Hey mister! What’s it worth?

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Collector Gary McNeill wears his heart on his sleeve and a spreadsheet on his tablet.

It’s a bit surprising that Dunedin collector Gary McNeill has decided to sell this Plymouth Road Runner Superbird — surely one of the best in the world — because as soon as he sold his last one, he realised he still wanted one. 

Not long after his previous car drove away Gary put the word out in the global Superbird fan club and a trusted friend in Oklahoma found this one. It had been restored 20 years previously by the celebrated Julius Steuer and as that restoration had stood the test of time Gary bit the bullet and had it shipped home.

After three years with this car, and eight years with his previous Superbird, Gary has now  decided to move it on. While he has a few other cars, Gary works for a living and he’s not in a position to buy and not sell. If he wants another car, he’s got to sell something to free up the funds.

 

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“I’m a bucket list kind of guy. The Superbird was a dream car and I’ve had other cars in that category, a Boss 429 Mustang, but there’s another dream car — in fact every kid my age’s dream car — a Lamborghini Countach…” Fair enough.

Gary describes himself as ‘the other kind’ of car collector, the one with a spreadsheet as well as a passion for cars. “I follow prices religiously.”

Which makes him a good man to talk to for anyone who wants to get into classics but doesn’t want to be taken for a ride. His top tip is to buy an American muscle car. And, as with other classics, the real value is in matching numbers and provenance.

“Non-matching numbers on an investment grade muscle car can reduce the value by 50%, highly desired colours can increase it by 30%, and a 4-speed can increase it by 20%.

“Provenance is also extremely important. Buyers want evidence of authenticity such as ownership history bills of sales, original invoices, build sheets, old photos — anything related to the car’s history.” 

He reckons muscle car prices rise about 10 per cent a year, and there’s no sign of that stopping. They will fluctuate over the months and years but investment cars tend to follow the trends in the housing market, he says. A lot of them are being bought in America to go to Scandinavia, as well as to Australia and New Zealand.

Scandinavians grew up with tiny, frugal cars and, now that the buying generation can afford it, the outrageousness of big block V8s in unsophisticated and under-braked mobile tennis courts seems to delight their sense of the absurd. 

Compare this with the cars’ native land. Most Americans, who reeled away from gas-guzzlers in the ’70s oil shocks, still think of them as just old-fashioned. They now find pick-ups, while barely more frugal, more ‘practical’, and those who don’t need a macho street presence are still discovering genuinely efficient smaller cars.

“My friends in the States don’t understand it but I tell them they just don’t value what they have there.”

Another key point driving the value of muscle cars is that the era lasted only six years. That creates a strong demand-versus-supply dynamic. The rarer cars of that period are appreciating the most. Ford made only 1359 Boss 429 Mustangs. Owning one of them led to Gary’s interest in the Superbirds. While Plymouth had to build 1920 Road Runner Superbirds — one for every two dealerships nationwide — to qualify for racing, very few were fitted with the 440 cubic inch engine, the six pack-carburettor and the four-speed manual. Only the model with 426ci Hemi V8 used in the race cars is rarer. Most were built with unsporting bench seats and three on the tree gearchanges, just to shift them. 

It was a unique period in race car history. Plymouth pulled out all the stops  — which included development of the Superbird’s outrageous wings and long noses in a wind tunnel — to win back star driver Richard Petty, who had raced Fords the previous season. It worked. He came back and added its cheeky Road Runner moniker. But after competing for just one season in 1970, in which the star driver’s team won 18 races and took 31 top-10 finishes, these and other competing 7-litre aerocar monsters were outlawed.

 

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Plymouth replaced them with the new, more familiar 5-litre Barracuda-based car in 1971 which also scored instant success on the track. These two Plymouth homologation specials  marked the transition from ‘stock’ cars to the full-on racing-only cars that replaced them, but as aerocars were banned, the Superbird’s significance was almost instantly erased.

“In the ’80s they were worth nothing,”

says Gary. Prices started to move in the ’90s and took off in the 2000s. Their sheer outlandishness is now their greatest calling card. 

Gary says appearances on film and television are also a massive driver of car fashion and that’s something of a lottery. He was already a Superbird owner when the 2006 cartoon movie ‘Cars’, in which Petty also voiced one of the characters, catapulted the spectacular Superbird out of historical obscurity.

Gary admits to getting a lot of pleasure from the jaw-dropping impact of punting probably New Zealand’s longest car (more than six metres), with the most outrageous wing, around the streets of Dunedin. He recalled driving past a couple of students and one yelled: “F---, that’s ugly!” Fair enough, thought Gary. He rumbled past another pair and wondered if their reaction would be the same. “They dropped to their knees in praise!”

It’s clear that it’s the individual car that matters, not the brand. Petty’s 1971 Barracuda-based Road Runner — a Daytona winner and the last production-based car to win the national championship — sold at auction in America in August for US$412,500. Meanwhile his Superbird from just the previous year was passed in... at US$3.5 million.

That makes offers above NZ$400,000 for Gary’s car seem pretty reasonable.

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