Those Mundane Old Hondas and Toyotas Have Suddenly Become Collectible

Great examples of somewhat mundane cars, the ones that were owned by the parents and grandparents of Gen Xers and millennials, have suddenly become collectible and are selling for thousands of dollars more than they did about two years ago.

Just as online searches for comfort food recipes surged during the pandemic, the popularity of the automotive equivalent, vintage Toyota pickups, Honda Accords, Acura Legends and Volvo wagons, vehicles that used to be everywhere, are the newest fad in car collecting.

“During the height of the pandemic, people couldn’t eat out or travel and asked the question, ‘What can I put money in that I can enjoy?’” said Doug DeMuro, owner of the auction site Cars and Bids. Apparently, one answer was cars from the 1980s and 1990s.

For example, a 40-year-old, four-door, Honda Accord had a furious auction on the Bring a Trailer auction site last year. The opening bid was $2,100, but that was just the start for the nicely preserved, first-generation 1981 Accord Special Edition.

By the second day of the seven-day auction, the bids had already exceeded $10,000. On the last day, three people placed multiple bids and didn’t stop until the price had reached $21,000 (and a 5 percent buyer’s premium to the auction company). To put that into context, a four-door Accord was priced at around $8,000 in 1981.

The high bids for the Accord were far from an anomaly.

“They’ve become hotter than ever before, just for the nostalgia factor,” Mr. DeMuro said. “It’s actually easier to find a nice Ferrari from the ’80s or ’90s than a Honda Civic or a Dodge Caravan of the same vintage,” he continued. “Almost everyone took good care of their Ferrari, but nobody bothered to preserve the ‘disposable’ cars.”

The irony of the once common cars becoming rare isn’t lost on potential buyers.

“When really great examples come up for sale, people bid with a sense of urgency because you don’t know if you’ll get a chance at another one,” Mr. DeMuro said. Myron Vernis, a collector from Ohio, had his eyes on a pristine vehicle that was popular with campers and tradespeople: a 1995 Dodge B-2500 van. It took Mr. Vernis three years to find a rare camper conversion B-2500, with its original ’90s teal carpet and two 13-inch cathode-ray-tube televisions.

Although Mr. Vernis bought the Dodge in a private transaction this year, he is a follower of online auction sites. He said the pandemic lead to some impulse buying. “It was a perfect storm of nostalgia, convenience, and disposable income.”

The common thread, Mr. Vernis said, was the off-the-radar nature of the cars. Few collectors, for example, would have thought the Merkur Scorpio would become an up-and-comer. It was a German-built Ford Scorpio sedan that was adapted for the American market and sold at Mercury dealerships as a potential BMW and Audi competitor, The car was neither unattractive nor bad, but it was a sales flop and disappeared after just a few model years.

Then a 1989 model with just 19,300 miles appeared on Cars and Bids late last year. Mr. DeMuro commented at the time of the auction, “If you’ve ever been looking for something that will win the award of ‘strangest, most unknown car’ at cars and coffee, this is it. It’s probably the nicest one in existence at this point.”

The price of having the nicest Merkur Scorpio in late 2020 was $12,500, about 10 times what a run-down example sold for on Craigslist.

Mr. DeMuro said it often seemed as though collectors were seeking cars that they either couldn’t afford when they were new, or were owned by their family, like the Acura Legend Coupe. Acura was the vanguard of the Japanese movement to sell more upscale brands that later spawned Lexus and Infiniti. The Legend was the first product of Honda’s luxury brand.

Early Legend sedans from the 1980s are now hard to find, especially the two-door version. In January, Bring a Trailer offered a 35,000 mile 1988 example that looked like it had just left the showroom. The winning bidder, at $15,000.

The Legend and the 1981 Accord were bought by Gary Duncan, a Japanese car collector from Virginia who has a history with the brand.

“I’ve been a Honda dealer for 44 years and an Acura dealer since 1988,” Mr. Duncan said. “I buy every low-mileage Japanese car I can find for my personal collection. I think that the 1988 Legend Coupe was the best looking Acura coupe of all, and the 1981 Accord sedan, Special Edition, is unbelievably rare. I just had to have it no matter what.”

Some buyers actually drive them and show them. Bradley Brownell, the co-founder of Radwood, a car show for vehicles built from 1980 to 1999, said the cars were more approachable and more relatable to most people.

“They’re also modern enough to drive every day, but old school enough to actually be able to work on,” he said.

They’re also capable of drawing a crowd.

“If you want to know what it’s like to drive an exotic of the era, like a Lamborghini Diablo, there are plenty of blogs and YouTube videos out there,” Mr. Brownell said. “No so much for a Chevy Cavalier or a Toyota Tercel, which is why in many cases, you’ll see more people gathering around cars like that, remarking that they used to be everywhere, but the car at the show might be the first clean one that anyone has seen in several decades.”

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