Gearhead Diary: The art of the losing deal

PHOTO BY MATT BARTMANN My first Jaguar. All that remains is the memory and these two pictures that made me want to buy the thing.

Matt Bartmann

A number of years ago—well, I guess it was about 30 years ago—I picked up a real prize. A Chevrolet Vega hatchback coupe, a 1971 example, if I recall correctly. It seemed like a good investment. It was an early Vega with the growly grill and chrome bumpers. How could I got wrong?

I bought that car for the grand sum of $80. It was a base model with a 4-cylinder engine and an automatic transmission, and it burned about a quart of oil every 40 miles. I figured it would be a good idea to put a V-8 under the hood, have some fun with it, and maybe make a few dollars by selling it for a couple grand (or best reasonable offer).

I drove the thing to work and back for about a week. Put a total of maybe 40 miles on it. Oil was only a buck a quart in 1987. No biggie.

At the end of that week, I sold that car. For 80 bucks. And I felt lucky to have done so.

Not long after, I bought my first Jaguar. A ’59 sedan with no running gear. I figured I’d put a V-8 under the hood, have some fun, and sell it off for a little folding money. I moved before I even started on the project. Couldn’t even rope-tow that Jaguar to the new home. Ended up trading it for a paint job on some other car—a paint job I never did take advantage of.

Fine. I’m, um, kind of losing money here. A quart of oil here, a paint job there…. No biggie.

I’ve since owned a couple other old Jags. One friend referred to them as “a financial whirlpool,” which seems about right. And as far as other old cars I’ve owned (of which there have been more than a hundred), the most I’ve made in buying/fixing/selling has been a couple hundred bucks.

The most I’ve lost? I don’t want to know. But I can say my automotive hobby has not been profitable. It’s fun, but it’s been expensive.

I do keep my eyes on the classic car market and I have since the ’80s, even though the ones I choose to keep aren’t worth much. Barely more than the going rate on scrap metal. And for the most part, I don’t have regrets for selling things off way too cheap. I’m fine with that. It’s not about money.


Plenty of memories in these old cars. Lots of miles. All, sold for less than the purchase price.

I’m sure that, to the right person, that old Chevy Vega would easily be worth $100 now. The extra $20 would be nice, but if I figure storage costs, well…

The other day, I woke up to an email from a vintage car organization that reported a new record: A 1963 Ferrari GTO had sold for about $70 million dollars in a private sale, shattering the previous auction record of $38 million for a 1962 Ferrari GTO.

Yep. Not at all bummed about having sold my Vega for the price I did back then. Nor am I bummed about having given my first Jaguar away for free. Had I sold a ‘63 Ferrari GTO back then, for maybe the couple million bucks that it was worth at the time, I might be a little bit bummed out.

Then again, probably not. I’d be fine with that, too.

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