Skip those department stores this year--the catalogs have arrived for your Christmas shopping.
We're not talking novelty socks and matching pen and pencil sets, though. These are auction catalogs, as London's classic car auctioneers compete to come up with the best selections of gleaming machinery in what has become a December tradition.
Among the hundreds of cars at a half-dozen auctions this month, you're bound to find that little something for the spouse who has everything, or maybe just a well-deserved present to yourself.
"The advantage of auction is that it's instantaneous, there's always a very broad choice, and cars are market-priced rather than dealer-priced," said Robert Brooks, a classic car specialist auctioneer.
Classics available this month vary from a Graham Hill's 1962 World Championship winning Formula 1 car, to a 1900 Daimler discovered in a barn, through Ringo Starr's 1968 Mercedes-Benz limousine. Impress, or baffle, your friends with a 1981 DeLorean.
"Essentially a classic car is something that was important for whatever reason in its day," Brooks said. "Or it has become important because of the events and the profile surrounding that particular car or model having risen to prominence in the current day."
If you're hankering for an Aston Martin, the only decision to make is whether you want a connection with royalty or Hollywood. On Monday, Sotheby's is offering Prince Charles's V8 Vantage, estimated at 100,000 to 130,000 pounds ($153,450 to $199,485), while Coys of Kensington has the actual silver DB5 used in the latest James Bond film, "Goldeneye" at its Dec. 14 sale.
A certain 1938 Lancia Astura might interest you, if you're not bothered about the politics of the original owner. The State Parade Cabriolet was built at Mussolini's orders for Hitler's state visit to mark the signing of the "Pact of Steel" alliance between Italy, Germany and Japan. A snip at 100,000 to 130,000 pounds.
Another Italian car and easier to fit under the tree: a 1968 Fiat Gamine, a model best known in the United Kingdom as the car driven by a cartoon character called Noddy. Coys offers it with an estimate of 3,000 to 5,000 pounds.
"There are a lot of cars which are right in with classic status, which may not have any great value," Brooks said.
The mechanics of a classic car auction are much like any other auction. The lot goes to the highest bidder, as long as the bid is more than the reserve price or minimum set by the vendor, though a small number of cars are sold with no reserve. Buyers also pay a premium to the auctioneer, usually 10% to 15%, plus value-added tax.
Lots usually need to be paid for and collected within a day or two after the auction. Storage or delivery can be arranged for an additional fee.
An auction catalog will usually provide a photo and description of each car. While these may not be old junkers, buyers should be just as critical as when buying any used car.
"With every car you have to be very, very careful about history, background and condition," said Brooks, who recommends getting specialist advice.
The auctioneers warn that the cars are being sold as collectors items--not as a means of transport. In other words, when bidding for a car, leave yourself enough for the bus fare home, just in case.
The cars can be examined in the viewing area before the auction starts. Check for rust, filler, missing or incorrect trim, and overall condition. It should also be possible to have the car's engine started by a member of staff.
Some auction companies, such as Brooks, offer those with a serious interest the opportunity for a closer inspection in the weeks before the official viewing. Test drives can be arranged for some cars.
"The auction business is all about confidence and it's all about return business," Brooks said.
Classic car prices peaked in about 1989, and many cars now sell for a fraction of their top values. While some parts of the market are strengthening again, Brooks said a return to the inflation of 10 years ago is unlikely.
"Quite a few people who leaped onto the investment bandwagon of the late '80s sadly got their fingers quite badly burned," he said. "I don't think that problem is likely to reappear, partly because it's too recent in our memories."
The rule is to think of it as "investment in the fun of it," and make sure you have enough insurance. The car is your responsibility from the moment the hammer falls.
Specialist insurers offer reasonable rates for limited mileage on cars over a certain age. Classic car drivers got an early Christmas present in the recently announced U.K. government budget, which abolished road tax for cars more than 25 years old while raising it for everyone else.
Small change to the buyer who paid royally for a 1935 Alfa Romeo Grand Prix racer at the most recent Brooks auction, but to the auctioneers every little bit helps.
"Most of these new measures will favor the lower-value cars," Brooks said. "As with all markets, if the bottom end is solid, stable and thriving, the top end will push ahead."