WisBusiness: Classic car hobby accelerates during recession as prices drop, enthusiasm grows

By Kay Nolan

For WisBusiness.com

MILWAUKEE — “We can’t keep up with sales — we’re putting cars on the showroom floor and they’re gone in one day!” is not what you’d expect to hear from any car dealer in 2011. But the Great Recession apparently hasn’t stalled the classic car market, according to classic car enthusiasts at the 2011 Greater Milwaukee Auto Show. The show runs through Sunday, March 6, at the Frontier Airlines Center in Milwaukee.

“We’re selling an average of 70 to 80 cars a month,” said Liz Johnson, assistant director of Volo Auto Museum, a 50-year-old business based in Lake County, Ill., which had a large display of classic cars and vehicles from Hollywood movies. “We’re doing a free consignment program right now just because we’re having a hard time keeping stock. And we ship all over the world. People seem to feel their money would be safer in a classic car than it would be in the banks right now.”

As the owners of two lovingly restored classic Thunderbirds, Tom and Joyce Chiapusio of Milwaukee say if anything, the hobby is booming during these hard times. “You can go to a classic car show twice a week during the summer these days,” said Tom Chiapusio. “They’re all over the place in Milwaukee and the surrounding communities. There are clubs for every manufacturer of car and clubs for specialty cars as well.”

Johnson says Chicago-area suburbs are destinations for weekly “cruise nights” during which owners gather in parking lots with their restored cars to socialize and show off the vehicles. One McHenry, Ill. car club started a new cruise night last summer and within one week drew 150 to 200 cars every Monday evening, Johnson said.

Some restaurants in the greater Milwaukee area have had success hosting weekly classic car shows in summer as well, said Carl Rosencutter, sales manager at Subaru City of Milwaukee, whose dealership hosts both traditional classic car shows and “tuner” shows that feature high-performance foreign cars.

Not only have prices of classic cars dipped in recent years during the economic downturn, but the parts needed to restore them have become easier to find and more affordable, thanks to the Internet and a plethora of reproduction items. Chiapusio said he used to have to search for months for parts for his 1955 and 1962 Thunderbirds.

“I used to send out hundreds of letters and inquiries,” he said. Now, manufacturers have sprung up to reproduce almost any imaginable part, from steel fenders to chrome trim to rubber gaskets.

Russ Owens of the Milwaukee suburb of Franklin owns a half-dozen restored 1950s and ’60s Fords, and he brought one to display at the auto show: a 1966 Ford Galaxie, repainted in “sunset orange metallic,” a shade lighter than the vehicle’s original “ember glow” hue. “Look at those taillights — those are the most beautifully designed taillights you’ll ever see,” he said.

Owens says the economy hasn’t put the brakes on his passion because his cars are paid for and he only drives them to shows.

For James Hull of Milwaukee, the classic cars at this year’s auto show were of greater interest than the new, 2011 models. Hull, a former tow truck operator who runs his own auto repair business, hopes to one day have his own restored classic vehicle to display. He’s rebuilding a stroker engine and is looking for a classic-type car body in which to install it. His dream car? A 1968 or ’69 Chevy Camaro.

“I had a ’66 Buick convertible. I wish I’d kept it,” said Hull. “It was blue with a white vinyl top.”

This year’s auto show includes brand new cars designed to appeal to those who like the look and feel of classic muscle cars: Ford has reintroduced the Mustang Boss 302 — a high performance version of the popular Mustang last produced in 1969; and Chevy has outfitted its newest Camaro with larger, 19-inch wheels and aggressive-looking flared front fenders and grille.

Rosencutter says Dodge did the same thing a few years ago by reintroducing the Challenger model.

Auto show attendee Nick Ardellini of Oconomowoc is the type of customer targeted by the retro-looking new models. He bought a new Corvette in 2007 because he wanted a “summer toy” with a sleek, classic look without having to restore an older original car.

Steve Apel, a sales associate with Frank Boucher Chevrolet Cadillac Saab in Racine, calls Mustangs, Camaros and similar vehicles “American ponies” — muscle cars with proven appeal over the years.

Classic car buffs say these will continue to be the types of vehicles sought after by collectors. “The kind of cars that used to impress the girls” and “the cars that remind 60-year-olds of when they were 16” is how Chiapusio put it.

What about the family sedans, minivans and SUVs of the ’90s and beyond? So far, none are being forecast as future classics.

“Any car has the potential to become a classic,” said Owens. “They always say, ‘When it’s 10 years old, it’s a rusty old car; when it’s 40 years old, it’s a classic,’ but today’s cars all look too much alike. It’s hard to imagine them having the same following.”

Auto show officials would not release figures but said Monday that attendance is up 13 percent so far at this year’s event, which opened Feb. 26.

For more information on the Greater Milwaukee Auto Show, go to http://www.motortrendautoshows.com/milwaukee