The Sleepers Among Collector Cars

These special interest vehicles are best bets to gain in value

If you tuned into this space last time you read about my long-ago encounter with a 1939 LaSalle opera coupe, which served as a preface to an article that described five vehicles that you can buy for reasonable prices today, but that should gain in value as the years progress. It was my first foray into the old car hobby 30 years ago that brought me into contact with the publication that is the bible of the hobby, Hemmings Motor News, and I have held a healthy respect for the publication and its affiliates ever since. That is why I am pleased to help it publicize its 13th annual top 10 picks of what it calls "sleeper cars." In other words, these are currently overlooked collector cars that should gain in interest and value over the next few years. The list will appear in the November issue of Special Interest Autos, the bi-monthly collector-car magazine owned by Hemmings. The 10 vehicles were chosen by SIA editor Richard Lentinello for their potential future appreciation in the collector marketplace, which is becoming increasingly dominated by mature Baby Boomers looking for the performance cars of their youth.

Lentinello followed two basic criteria when he selected these soon-to-be-hot "sleepers." First, each car must be available in today's market for less than $10,000. Second, except for truly exceptional cars, the model must have been produced for at least two or three years to broaden the average collector's chance of finding a good example. Lentinello's analysis of price and collecting trends in the hobby has produced the following list, presented below not necessarily in order of desirability but rather in alphabetical order.

Jensen-Healey, 1972-75

The Jensen-Healey is one of the most forgotten British sports cars ever built. Produced for only four years, it sports a fairly conservatively styled two-passenger steel body with a semi-exotic powertrain in the form of a Lotus-built engine. This 1,973cc four-cylinder is a jewel that features an aluminum cylinder head with twin overhead camshafts, 16 valves and dual carburetors that help it develop 140 horsepower. The typical Jensen-Healey weighs a svelte 2,116 pounds, so its excellent power-to-weight ratio makes for a very exhilarating ride.

Although only 10,402 examples were built, they are fairly easy to find judging by the half-dozen or more examples that show up for sale in Hemmings each month. All mechanical and electrical parts are readily available, but the body panels will take some searching to locate. If you prefer to stand apart from the MG and Triumph crowd, getting yourself seated behind the wheel of this very-special-interest sports car will be just as inexpensive. Complete but rundown examples are selling for $2,000 or less, and a Jensen-Healey in excellent condition can be purchased for about $6,500 to $9,000.

Oldsmobile Vista Cruiser station wagon 1970-72

Need lots of room, but hate the thought of being a follower of fashion in a dump truck-sized sport-utility vehicle? Yesterday's solution was called the station wagon. Though they have been largely forgotten during the last decade due to the popularity of minivans and SUVs, older station wagons are fast gaining in popularity thanks to their unique combination of five- to nine-passenger seating, huge cargo area and V-8 power. One of the most popular wagons ever built was Oldsmobile's sleek Vista Cruiser with its distinctive glass roof panels that kids adored. Riding on a stout frame and heavy-duty suspension, the Vista Cruiser, seating either five or seven, makes an ideal family hauler that's safe and very comfortable for long trips.

Although base models were powered by a healthy 350-cubic inch V-8, if you have a race-car or a boat on a trailer you might look for the optional 455-cubic inch engine that makes this a very capable tow vehicle. Engines and transmissions are extremely durable, and all mechanical parts are easily available. Those hard-to-find trim parts can be located through various national Oldsmobile clubs. Several 455-powered Vista Cruisers have been listed in Hemmings Motor News recently at asking prices around $7,000 for those in excellent condition. Prices for good running wagons needing work average about $4,000, which is about a tenth the cost of an SUV.

Pontiac Grand Prix, 1969-72

Do you want size? Do you want muscle? Do you want luxury? Do you want it in a trend-setting car of the late '60s? If you answered "yes" to any or all of these questions, don't look any further than Pontiac's Grand Prix line of the '69-72 era. In a flat-out design war with Ford/Lincoln, Pontiac's John DeLorean ensured that the Grand Prix would have the biggest hood ever bolted to an intermediate-sized car. The thing is, it fit the style of the then-new 118-inch wheelbase G-body like it had been designed with it right from the get-go. The semi-fastback Grand Prix of '69-72 featured the trademark Pontiac split-grille hung ahead of that huge hood. Uncluttered lines and a vinyl top lent a distinguished appearance, while inside the GP ushered in the modern age with a jet fighter-inspired console and a dashboard that made the driver feel he wasn't so much driving a car as flying an F-4 Phantom. The standard engine was the venerable Pontiac 400, with the J and SJ options offering hotter versions of the 400, 428 and later the 455. Transmissions available were the TH-400 automatic or a four-speed manual.

Pontiac's G-body set the standard for luxury intermediates, and sister division Chevrolet soon began pumping out Monte Carlos because of Pontiac's innovative GP. Today, one can get behind the wheel of one of these ground-bound cruise missiles for a relatively light $2,500 to $8,500, depending upon condition, powertrain and options.

Porsche 912, 1966-69

Don't try to convince Corvette fans of it, but perhaps the greatest sports car ever built was Porsche's 911. The ultimate driver's car, it offered exceptional handling, fantastic brakes and a high-revving flat-six air-cooled engine that was as powerful as it was reliable, all in a cozy fastback body. Now, with the 911's price tag too steep for many enthusiasts, Porsche's entry level 912 makes a perfect alternative sports car for those willing to accept a reduction in power. With either a 90- or a 102-horsepower flat-four instead of Porsche's distinctive six, the 912 rewarded its drivers with slightly better handling than the 911 due to the 912's lower weight and better balance. The 912's maintenance costs are notably less than the 911 too, since parts for the four-cylinder engine are cheaper and fewer. Everything else on the 912 is nearly identical to its more powerful sibling, which means just about every body panel, trim piece and mechanical component is available, along with a huge aftermarket offering of performance parts.

Weak and rusted floor pans can be problem on northern climate rust belt cars, so watch out. Judging by the ads in Hemmings Motor News, about $6,000 will get you a 912 in very good condition.

Studebaker Lark V-8 convertible, 1960-63

With European style and flair, Studebaker's distinguished Lark convertible is a real standout versus the more common early-sixties convertibles from the Big Three. Well appointed with fine details, the Lark convertible is a pleasant little collectible that the whole family can enjoy. There were two Lark convertible models: the six-passenger Regal and the sportier five-passenger Daytona. Although most had straight-sixes, the V-8 versions are the most entertaining to drive. Four V-8s were optional: a 259-cubic inch version with 180 or 195 horsepower and a 289-cubic inch engine with 210 or 225 horsepower. Although handling isn't one of the Lark's strong points, a decent set of radial tires will make it far more reassuring to drive on twisty roads. The softly sprung suspension, however, provides a very comfortable ride.

Most parts for the Lark can be sourced through Hemmings and the Studebaker Drivers Club. Ads in recent issues of Hemmings Motor News ranged from a Regal Lark convertible needing restoration for $1,000 up to $11,000 for a well-restored four-speed Daytona version. On average expect to pay between $4,500 to $6,500 for either model in presentable, good running shape. Cheap, fast fun for five is what the Lark V-8 convertible is all about.

With this advice on what models to buy, Lentinello also has good advice on the special things you should look for in your individual vehicle.

"When you decide to purchase an old car," he said, "select the best example that is in solid, original condition. Beware of cars for sale that have just been painted, since in many cases fresh paint is hiding rust or recent accident damage. Also, give the underside a thorough examination. Weak and rusted-out floors will cost thousands to replace.

Condition of the mechanical components should always play a secondary role to the condition of the body structure since it's easier and less expensive to replace the brakes or shocks or even an engine than it is to replace a floor or a fender."

Lentinello suggests that you should choose a car strictly because you like it. Don't buy an old car with the intention of selling it at a huge profit, as chances are great that you won't make any profit in the short term. But as I have found with my 1926 Nash Light Six and my 1962 Chevrolet Corvette, the joy of owning and driving a vintage collectible car far outweighs the monetary side.