For some, muscle car restoration is a labor of love, a way to re-create that first car from high school or act as caretakers of Dad's/Grandpa's/Uncle Bill's pride-and-joy. In these cases, sentimental value outweighs any intrinsic value the car might have.
For others, intrinsic value is the primary motivate for buying, restoring, collecting, or selling muscle cars. These folks need to know that they've made a good financial decision to spend big money on a restoration before turning a single wrench on a project car.
Intrinsic value doesn't necessarily refer to a car's condition. Instead, we're talking provenance, a car's origin story: How many of this particular model were built, how it was equipped when it came off the assembly line, and what (if anything) has been done to it since then.
If you are considering a muscle car purchase and provenance matters to you, it is essential that you determine that the car is what it claims to be. A counterfeit car is bad for the hobby, as it devalues the real cars and causes good people to lose a lot of money. Hiring an experienced collector, broker, or restorer to come with you to look at a car is money well spent.
A car's value must be based on facts, not opinions. Documentation—build sheets, trim tags, window stickers, and the like—is just part of what a smart buyer will need to authenticate a muscle car. Stefano Bimbi, owner of Nickey Chicago, explained that although documentation is important, identification plates and documentation can be manipulated to the point of convincing even the most scrutinizing expert. (See the "Buyer Beware" sidebar.) Numbers must match, but numbers can be restamped. Major components can be correct for a car, but if the car is not sporting its "born-with" drivetrain, pricing should reflect that.
Major components are just the starting point of determining authenticity. There were numerous differences in the ways various plants built the same model of car, and even differences between cars as they came down the line of the same plant. Chalk marks, crayon markings, shim markings, and paint dabs will be different from car to car.
That's why Bimbi goes beyond documentation when seaking to authenticate a car. He looks for cars that can be tied to some form of historical context. Pictures, names of people who know about the car, and previous owners play very strongly into establishing a car as a collectible.
Let's say you're considering the purchase of an immaculate Fathom Blue '70 LS6 four-speed Chevelle. With a price in the six-figure range, it is imperative to tie the documentation to verifiable owner history as well as awareness of the car among other collectors and even local car guys. Play detective. Attend a car show or cruise night, and ask, "Hey, do you know anything about this Fathom Blue LS6 Chevelle that's for sale in your area?" A '70 LS6 that shows up out of nowhere, even with all the correct documentation, should be considered suspect. A known car with a good reputation is a smarter buy, even if the price is higher.
If your examination raises questions as to a car's claimed originality, walk away from the deal. Even if the current owner seems like an honest guy, it could be because he is unaware of the car's bogus status. There are plenty of cars available. It's a buyer's market, so if you're going to spend big money, be smart and buy the right car.
What You Need From Previous Owner
- Window sticker, dealer invoice, dealer plate, build sheet, billing cards, Protect-O-Plate, Certi-Card, owner's manual
- Purchase documents, maintenance records
- Previous owner history, stories about the car, old pictures
- Any original spare parts, brochures, shop manuals
To give you an idea of how faithfully documentation can be reproduced—or forged, depending on your point of view—check out www.oldchevydocumentation.com. This vendor can supply broadcast sheets, trim tags, Protect-O-Plates, and more, "using the most advanced aging techniques together with dead on correct fonts, type, texture, matched completely to the original GM document," says the website. There's a disclaimer on the site that says these items "are made solely with the intent for personal display and novelty use only and are not sold for the purpose of reselling or misrepresenting of cars in any way, shape or form" and says that the company "assumes no liability whatsoever after sale is completed of what buyer does with said items." It makes us wonder: If this company is making these documents so publically, how much more of this is going on underground? Scary, huh?
Below are some helpful resources for authenticating a muscle car. What we've labeled "Best" is information gleaned from factory records and is most reliable. "Better" items are based on an individual, vendor, or club that offers widely acknowledged expertise. The "Good" resources are make-centric websites. Keep in mind that any Internet forum will be a mixed bag when it comes to expertise. We have purposely left books off this list, as there are just too many to mention. But experts at the websites and forums listed below can direct you to the best printed resources.
American Motors Forum
American Motors Owners Assoc.
Super Stock/AMX Pictorial Registry
Information from original microfiche for '70 and '72-'76 Buicks.
Roberts has microfiche for the second half of the '70 model year (Flint plant only, with "H" in the VIN).
Buick GS Club of America
Buick Club of America
Factory Stage 1 Registry
Vintage Vehicle Services Inc.
Production information, colors, and engine size for cars built in Canada (or the U.S. and sold in Canada) from 1945 to 1963. '64 cars and newer include transmission and option codes. (Note that there is no such resource of factory records for Chevrolets sold in the U.S. Records are rumored to exist, but they have not been released for distribution.)
Kevin Marti provides an incredible amount of information in his highly regarded reports. In many ways his reports are the gold standard for what any owner would wish for in documenting his muscle car. They are available for '67-'79 Ford and Mercury vehicles.
Fairlane Club of America
Int'l Mercury Owners Assoc.
Mustang Club of America
Vintage Mustang Forums
Galen's Tag Service LLC
Galen Govier is the Mopar authority. Space does not allow us to go into the complexities of Mopar authentication, but Govier has been at this business longer than most and is still the best choice for authenticating your Dodge or Plymouth muscle car.
For B-Bodies Only
Moparts on the Web
Mondello Performance Products Inc.
Owner Joe Mondello
Oldsmobile Performance Club
'65 Oldsmobile 442
Classic Oldsmobile Forum
Real Olds Power Forum
Pontiac Historic Services
A goldmine of Pontiac records headed up by Jim Mattison.
Former Pontiac marketing genius Jim Wangers is a walking treasure trove of information.
Pontiac-Oakland Club Int'l
GTO Assoc. of America
Performance Years Pontiac
Ultimate Pontiac GTO Picture Site