The collector car auctions that occur each year as part of Monterey Car Week are a widely accepted barometer of the state of the marketplace, perhaps even more so than the January auctions of Scottsdale. The clientele in Monterey represents the absolute cream of the car collector community crop, and sale prices there can establish worldwide valuations. This year, several high-profile Japanese classics and exotics were offered alongside the usual parade of Ferraris, Jaguars, and Packards, so we felt it was time once again to dive into the glamour of the Monterey auction scene to evaluate JNCs’ place in the collector car firmament.
As has become almost typical for Car Week, the headlining JNC at the Monterey auctions was a Toyota 2000GT. Offered by Gooding & Co., it was one of 62 U.S.-delivery examples, 2000GT s/n MF10-10100 is well known to American enthusiasts, with a fully documented history that includes a 2006 restoration by Maine Line Exotics, as well as exhibition at Toyota’s 50th-anniversary display at the Rolex Monterey Historic Automobile Races in 2007. The original Mikunis have been replaced with Webers, but otherwise the car is in stock configuration. With an unquestioned provenance and a nicely mellowed restoration, this 2000GT would seem to have been positioned perfectly for the sort of well-heeled buyer who lurks at the Monterey auctions. However, despite a pre-auction estimate of $800,000 to $1 million, the 2000GT sold for a hammer price of $550,000. What gives?
Well, according to Hagerty’s respected valuation tool, 2000GT values have softened over the past few years, down about 20 percent from 2014. That makes them comparable to other classic exotics that have seen similar declines; for example, an original-condition 1967 Ferrari 330GTC with low miles also sold at Gooding for $522,500, a figure in line with Hagerty’s valuation and also down 20% over the last half-decade. We can surmise, then, that there’s nothing afoot with 2000GT prices; they’re just following the broader marketplace downward.
One of the other headline-grabbing JNCs of the Monterey Auctions was RM Sotheby’s 1972 Nissan Fairlady 240ZG, a rare-in-the-US version of the ubiquitous Z car. Featuring the ZG’s signature elongated and homologated nose, the Fairlady Z likely was consigned to auction to take advantage of growing enthusiasm in the American collector car market for J-spec classics.
We had the opportunity to inspect this car in person, and with due respect to both the consignor and the auction house for having the confidence to present a proper Japanese classic, this particular example was a bit underwhelming. The body showed an abundance of wavy panels and hasty paint touch-ups, and the interior, though original, looked tired and a bit sad. A finer specimen would no doubt have been a better ambassador for the JNC movement in Monterey, which makes the ZG’s strong $53,000 hammer price somewhat baffling. For a clientele with a reputation for being, um, finicky, the Monterey auction crowd gave this somewhat scruffy Nissan a great deal of latitude.
The sins of the ZG were largely made up for by RM’s other two Japanese offerings, a pair of modern supercars. An as-new 2012 Lexus LF-A showing a mere 120 miles on the odometer sold for $434,000, which must be considered a bit of a bargain when compared to the similarly-spec’ed 2011 Ferrari 599GTO that sold at RM for over $100K more (but doesn’t sound as good as the Lex’s glorious V10 wail, in our opinion). Meanwhile, an extremely clean Canadian-market 2000 Acura NSX-T with under 4,000 miles on the clock brought a winning bid of $128,800. On the latter car, we noted a slight discoloration of the plastic front bumper cover; maybe nothing, maybe a repaint.
Far beneath the headline cars of the high-end auctions, however, there bubbled a cauldron of JNC activity in the week’s “entry-level” sale at Mecum. There, a fascinating mix of J-tin was offered at a wide spectrum of price points, and though the sell-through rate was only about 50 percent, it still appears that enthusiasm for classic and special-interest Japanese cars is heating up among the less-than-hyperrich segment of the car collector community.
Land Cruisers were the dominant models in the Mecum Monterey milieu, with no fewer than eleven FJ40 variants on offer, along with one each FJ55 and FJ60. Among the earlier models, there were a couple of truly terrible modified versions, but thankfully, the majority were either clean original examples or ones that had undergone “frame-off” restorations. Here, condition was the key to sales success, as the best examples brought the highest prices, while lesser vehicles were ignored. Interestingly, the top sellers brought winning bids in the $30,000-60,000 range, perhaps indicating a slight return to sanity in the FJ40 marketplace. FJ60s, however, are still on an upswing, with an excellent 148K-mile specimen at Mecum selling for $34,100.
The rest of the JNC field at Mecum was amusingly diverse, with offerings ranging from the usual collection of average-condition Z-cars to a cavalcade of JDM strangeness. Among the non-sellers were a ratty Nissan S-Cargo, a hopped-up Suzuki Jimny, a wonderful ’89 Toyota HiAce turbodiesel, a 1987 Nissan President complete with headrest doilies, and what must have been one of the most surprising cars to appear at any auction in America this year, a 1992 Isuzu Elf fire engine. Why any consignor thought that Monterey was the appropriate venue to attempt to sell these pieces, we can only guess, though the successful sale of an intensely weird Suzuki Cappuccino with coilovers and fender flares for a hair under $15,000 indicates that you just never know.
Discriminating buyers at Mecum were rewarded with a few genuinely good Japanese pieces, including a beautiful 1990 Toyota Century limousine, complete with mahogany interior, crystal decanter, and a veritable museum of late-80s electronic accessories, which sold for $38,500. Also selling were a very clean Nissan Pao softtop, whose retro styling may have struck a chord with Mecum’s muscle car-favoring crowd, and a freakishly original ’78 Civic CVCC, believed to have covered a mere 20,000 miles since new. These small wonders brought $16,500 and $22,000 respectively, indicating that that enthusiasm for charming, high-quality cars is strong at the entry level.
The star of Mecum’s JNC offerings, however, must have been their 1971 Skyline GT-X, converted to GT-R specification by JDM Legends. With reality-star provenance to back up the car’s reportedly original interior and overall excellent level of preparation, the ersatz GT-R sold for a healthy $75,900. Though strong money for what is essentially a resto-mod, the price brings the lucky new owner all of the thrills of driving a genuine GT-R, but without the fear of damaging a priceless classic. For that reason, we’re calling the Skyline the bargain of the auction.
Though these standout cars rightly found new homes, and though there were some pleasant JDM surprises on hand, the majority of the 31 JNCs presented by Mecum were a bit underwhelming, either by virtue of being poorly modified, indifferently prepared or just a bit too “used car” for Monterey. Still, as we stated in our Scottsdale review earlier this year, we believe that the opportunity exists for an ambitious consignor with truly high-quality Japanese classics to succeed in the Monterey marketplace. It’s worth noting that we have yet to see a really excellent early Celica or RX-3 come up for bid in this venue, to name just two solid candidates, so potential vendors are advised that high-quality JNCs do sell in Monterey, and we expect to see an even stronger field of them next year.
Images: Gooding & Co., Mecum