Techno-Classica Essen: The world's biggest classic car experience ... plus a disruptive new technology
The raw numbers touted in the Techno-Classica press releases told the story all along, but like one's first visit to the Consumer Electronic Show (CES) in Las Vegas, you really don't understand the sheer magnitude of an industry until you go to its global "Mecca" and walk the show floor.
Techno-Classica Essen (Germany) is the largest event in the world dedicated to classic automobiles and like my first visit to CES in the 1980s, the show's gargantuan size was beyond my imagination had provided for and it turned out to be a totally different experience than I'd expected.
The breadth and depth of expertise across countless automotive fields on display in Essen augurs well for an industry that has sprung from nowhere in the last three decades and while its ultimate destiny is still unfolding, when viewed through the prism of this event, the future for the classic car industry appears bright. I guess that's why people use the word "experience" to describe very special events. This event is an experience in automotive passion, the sort of experience which makes you realize there's a global community that has formed around the altar of the automobile.
As I walked the 22 halls and passed 1250 exhibitors, I became aware of just how big that community has become.
Common wisdom has it that around two thirds of the global collector car market is conducted through private sales, prestige dealers and brokers, with the most visible and valuable third sold at auction. While walking the halls of Techno-Classica I made a mental note to try to put some solid numbers around that estimate because there's clearly a lot more activity outside the auction arena than in it. The press office for the event estimates around 2700 classic cars were for sale within the show this year, with previous years reporting a sell rate of slightly better than 40 percent. That means around 1100 classic cars were probably sold from the stands this year, maybe more considering the final attendance came in at a new record.
I'd estimate that the percentage of classic cars sold at auction to less than 10 percent. Choose any country, look at the number of cars registered from each decade of manufacture, the number that change hands each year, and the number of auction sales reported and you'll never see more than a single digit percentage for auctions. Ah, you say, but at the top end of the market, auctions rule. Yes, they do constitute the majority of elite cars sold to a degree, but if there are 39 Ferrari 250 GTOs in existence, why have we only ever seen one at auction?
Retromobile in Paris is the world's second largest classic car event and it too is smashing attendance and display records year on year. In February this year it attracted 120,000 visitors, 500 exhibitors, 120 car clubs and filled 46,000 square feet of exhibition space with 500 classic cars on display - all of those figures were records for the event.
By comparison, Techno-Classica's attendance in 2016 was 201,034, there were 1250 exhibitors, 220 car clubs, and it covered 127,000 square meters of exhibits, with 2700 vintage cars for sale, along with a lot more on display. That's a big margin between first and second place, emphasizing just how big this show is.
It also emphasizes just how robust the dealer market is and why prices which have seen relentless growth for two decades are unlikely to deflate any time soon.
Now in it's 28th year, Techno-Classica Essen has spanned both peaks of the Classic car industry. The event was inaugurated in 1989 when the first classic car boom was at its peak.
In the mid-1980s, cheap money became available and the resultant influx of "get-rich(er)-quick" speculators created a perfect storm in the oldtimer (a frequently used colloquial German word that needs no explanation) market and gave the industry its tulip mania moment in the early 1990s when prices halved. The classic car automotive industry has been fearful of another massive marketplace correction ever since.
German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche said it best with "that which does not kill us, makes us stronger" and the subsequent decades of infrastructure development and the rise of the internet (and access to information for all) is very relevant in this instance. Techno-Classica Essen was first held in 1989, so when the supply of play money dried up and the classic car price bubble burst, the show was just getting started. It's survival and subsequent prosperity has not been fueled by the gold rush mentality of the 1980s as it is underpinned by an industry that has matured considerably since then, with the prices paid, extant numbers, and passionate subscribers to the automotive ethic providing a rock solid foundation for what has become a legitimate global industry, far more legitimate than the smoke-and-mirrors art market in my humble opinion. There is no greater proof of the solid foundations which now sustain the classic car marketplace than this event and the myriad facets of the classic car industry which it showcases.
Research shows the enthusiast market is far more stable and resilient than fickle financial markets. As the above three charts so clearly illustrate, the market soldiered straight through the Global Financial Crisis (as the above graph which compares Historic Automobile Group's Top Index and Frankfurt's Deutsche Borse DAX indicates) and on to its current state of consistent growth.
Dieter Hatlapa founded the London-based Historic Automobile Group International (HAGI), an independent investment research house which began when a group of car enthusiasts from London's financial markets decided the rare car market needed some statistical rigor, and it set out to create benchmarks which accurately tracked collectable automobile prices. HAGI publishes a monthly index for investing in rare classic motorcars, which is the gold standard for wealth tracking calculations and the data supplied in the accompanying charts is supplied by HAGI. Indeed, investing in rare cars offers a better return than just about any other form of investment, despite the high upkeep costs.
"We've discovered that classic cars move independently of any other investment area, and that's a very attractive attribute for collectors and investors alike in this day and age," Dieter told me
"Some people says the stockmarket is weak and that's one of the reasons cited for the current softness in the classic car market, but in all our data work back to 1980 we have looked for correlations with external events, and we haven't really come across any meaningful correlation that shows in times of economic downturn that this market does also. We found everything, we found phases of correlation, phases of no correlation and even phases of negative correlation.
"I am very reluctant to say that just because the stock market is down, people are not buying cars. All markets are the same in that people see a phenomena and in hindsight, people find all sorts of reasons for it, and it's just a really boring game. When I worked in the financial sector, we had all sorts of important people telling us why things had happened in the past but very few told us in advance and got it right. In most cases these reasons are just one possible explanation but not necessarily the right reason. At the moment, economic factors or big picture factors are not really an issue."
There's another big factor which doesn't seem to get much discussion and that was very evident at Retromobile. Across the acres of show space I saw more than 20 Mercedes 300 SL Gullwings and Roadsters for sale - at least a dozen on one stand, albeit the display of 300 SL specialist HK Engineering (bottom three images above). Cars such as this are regulars at auction, but not in these numbers. People don't realize that the elite dealers hold a huge stock of important cars and while it may be the auction market which drives up the high end prices, the dealer network doesn't have the same frictional losses and will act as a damper on any downward swings in the auction market.
By frictional losses, I refer to the approximate 25 percent costs involved with an auction sale - add sellers fees and buyers fees and the seller routinely loses 25-30 percent of the reported sell price. Then there's the additional costs of insurance and the cost of getting the car to the right auction, be it in London, Paris, New York or Monterey, and being prepared to double those transport costs if you don't get the price you want, because the car must then be brought home again. A handshake deal on a known product has much to commend it. A broker or dealer is likely to add a 10 percent premium to the price of a car, so if you're buying a million dollar car, that's a saving of $150,000 by comparison with the auction block.
Private sales are also a huge part of this marketplace because the networks of friendships which develop in this fraternity ("tribal group" might be an equally appropriate description) often mean that when it's time to move it on, you have a friend or two willing and able to take it off your hands. They know the car, love it as much as you do, and it sort of "stays in the family". You know it's gone to someone who will appreciate it as much as you do and you'll still get to see it and maybe drive it from time to time. The savings on a million dollar car can add up to $250,000 if you sell it to a mate by comparison to taking it to auction and a big chunk of the the market clearly knows that.
Auction prices are illustrative of what happens in the marketplace but they are only an indication. I spoke at length with Rob Johnson, the MD of Classic and Sports Finance (which underwrites many of these deals) and when the auction market "took a breather" in Scottsdale, Paris, Stuttgart and Amelia Island earlier this year, Rob reported that nothing much had changed in the dealer network in the way of volumes or prices. While the data set for a finance company is smaller than the entire auction market, the point of difference is that they see the real invoices, not just the reported sale price from the dealer. It's an insight into the marketplace which few individuals are afforded, and one I value access to.
The classic car dealer network and the auction market work synergistically, and the result is a stable marketplace and it all adds up to a recently anointed viable alternative asset class. The team at Classic and Sports Finance also believes the auction market accounts for a much smaller percentage than the oft-quoted 30 percent.
The rise and rise of Techno-Classica
This year, Techno-Classica finally filled the entire exhibition space of Messe Essen, the enormous 22 hall exhibition center which houses many of Northern Europe's largest expo events.
Germany gave birth to both the automobile and the automotive industry, and the legacy of Karl Benz, Gottlieb Daimler, Wilhelm Maybach, Nikolaus Otto, August Horch, Ferdinand Porsche, Rudolf Uhlenhaut, et al. is that it has imbued the population with a strong affinity with and commitment to craftsmanship and automotive excellence. German automotive marques have won more European Car of the Year, International Car of the Year and World Car of the Year awards than any other country. Germany's love of the automobile is more than skin deep. It goes to the very heart of the population.
Techno-Classica is the classic car industry "Mecca" event because it has been built on the devotion of the world's strongest automotive enthusiast market, giving it vast reserves of "grass roots" resilience. Statistics compiled by the Allensbach Institute for Public Opinion (Oldtimer Study 2015/2016) show that the percentage of German drivers who would like to own a classic automobile grew from 17 percent in 2013 to 27 percent in 2015. The detailed survey is regularly held and the most recent poll shows that 37 percent of German drivers below the age of 30 would like to have their own vintage car. This percentage drops ever-so-slightly with age, with 32 percent for drivers 30–44 years, 28 percent for drivers 45–59 years and 17 percent for drivers 60 years and older. It should be pointed out that until the baby boomers came along, 60 years of age was considered positively geriatric. Now one in six German sexagenarians wants a matching oldtimer car and the nature of the clothing being sold at Techno-Clasica indicates they're driving them too. Some markets, where the interest in classic cars is more akin to stamp collecting, see very few miles added to the odometer each year.
It's no secret that wealth accumulates with age, and the latter segments of monied "empty nester" drivers were predominant amongst the crowd at Techno-Classica, particularly so on the initial "happy viewing day" where you can pay twice as much to get first crack at the goodies on offer in an uncluttered environment. It's a technique other motor shows might consider too, as it sorts the buyers from the tire-kickers better than any other methodology I have witnessed and reduces the clutter so media professionals can get the job done.
From the behavior and dress of this first day clientele, it was quite clear they were not the traditional car show audience either. Never before at a European car show has my camera been shown so much courtesy. In a major thoroughfare at one stage, I looked up from the viewfinder to find I'd stopped the foot traffic entirely. I was attempting to photographically capture the blurred motion of the crowd past the stands, but the crowd stopped whenever I aimed my camera as they were politely waiting for me to finish my photograph. This is the polar opposite of my experience over countless visits to motor shows the world over, and Germany's primary automotive industry event, the Frankfurt Motor Show, in particular. At Frankfurt, I feel like paparazzi, shouldering a rugby pack aside to get each shot. In Essen, I felt like I was waving a magic wand, such was the courtesy and respect of the crowd.
The 200,000 strong army of patrons at Techno-Classica is a very different crowd to the masses that attend a normal motor show and walk heedlessly, sometimes knowingly, in front of the camera, even on the press day. The camaraderie, gentlemanly demeanor and respect for fellow patrons is more akin to the experience of a motorcycle get-together than a mainstream car show, and the quality of the exhibits at Techno-Classica leave little doubt as to the financial wherewithal of the audience. They may not wear salmon trousers and speak with a faux British accent, but manufacturers selling €20,000 coffee tables (like the one above) and desks and bars made from aircraft wings, expensive period clothing and elite period automobilia do not come back year on year if it's not a viable exercise. I finished "happy viewing day" with a wide grin and a feeling of zen I have never experienced photographing a car show before.
This is a parts-and knowledge-sourcing event for a large and growing global enthusiast market. On the first afternoon of the show I witnessed a gentleman in couturier clothing crawling under the front end of an obscure classic car with a Leica pocket camera. I observed him for some time, wondering if he was an artist of some sort. It turned out he was capturing the exact detail he needed to recreate in his own restoration project from a car that had already been impeccably restored. As the show wore on, I saw similar curious sites many times. That is, people who looked like the Chairman of the Board, doing somewhat undignified things, in the name of their automotive passion.
As any market researcher will tell you, what people say they do/think and what they actually do/think are not necessarily the same thing. Germany is in complete congruence when it comes to matters automotive.
There are more than 250 automotive museums in Germany - more than any other country in the world. It has more than 7000 drive-in camping grounds – waaay more than any country with just 80 million people should have. It gave the world its first high speed road network, the world's best known driver's circuit (the lap time for the Nurburgring (AKA "the Green Hell") is to this day the recognized yardstick of a car's all-round performance) and it has more enthusiast car clubs than any country regardless of size. There are more than 1,000 clubs, associations and "communities of interest" dedicated just to classic and vintage cars in Germany.
Any marque-specialist club in Germany is invariably much bigger than the corresponding club in the native country of the respective brand. More than 220 classic clubs turned up this year to display their enthusiasm and enroll new members and the levels of enthusiasm was contagious - car clubs are part of the social fabric of German society and it only takes a quick glance at these images to see the camaraderie and passion involved.
The clubs contest the "Techno-Classica Club Grand Prix" for the best booth presentation and competition was fierce with the winning stand taken out by the Fiat 500 club, which created a model kit car theme for the stand. Just how many hours were involved in choreographing this ambitious schema is almost beyond imagination. Finally, the Techno-Classica gathering of German classic car clubs is the largest automotive club gathering of any form in the world. QED!
While on the kit car theme, the rebranded Jaguar Classic took a similar approach with a serious budget and the result was equally as enthralling. Series I and II E-Type Jaguars in particular were fraught with quality control issues in their day. It is very likely that restored E-Types from Jaguar Classic are a cut above anything produced by the factory in period. A sign on the wall read thus: "To create a true rendition worthy of the E-Type's legacy, Jaguar laser-scanned every panel from an original series-1 – ensuring perfect alignment."
Germany adores its automobiles, motorcycles, indeed anything with an internal-combustion-engine pulse. The show's official subtitle ("World Show for Vintage, Classic & Prestige Automobiles, Motor Sport, Motorcycles, Spare Parts and Restoration and World Club Meeting") is not the fanciful musing of a copywriter, but an accurate reflection of what happens at Messe Essen every April. If you're looking for anything for a classic car of almost any description, you'll find it here if it exists.
Anything? Yes, pretty close to anything if it is related to automotive pursuit. One of the dilemmas faced by someone who has restored an oldtimer is procuring a period-appropriate entertainment device for the dashboard. Slotting the latest digital sound system into a 1950s classic is decidedly gauche, so as more post-war cars are returned to new condition, there's now a thriving business sourcing, restoring and selling appropriate second hand period car radios and sound systems. One car radio dealer I spoke with had sold his entire stock by the second morning of the show - another reason to pay the extra freight for "happy viewing day".
Anyone who has ever undertaken a restoration project will agree it is akin to raising a child, with similar unforeseen pitfalls and the need for an all-consuming unrelenting dedication, only a restoration is crammed into a much shorter time frame. The biggest difference is that in restoring a car, perfection of methodology is within reach and part of the fun is getting it as close as possible by hunting down the correct key and fob, switch, knob, door handle, badge, carpet and seat material, tool kit, fuel line, rubber trim, hose coupling, ad infinitum, or replacing items that have perished to the point of detracting from your masterpiece with substitutes of exactly the right patina. The above is just a selection of the pics in the image library for this article - I can't think of anything that isn't available for the restorer at Techno-Classica, and if you can't find it, you'll find someone who will find it for you given a bit of time.