Antique Vehicle Interest & Pricing

Published by: David Sneed, Wheels That Won The West® Archives, LLC
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Antique Vehicle Interest & Pricing
Not long ago, I was reminiscing with my parents about my growing-up years.  It was certainly a unique time in the history of our nation.  During those days, my mom and dad owned a small gas station/grocery store – kinda like Ike Godsey’s country store on The Walton’s television series – only smaller.

That store was a connection to people, events, and social interactions that were part of the close, friendly feel of the community.  It was a place where people were down-to-earth and kids could be kids.  As such, it holds a number of memories for me.  I remember when gas was 27 cents per gallon, water and compressed air were free for the asking, soda was a dime and came in a 10-ounce glass bottle (3 cents of which was refunded upon return of the bottle), someone always pumped your gas while you waited and, many times, checked your vehicle’s oil – just as a courtesy.  ‘Those were the days’ as the old song says.  Of course, back then, we didn’t have many of the modern conveniences that we do today.  Reinforcing that point, my sister and I were the forerunners of a TV remote control for our family.  We had a total of three free channels (sometimes four if the local PBS signal was clear enough).  It all came in through a metal antenna to our black and white, small-screen TV.  Cell phones and personal computers were non-existent, cars often had no seat belts, and phone lines were shared resources referred to as a ‘party line.’  Somehow, we survived and each of us, at one time or another, has probably wished for elements of the good old days to be back again.

This old country store holds a lot of fond memories from my childhood. 
What does all of this have to do with this week’s blog?  Bear with me for one more story.  About a month or so ago, I was talking with a fella who related an account about a wagon he saw back in the 1970’s.  It seems the old wooden warrior had been found in a barn, completely covered by hay.  It had sat that way for decades; dry, undisturbed, and forgotten until the property sold and new owners took over.  The wagon was taken to an auction and that’s where this gentleman had seen it.  As you can imagine, it attracted a lot of attention.  Even in those days, the condition of the piece was a novelty for most to see.  Seems the wagon was a high wheel John Deere – new old stock – still having the shipping tags attached to the wagon and seat.  So extensive was the original paint that the man remembered it still looked brand new.  As the slew of onlookers watched the sale, the auctioneer worked hard to get the highest price for the showpiece.  When the bidding ceased, $700 had bought the wagon.  It’s not the first time I’ve heard a story like this but, it’s one of the few times I’ve had someone say they witnessed the event.  It’s been the better part of a half century since that vehicle sold and most early vehicle collectors would love to find something like that (especially for the same price) today.  Like another song, this one by the duo, Montgomery Gentry, those days are ‘Gone.’
The purpose for this intro is to say that, while we can wish for things from days gone by, generally speaking those moments have happened and aren’t coming back.  This past week a friend of mine was bemoaning the rocketing prices of good antique wagons.  He told me that they’ve gotten too high for the average person to afford.  He’s right that some have reached record heights but, isn’t that what the best investments are supposed to do?  Even with that point agreed upon, I believe we often miss opportunities to add great vehicles to a collection because we’re fixated on a very narrow group of survivors.  I’ve shared parts of this narrative before but I thought I’d go over some other elements this week.  My hope is that I can help others see that there are still plenty of quality, affordable wagons and western vehicles out there – whether you’re looking for something for a collection, competition, or some other want/need.
First things first and make no mistake – when it comes to art and antiques, the best of the best tends to consistently climb in financial value.  In fact, every early vehicle owner likely wants these resale values to grow because, ultimately, those higher prices of the elite pieces also pull along the prices of others.  I’ve yet to meet a person that actually preferred to buy things that would lose money.  Without realizing what he was saying, my friend was really just stating the obvious.  That point being that, these days, even the most casual enthusiasts can often look at a wagon and pick the better ones – thereby helping drive them to the higher price tags.  Additionally, the very best ones are often already in a collection or are spoken for.  In other words, a great deal of the low-hanging fruit has been picked. So, when a piece in extraordinary condition does come along, it will likely draw a fair amount of interest. 

With or without paint, this original Winona Sheep Bed wagon would be a great find and rare addition to any collection today.
Whether a person finds a great piece at a bargain basement price or a higher cost, have you ever thought about what happens to money invested wisely in one of these rolling works of art?  Consider this... What you pay for one of these vehicles is not really what it costs you.  That’s right.  Because, what you pay is eventually offset by what you get back when you sell the vehicle.  So, let’s say you spend $4,000 for an old set of wheels, keep it for a number of years and then sell it for X amount, you’ve either made some money, broke even, or possibly not gotten all of your money back.  In every case, though, the vehicle is virtually assured to have cost you less than what was initially paid – not to mention the enjoyment you reaped during those years of ownership. 

In the past several years, I’ve added a number of very special pieces to our collection and spent far less than others competing for the few-and-far-between, premium specimens (which are almost assuredly twentieth century pieces).  As collectors, we have to get past the point where we only see one element of the vehicle.  The most obvious thing that most people notice is the ‘condition’ of the piece.  Understandably, everyone wants the highest quality and so do I.  As I’ve already mentioned, though, the pieces that are clearly extraordinary are the most likely to attract the most attention of others.  The good news is that to successfully compete against those with deeper pockets, sometimes all you need to do is look around you.  What do I mean by that?

Okay, I’ll quit beating around the bush and ask you, ‘What are the features you look for in an old vehicle?’  From my perspective, there are a number of important elements to review; many of which I’ve covered in our Borrowed Time book and I’ve also shared in several blogs.  You can put most of that criteria, though, in the acronym – CUP.  For me, C-U-P stands for Condition, Uniqueness, and Provenance.  When all three of these are optimized, you’re likely to have a truly impressive survivor.  That said, I have some extremely unique pieces that are not in mint condition.  Like most one hundred to one hundred fifty year old artifacts, they have some age spots.  Yet, they still carry significant value.  How?  Well, they may have a great historical background, time frame of manufacture, unique construction features, be one of a select few from a well-known maker, or some other rare aspect of historical provenance.  The most important thing I’m getting to here is the need to train ourselves to recognize opportunity when it comes along.

This Texas town scene shows a number of wagon brands including Peter Schuttler, Racine, Fort Smith, and Springfield.  It’s part of a vast story highlighting fierce competition among wagon makers.
As enthusiasts, if we want to continually enhance our collections, it’s important to push ourselves to grow beyond the obvious choices run after by so many others.  Admittedly, part of the reason for this is selfishness – so we can find special pieces and improve our own investments.  However, part of the reason is completely unselfish and I’ve also shared details on this thought in previous posts.  When we get to the point that we truly understand identity and the impact of the personal history these pieces carry (Provenance), then we can start connecting with these old wheels in a way that everyone will appreciate more. 
Several years ago, I co-judged a Sheep Camp wagon competition in Douglas, Wyoming.  One of the most impressive things the organizer did was encourage the entrants to include the personal histories of a piece whenever possible.  It was an intriguing insight into the personalities of the vehicles and, as such, was highly lauded by the public (and the judges).  I’m convinced that the end result of looking deeper into these wagons is that more amazing history will be uncovered and fewer of the feared-lost pieces will be passed over as insignificant.  In other words, sometimes the easiest way to find a better deal is to get more curious about these vehicles and work to discover what sets each one apart.  That process and the history it unfolds continues to pleasantly surprise visitors viewing our collection.  Ultimately, it brings a world of history, intrigue, and uniqueness into the vehicles we've gathered. 

These days, most of us have more access to information about these old transports than ever before.  Unfortunately, though, we tend to get distracted by just one feature in collecting – the Condition (good or bad).  In other words, we don’t really see the individual tree because we’re looking too broadly at the whole forest.  If I could give just one piece of advice to new or long-time collectors/enthusiasts, it would be to quit wishing for the prices of yesterday and start looking for the treasures that are going unnoticed today.  They are out there and I’ve been extremely fortunate to come across my share again and again.  Over the years, I’ve had countless calls and emails asking for insights and recommendations about a particular antique vehicle.  By passing along my own observations, it’s been a blessing to help so many improve their collections while also preserving the maximum amount of history for future generations.

I have a great deal more that I can share on this topic but will wait for a later date to dive into the details.  In the meantime, I’d encourage any that don’t have a methodical evaluation process to consider broadening the search.  Acronyms like C-U-P can be a good reminder to be even more diligent when reviewing a set of wheels – no matter the Condition.  

Please Note:  As with each of our blog writings, all imagery and text is copyrighted with All Rights Reserved.  The material may not be broadcast, published, rewritten, or redistributed without prior written permission from David E. Sneed, Wheels That Won The West® Archives, LLC
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