars with the fake wood? It looked fake then. It still looks fake. But today people want ’em. These models have personalities. They’re not jellybean cars.
Another one to watch will be the most recent version of the Cadillac CTS-V with a six-speed standard. In the future, the manual gearbox will almost become a curiosity. People who know how to shift one properly will be seen as skilled individuals who can really drive an old car. In 2025 they’ll say, “You can drive a 2009 556-hp Cadillac stick?” By then, everything will be some version of a double-clutch, automatic-synchro, paddle-shifter … The fact that you might have one of those anachronisms, a Cadillac with a stick—that’ll seem unbelievable.
Despite all the abject scorn and hatred for the Hummer, it has to go on the collectible list. Hummers are languishing on used-car lots. The brand has become the poster boy for bad environmental behavior. But when we’re all driving hydrogen cars, someone will say, “Look at that thing. What the hell is that?” The Hummer will be the ’59 Cadillac of 2025. The Hummer went from being very desirable to just being hated. And I think the pendulum will eventually swing back the other way.
You know those Cadillac Escalades, with the big dub wheels and other flashy trim? When today’s young men are in their 50s and 60s, they’ll say, “I wanna drive one of those again and cruise around like we used to.” So, those ’Slades will be collectibles.
On the other hand, buying a modern Ferrari as a collector car is not a good idea. If you buy a ’50s to ’70s Ferrari, you could do the work yourself. But from the mid-1990s on, no one can do the work on it except Ferrari. For almost any other car, an onboard-diagnostic machine is $600 to $1000. For Ferrari, it’s something like $22,500. That’s what it costs. Just the handheld! So someone who does his own maintenance is simply not capable of repairing a late-model Ferrari—any profit you think you’ll make just isn’t going to happen.
One last collectible? It’s any car your girlfriend thinks is cute. A ’79 Ford Fiesta? “Oooh, look at that little thing!” It’s seen as a cute, desirable city car. The new Smart cars will always be collectible. Minis too. Things don’t change. If a woman was cute 20 years ago, she’s cute today. The same is true for cars.