Why a small car could be the perfect classic for you

Photograph Courtesy Mini

[Editor's Note: This article originally appeared in the July 2018 issue of Classic Motorsports.]

Story by Tim Sharp

If you are a fan of History channel’s “American Pickers,” you have heard Mike, Frank and Danielle talk about collecting “smalls.” In their world, smalls are vintage items like old oil cans, wind-up toys, hood ornaments and weathered driving gloves. The pickers love these items because they take up very little space and typically require a lower financial commitment, but have excellent profit potential because they are super accessible and appealing to buyers.

We like small classic cars for many of the same reasons. They’re easy to store, fun to drive, and usually don’t cost much to maintain.

What qualifies as a small? We queried Louis Hudgin, one of the top authorities on small classic cars. He is a pioneer of the oldest small car show in America, the Southwest Unique Little Car Show. It has been celebrating small, yet fun, cars for nearly 40 years.

Louis says that the basic qualification for smalls is that they feature engines displacing less than 1500cc. He also prefers them tiny and rare. This group would include everything from affordable 1950s Fiat 500s to multi-million-dollar 1930s Bugattis. That means there’s a small car to appeal to just about every type of buyer. It also explains why they’re likely the next big thing.

Smalls: The Next Big Thing?

Photography Credit: Tom Suddard

Many collectible Ferraris and Porsches have doubled in value-or done even better. The competition for these cars is just fierce, though, so even if the market levels off, your chances of uncovering a rare Ferrari or Porsche barn find are extremely low.

We see smalls as the alternative for those chasing the investment side of the hobby. Since most of us will never discover an old Ferrari or Porsche Speedster in a shed, why not turn our attention to the barn finds that still exist? How many Isettas, Autobianchis, Fiat 600s, Abarths and small-bore vintage race cars are out there? Why not get ahead of the curve and start looking for them?

Bryan Hinsley is a smart car guy with a collection of affordable smalls: two BMW Isetta 300s, a BMW Isetta 600 and a Honda 600. He has some sound advice for collectors of these cars: “Parts are fairly reasonable, but you need to find a local guy who can work on them. Do your homework before buying any small car. Establish contacts, know where your can get parts and how much they will cost.” Most important, Bryan says, “You should buy a small car which excites you.”

In the upscale smalls market, collection owner Scott Gauthier has been ahead of the curve for decades. Scott purchased and restored a Fiat Abarth l000cc Record Monza some years ago; it is now valued north of a million dollars. He also has a 1948 Fiat Topolino Panamerica 750 worth roughly as much, plus Siatas, Vespas and Zundapps. Most are restored, yet some remain untouched.

“Why not turn our attention to the barn finds that still exist?” While Scott Gauthier’s collection also includes a number of very nice larger Zagato-bodied cars, its curator, Nate Watkins, says, “The smaller cars are easier and less expensive to repair. The mechanicals and interiors are simpler.”

Fun-Size and Practical

Photograph Courtesy RM Sothebys

Let’s think practically for a minute. If you have a three-car garage with the family cars occupying two of the spaces, that leaves just one garage space for collector cars. If you can fit two small collector cars into that single garage space, why not do it? We have found that even one small car can turn a typical two-car garage into a three-car garage.

Some small cars don’t even need a garage. One can replace that big pool table in your rec room that you never use. Our friend Don Stephan had a little Bugatti 37 in his dining room; it supported a Plexiglas tabletop that could be removed when he wanted to take the car to a race or concours. Russo & Steele owner Drew Alcazar also displays different classic cars in his hillside home in Arizona. These cars are also great conversation pieces at parties.

But can a small car be used regularly? “Small cars—real cars—like 2CVs, Minis, classic Beetles and the like, are perfectly suitable for certain situations, but one must be willing to forego certain amenities, like satisfactory heating; [there is also] no a/c, virtually no safety equipment, no infotainment,” says David Yando, manager of the Lane Motor Museum, home to countless small vehicles and microcars ranging all the way down to the 1964 Peel P50, billed as the smallest passenger car ever built. “A decent example of a good shoulder-season car, like a 2CV or a Dyane, would make a great urban car: easy on gas, easy to park, roomy, nobody wants to steal it, and body parts are a web click away if someone takes out a fender.”

Fun on Track, Too

Photography Credit: Chuck Andersen

Speed comes in all sizes. Some great small collector cars also make great vintage race cars. Vintage Formula Juniors, Formula Fords, Formula Vees, Lotus Sevens, Ginettas, Fiat Abarths and most small-bore SCCA sports racers are all garage friendly. If you prefer even older race cars, look at the Fraser-Nash, Austin 7 specials, MG specials and three-wheeled Morgans.

Smaller race cars can mean lower operating budgets, smaller tow rigs and simpler mechanicals. Also, for some of us, 100 mph is fast enough.

Looking Forward

Photograph Courtesy RM Sothebys

Darin Roberge, Russo & Steele’s Marketing Director, echoes those thoughts about big surprises coming in little packages. “1950–’60s Alfa Romeo roadsters, Mini Coopers, Fiat 500s, Austin-Healey Sprites and MG Midgets are affordable and fun little cars,” he explains. “They also have good parts availability, so the path to restoration is good.”

As for what will drive the future of the little car market, Darin believes that it will be the usual forces. “Collector cars are all about passion and nostalgia,” he says, adding that most collector cars are bought strictly on emotion.

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