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When “matching numbers” matter, and when they don’t

Anyone who has watched the hobby for more than ten minutes has undoubtedly seen or heard the term “matching numbers” associated with collector cars. It typically means that the car currently carries the same engine, transmission, and even the same rear end that were installed at the factory at the time it was built. Not merely the same type, but the actual pieces. It often seems ridiculous to the outside observer when given two otherwise identical cars, the one with one particular series of numbers stamped into various components is more valuable than one with a different series of numbers, but it has become the hobby’s way of defining best of the best.

This article isn’t about how to identify matching numbers on a particular car or about investing in only matching numbers cars or anything like that. Rather, it is about how collector cars are valued, how to determine when it’s important to verify matching numbers, and even, in many cases, when it just doesn’t matter. It will help you differentiate between when you should ask the seller tough questions, and when it’s OK to pull the trigger on a purchase without wasting time looking for information that may not even exist.

The entire term “matching numbers” became mainstream when the muscle cars started crossing the six-figure barrier, perhaps 15 or 20 years ago. It is easy, for example, to turn a garden-variety Pontiac Tempest into a GTO with relatively inexpensive changes, and it takes a real expert to tell them apart. There are unscrupulous types who would take a $2000 beater and spend $40,000 to restore it into an $80,000 auction queen. A lot of people have been hurt, and the hobby quickly evolved by promoting matching numbers as the gold standard of authenticity. Smart buyers started checking and they didn’t get burned any more. Others didn’t check, and they often over-paid for fraudulent cars. And some guys just didn’t care, since they got a nice car at a discounted rate and didn’t worry about the “investment” side of the equation.

The most important lesson is that matching numbers are critical when it concerns a vehicle that can be easily duplicated. Mass-produced muscle cars are the most obvious victims here, and it always pays to do your homework if you’re looking at a top-quality car with a premium price. If you’re looking at an old Camaro to have fun with at the Tuesday night cruise, it probably matters less, and you can frequently end up with a nice car that’s a lot of fun to drive. Strictly speaking, when buying a muscle car, it’s wise to assume a car is not matching numbers unless there’s proof otherwise.

I recall a beautifully prepared 1970 Chevelle SS454 convertible that arrived at the dealership where I used to work. It came with big posters claiming it was a real LS5/4-speed car, with a lot of photos of the restoration, as well as exhaustive decoding of the various part numbers throughout the car, many of which were no longer accessible now that the car was assembled. The owner had purchased it at an auction, believing, as both the auction house and seller represented, that it was what the posters claimed: a real, matching numbers LS5 SS454 Chevelle convertible. He paid market price for it, too: more than $100,000.

Unfortunately, after ten minutes of looking at the car on the lift it was clear that it wasn’t merely a non-matching car, but an outright fraud. Yes, technically the numbers DID match, but that’s only because someone ground off whatever numbers were originally on the engine and manually stamped the “correct” numbers onto it. The same was true with the transmission and even the rear end, where they had done a very poor job of hiding the grinding marks where the original numbers had been removed. Once we saw all this, we didn’t even bother to try to determine whether it was a real SS, which is another easy to fake value-enhancing upgrade. Instead of a $100,000 investment, he had a very nice $60,000 Chevelle convertible. No doubt it was a gorgeous car, and whoever put it together had located some correct and very pricey parts. But the re-stamped numbers were fraud, no two ways about it. Fortunately and to the owner’s credit, he permitted us to market it as it was—a nicely finished LS5 clone—not as he wished it would be. He took a $40,000 bath, but it was the right thing to do.

As hobbyists, we generally take “numbers matching” to be a definitive phrase, but its broad application recently has diluted its value. For instance, before 1969 or so, Ford didn’t offer any correlation between the numbers on the engine, transmission, and the VIN. Unlike Chrysler, which stamped the VIN on the engine and transmission starting in the mid-60s, Ford didn’t get on board until the government forced them to do it, and even then, it seems haphazard at best.

What this really means is that it is impossible to say, for instance, that a 1965 Mustang is “100% numbers matching.” It can be date code correct, yes, but without a build sheet or other original paperwork, there’s no way to verify whether the 289 under the hood is the very one that came in the car, or the one that came in a car 10 or 100 or 1000 units before or after it. A colleague of mine was quick to point out my own mistake in this area during a discussion he and I had recently. I had used the term “matching numbers” on a Mustang I was describing—in effect, I was applying the term too broadly. I was contributing to the very dilution of specificity that many enthusiasts are nobly attempting to chase out of the hobby. It is, of course, in everyone’s best interest that we remain precise in identifying investment-grade automobiles, and I, for one, have stopped doing it except where appropriate. Again, on certain makes and models, when you see a seller advertising “numbers matching” be sure to do your homework on whether such a claim is even possible.

On many other cars, primarily pre-war vehicles, the status of “matching numbers” is far less relevant to value, but for different reasons. Cars were mass-produced, of course, but they are valuable for different reasons than muscle cars. There were fewer models from each manufacturer, and among them, fewer engine choices. There were only nine 1971 Plymouth Hemi ‘Cudas ever built, which are the result of a rare confluence of option availability, pricing, and consumer tastes. In contrast, there were few such unusual vehicles in, say, 1937 (and by unusual, I mean a mass-produced car that by virtue of a combination of options becomes practically unique). For the most part, a 1937 Plymouth is a 1937 Plymouth. Sure, there may not be many built in a particular color with a certain interior trim, but rare pre-war “production” cars are, well, rare. As a result, the value of any one of them is not broadly affected by whether it has its original engine. They were all pretty much the same, and there’s no way to know for certain if the engine is original to the car. Furthermore, all things being equal, the price spread between the most valuable 1937 Plymouth coupe and least valuable 1937 Plymouth coupe is not very large. This is in contrast to two perfectly restored Hemi ‘Cudas, one numbers matching and the other with a replacement engine—the matching numbers car is worth significantly more money.

Fakes are also far less common in pre-war cars. You may argue that since convertibles are the most valuable body style, that someone could take a coupe and build their own fake convertible. Well, yes, I’m sure its possible, but not for a reasonable cost, especially when actual convertibles are available. The cost of building a fake mass-produced car, even in the most desirable body style, is typically not worth the cost of the undertaking. And even so, such a fake would surely be spotted by experts. If there’s no profit, there’s a lot less chance that your car is a fake.

How much profit is “enough” to justify a fake? I’ll answer this with another anecdote. We were marketing a 1930 Packard 740 dual cowl sport phaeton—in all respects a stunning, amazing car. We had one interested buyer who was curious about the car being a fake of some kind, and asked whether it was matching numbers. While I don’t blame him for trying to do his due diligence on a $200,000 purchase, even at that price, there still wouldn’t be enough profit for someone to attempt to build a fake Packard 740 dual cowl phaeton. Although there’s no way to prove conclusively that it is not a fake, simple logic tells us that it is unlikely.

The reasons are simple: One, cars like these have always been special, and have been typically well maintained and preserved throughout their lives. Two, unlike most muscle cars, they were not raced or abused, and blown motors and subsequent replacements are uncommon—most pre-1960 cars were designed to be serviced and rebuilt, and it’s highly unlikely that a Packard will toss a rod through an engine block. And finally, despite a $200,000 price tag, the costs to replicate an exact dual cowl body, as well as restoring the rest of the car to its current level would dwarf any potential profits to be made by fraud. While there was no way to prove the body and chassis and engine all came together in 1930, it is doubtful that the car was cobbled together from parts. This is a case where “matching numbers” in most senses of the term, is not a critical factor in determining value.

However, there is definitely a price point at which forgeries become profitable, and this is where you need to look at other evidence. On extremely high-end Classics, such as Cadillac V16s, it was not uncommon for a sedan to give up its body so that a more valuable roadster body from another car, or even a reproduction body, could be fitted. Many such cars were sold on the open market, and without documentation it is often impossible to determine their authenticity. Does this hurt values? I would argue that it should, but doesn’t always, particularly when there’s no evidence either way—it’s still a V16 Cadillac with a correct Fleetwood roadster body that is as the factory could have built it. This is where documentation becomes critical, and on a purely investment level, cars with paperwork will always be more valuable than those without.

Recent advances in terms of factory documentation have gone a long way towards protecting the best cars and weeding out the worst.

On the other hand, in cases where the swap or reproduction body is known, value is most certainly diminished. For instance, a Duesenberg J LeBaron dual cowl phaeton sold at the 2011 RM Amelia Island auction is the result of a pair of reproduction frame rails, a reproduction body, and a real J engine and bellhousing (from two different cars). It sold for a fraction of the price of a “real” Duesenberg, despite delivering an identical driving experience. But with all the Duesenberg Js pretty much accounted for (including the car from which the bellhousing was taken), there was no way anyone could pass this one off as the real deal. In this way, the hobby often polices itself when talking about exceptionally rare cars, and with the internet, it has become virtually impossible to create a “new” valuable, rare car that nobody has seen before. Showing up with a previously unknown, undocumented 1931 Cadillac V16 roadster at a show will get you all kinds of scrutiny, and not necessarily the good kind.

Recent advances in terms of factory documentation have gone a long way towards protecting the best cars and weeding out the worst. Ferrari has recently started their own factory certification program called Classiche, Pontiac has Pontiac Historical Services, British cars can acquire “Heritage Certificates,” and Cadillac has recently opened their corporate production records to the public. This kind of factory paperwork can answer questions about authenticity and we highly recommend that you take advantage of these resources before selling your car, because it really does add value. We also suggest that you ask about it before making a purchase. With orphan makes, such as the aforementioned Packard, there’s often no outside source that can completely authenticate the car, which is why it is doubly important to examine the how and why of each potential forgery and determine whether it’s even feasible.

As with most purchases beyond the grocery store, an educated customer is the best customer. At Vintage Motor Cars, we strive to represent our cars as accurately and fairly as possible because it’s important not only to the person buying the car, but to the integrity of the hobby that I love and from which I earn my living. There’s very little upside to a misrepresented car these days, and the downside is quite dire, ranging from a ruined reputation, to litigation, even to prison in extreme cases of fraud. It’s just not worth it.

You can be a smart collector by doing your homework, but you’ll be a more effective buyer by knowing when to do it, too.

Vintage Motor Cars
sales@vintagemotorcarsusa.com


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