In the 1950s, the Australian Broadcasting Corporation radio show “incognito mode” which featured two musical performances, one by an Australian artist and one by a foreign artist.
At the end of the show, the audience is invited to guess the Australian actor. Oftentimes, they guess wrong. The show inadvertently exposed a national inferiority complex that Melbourne writer A.J. a. Phillips name “cultural decay.”
American car collectors may find the situation familiar – they seem to value elegant classic cars made abroad much more than their domestic counterparts.
It is well documented that the design, craftsmanship, and engineering of American cars suffered after the 1960s, but before that many American cars were elegant and well-designed, especially those from the immediate antebellum era.
American automaker Duesenberg pioneered the use of advances such as hydraulic brakes, and the bodywork that adorned pre-war Duesenbergs, Auburns, Cadillacs, Packards, and more was as elegant as anything else in Europe.
In the mid-1930s, Duesenberg’s sister company, Cord, produced the revolutionary 812, featuring front-wheel drive, futuristic styling, and an optional supercharger. However, it is rare for any of these cars to sell for as much as their European counterparts do, whether in the United States or elsewhere.
According to Hagerty, the classic car insurance company and auto entertainment brand, affiliated with Top 30 Most Valuable Cars Sold at auction, only one car on the list, a 1935 Duesenberg SSJ, Change America. Sold for $22 million in 2018.
This disparity is intriguing. Americans, unlike Europeans, often ignore the classics built by their great-grandfathers and great-grandfathers.
At an auction in Florida in March, A.J 1931 Duesenberg sold for $4,295,000. However, that was less than half of what the collector paid at a California auction for 1937 Mercedes-Benz in August 2022. Both cars are extremely rare—each numbered in the 1940s—and would have legitimately been described as among the best in the world when they were new, said Mark Hyman, a self-described “car nut” based near St. Louis, who trades and collects the cars. A classic for more than three decades.
He said “Cars like the Duesenberg have a cult following among those who simply must have the best of the best, but they are seen more like a museum piece than a driver’s car.”
“Older European cars offer a more sophisticated driving experience and are therefore used more regularly by their owners,” said Mr. Heymann, who also noted that there are many opportunities for owners of 1930s Bentleys and Alfa Romeos to participate in organized rides and rallies that push the cars with great power, But there are fewer opportunities for high-end American classics.
“Ease of use is a driver of value, and older European cars tend to be sportier, they handle and brake like modern cars, and people will pay more for that,” he said.
One exception is the Cord 810/812.
“When they’re arranged right, they’re fast, and they handle very well, but the number of people who understand and support these cars is a fraction of what you’d see in the old Bentley world, and that in turn negatively impacts usability and value,” said Mr Hyman.
While the 1937 Cord’s 812 looks more like a spaceship than a traditional 1930 Bentley straight-4, it actually makes about the same horsepower. RM Sotheby’s recently auctioned off, and the results weren’t even close — $698,000 For a British-made Bentley vs $184,800 For rope built in Indiana.
An inferiority complex is not limited to the great antebellum classics. Mr. Hyman noted that the second-generation Corvette, with the 1963-1967 model years, known to collectors as the C2, is often seen as a high water mark, not only for the Corvette, but for mid-century car design in general.
designers Peter Brook, Bill Mitchell, and Larry Shinoda It all had a hand in the car’s elegant looks and details. It was a contemporary and competitor to the British-built Jaguar E-Type, which had similar size, performance and overall aesthetics.
“The Jaguar is more moody, exaggerated in geometry and has more bits, many of which are crisp,” said Mr. Hyman. But complexity can be attractive. It definitely offers a different experience, not unlike that of a complicated mechanical watch. A quartz watch may be more solid and tell the time better, but for people who balance sophistication with elegance, it explains why Jaguars are often sold at twice the price of a Corvette.”
Recent auction results support this. This year, Gooding & Company sold a 1963 Corvette Convertible for $52,640 and a 1964 Jaguar E-Type Roadster for a dollar92,400 – Cars that were in similar condition.
For Ramsey Potts, vice president of sales for Broad Arrow Group, the difference in values between American and foreign collector cars comes down to motorsports.
“I grew up outside of Pittsburgh with an uncle who owned Buick, Pontiac, AMC, and Jeep dealerships, and while local cars filled our family garage, I was taken by the magic and sophistication of sports cars and Formula 1 racing,” he said, “And I couldn’t find any local manufacturers in The sharp end to the racing results I’ve been after. I think that’s the case for a lot of collectors, and it shows in the relative values these cars have today.”
John Wiley, director of valuation analytics at Hagerty, believes that the inferiority complex dates back to the inception of the automobile industry around the turn of the 20th century, noting that American automobiles seem to have been defined early on by Henry Ford’s obsession with creating transportation for everyone, while the automobile industry maintained European cars focus on small sizes and cater to the wealthy for a longer period of time. Mr. Willey said he thought it was only natural that cars designed for the wealthy would be more sought after by collectors.
Bradley Brownell, Director Crawford Automotive Aviation Museum In Cleveland, he said he believes the fading American cars made in the 1970s and 1980s for prestigious brands like Cadillac and Lincoln tarnished the collectibility of vintage classics.
While it may be true that Ford’s mass-production methods defined the American automobile industry, Mr. Brownell also points out that some truly special American classics were created during that period—they were simply overshadowed by the notion that all American cars were mass-produced.
“Before the Great Depression, arguably the world’s finest hand-built automobiles were made in America by Packard, Pierce Arrow and Peerless, but only two of those three companies survived the depression, and the third, Packard, disappeared for nearly 70 years,” said Mr. Brownell. “For this reason, there is a problem with name recognition among American assembly cars compared to Mercedes-Benz, Bentley, and Alfa Romeo, all of which still exist.”