Who’d be a car dealer now? With new sales 20 per cent down and dropping, manufacturers moving to four-day weeks, dealerships closing and the used-car market awash with unsold vehicles, they must feel like turkeys being sized up for Christmas. And that’s before anyone has felt next year’s swingeing road-tax increases on post-2001 mid-sized vehicles and upwards.
Mark-ups are surprisingly thin — even in the good times there were few real goldmines among main dealerships. A friend who owns a chain calculated that he’d make more and have a far easier life if he sold all his sites for building and invested the money. But that was last year. Who’d buy them now and where would he put the money? Anyway, he likes his cars, his company, his people — they’re what he does. He has to stick it out and somehow keep smiling, which takes courage. Survival is success.
It’s not all gloom. Workshops are doing better than their sales colleagues because cars still break down and need MOTs and servicing. Even though owners are currently inclined to extend service intervals, those with cars under warranty tend to stick to them and some who would have traded in for a new one just hang on to the old one and have it serviced. Also, there are pockets of economic resistance. For all the City carnage, there are many with cash because they’ve taken it out of stocks and shares and are pouring some of it into the top end of the classic car market — Coys had a very successful sale just days after the Lehman collapse.
Among the top-end golden oldies, beauty, rarity and pedigree ownership mean that some prices move only upwards, because otherwise owners don’t sell. Your Ferrari 250 GTO, your Bentley R-Type Continental, your Bugatti Type 57S, your D-Type Jaguar resemble works of art in that they are bought more for their aesthetic and historic qualities than for their genuine but dated motoring virtues. Still, there are opportunities: had I a bulging wallet I’d contact H&H Auctions in Somerset who this month failed to sell a 1937 Frazer Nash BMW 328, an open-top two-seater, star of rallies and race tracks and classically beautiful. Only 464 were built and this was one of only 48 right-hand drives; the estimate was £350,000 –£400,000 and it didn’t sell. Could be worth an offer.
Lower down the market I was in conversation with a restored pine-green P4 Rover 110, which should be worth the £5,750 the owner wants but he’s unlikely to get it now. This sort of thing is bought by people who during the good times can stretch to something a bit different as a second set of wheels, but struggle in the bad. Yet Mr P4 still has more chance of a sale than the owners of the shoals of modern Porsches, Ferraris, Aston Martins and baby Bentleys now filling the market.
In fact, you can argue that the best car designs don’t simply resemble works of art, but are. The case is made elegantly and persuasively in a new book by Stephen Bayley, design guru and founder of the Design Museum. Cars — Freedom Style Sex Power Motion Colour Everything is published by Conran Octopus Ltd (01903 828503) and costs £75, which is what I paid for my first Volvo Amazon 120, one of the icons featured. Bayley quotes Roland Barthes: ‘I think that cars today  are almost the exact equivalent of the great Gothic cathedrals: I mean the supreme creation of an era, conceived with passion by unknown artists, and consumed in an image by a whole population…’
Over 80 cars are chosen not for their rarity, investment potential or performance but for the art that went into them. These are the designs that ‘changed the conventional wisdom, lifted the game, raised the bar’. Such accounts usually feature exotic coachbuilt one-offs whose artisans ‘sculpted metal into liquid’ but Bayley finds art in the (sometimes not very) mass-produced, ranging from the Model T Ford through the Chrysler Airflow, Citroën Traction Avant, Ford Cortina, Saab 99, Fiat 500, AC Ace, Ford Cortina and Toyota Corolla to the 2003 BMW 5. He’s an informed critic and his comments, along with Tif Hunter’s appealing black and white photographs, help you to see. I was pleased that he emphasises the essential good manners of the early Range Rover design, the car that ‘made utility chic’ (and another with which I am in conversation).
So if the credit squeeze is throttling your wallet this Christmas and you can’t have the classic of your dreams, this book will help you dream on. That’s what it’s all about, really.