Did Cash for Clunkers Crush Classics? Not Likely.

Last Updated Sep 3, 2009 2:18 PM EDT

Now that the smoke has cleared, was Cash for Clunkers a holocaust for classic cars? This has long been the contention of old car collectors, who have waged a rear-guard action against such programs, state and federal, complete with heated language.

Scrappage programs, said the Specialty Equipment Market Association (SEMA) last April, "hurt thousands of independent repair shops, auto restorers, customizers and their customers across the country. This industry provides thousands of American jobs and generates millions of dollars in local, state and federal tax revenues." In response to a similar California program, the association accused the state of trying "to lure into the scrappage program the pre-1976 collector cars that help drive the restoration market and the passions of many in the automotive hobbyist community."

It's always been hard to picture naïve car owners junking valuable classics under any scenario, but Cash for Clunkers explicitly excluded cars built before 1984. A perceptive article by Keith Martin, the respected classic car expert who publishes Sports Car Market, asks, "Can you think of a single collectible car, worth less than $4,500 [the top clunker rebate] built from 1984 to the present day?" He cites a few, including the Porsche 911 Carrera ('87-'89) and BMW 635Csi ('85-'89), that were never likely to be traded in.

In an interview, Martin said that he's not aware of any Ferrari 250 Testa Rossas or Hemi 'Cudas being Clunkered. "I haven't seen any first-hand evidence," he said. "And the 750,000 cars in the program are just a tiny fraction of the 360 million vehicles sold in the U.S. during that period, 1984 to 2008--0.2 percent."

Why does SEMA cite only "pre-1976" cars as worth preserving? Martin explains that "collectible cars stop around 1974, because after that they had increased environmental and safety equipment, and horsepower was emasculated. The early smog set-ups were from Kukla, Fran and Ollie."

Given the lack of affection for, say, a '77 T-Bird or a '76 Cordoba (despite that infamous "Corinthian leather" endorsement from Ricardo Montalbán), should we care that a lot of them are going to junkyards now, even without the federal program? Not from Martin's viewpoint. "I have nothing against legislation that removes crappy cars from the road, as long as they're not crushing Mustang GT-350s," he said. "We do have a larger obligation to the planet we live on."

The New York Times' Norman Mayersohn could identify only a few Cash for Clunkers-eligible cars he'd miss, including the '88 Jaguar XJ6, the '87 Mustang, the '91 Formula Firebird and the '96 Buick Roadmaster (I like that one, too).

Are classic car values overall suffering because of the recession? It's not evident from the recent Pebble Beach Concours, where six auctions brought in nearly $100 million. But according to the Wall Street Journal, the pinch is definitely being felt, and some car values have dropped by a third "as sellers come down in price to meet a shrinking demand." Any offers on my 1963 Dodge Dart convertible, just like the one seen on Car Talk? It's mint!