The Duck Test

This is a guest article contributed by Steve Linden, noted American classic car expert, appraiser, and partner in Chrome Strategies Management LLC. If you have something to say about classic cars and their documentation, drop us a line at – we love to hear from you!

Imagine how much simpler things would be if automobile manufacturers had permanently affixed plaques to every car they built. These plaques would contain all of the information that we now deem important, including things such as the vehicles original color, options, and the serial numbers of major components. These plaques wouldn’t need to be much larger than a credit card, and they would eliminate much, if not all, of the detective work and residual doubt with just about every collector car that exists today. But, at the time that most collector cars were manufactured, the manufacturers could have no idea how important this information would be decades, or, even more than a century later.

The importance of secondary information such as casting codes, date codes, assembly plants, and other anecdotal evidence would be rendered virtually obsolete, other than to support the information on the plaque should a forgery be suspected. These plaques do exist in some form on many collector cars. We know them as cowl tags (GM), fender tags (Chrysler), door plates (Ford), build sheets, window stickers, VIN Tags, trim tags, tank stickers, and a myriad of other monikers. The problem is that they all contain different information and few, if any, contain all of the information that is now considered crucial to collectors. Some are screwed to the car, some welded, some riveted, some taped, and others just stuffed in the underside of a seat cushion. All,
without exception, can be forged.

This crucial information, or lack thereof, often renders an otherwise outstanding collector car difficult to sell. And that will often result in a steeply discounted price regardless of the amount of money invested in the car. What do a 1940 Packard and a 1968 Camaro have in common? Not much. Except that I recently had the opportunity to inspect both of these cars, and both sold for a
fraction of the price that they would have realized had it been possible to determine with 100% certainty that they were what they were purported to be.

The cars were “better than new” in every sense. Each car had undergone a restoration to “concours” quality standards. Fit and finish of body panels were far superior than when the car left the factory. Attention to detail in the interior, engine bay, trunk, and undercarriage were impeccable. Both cars drove just as good as they looked. I would estimate that the restoration on each of these cars cost somewhere in the range of $60,000 – $80,000…exclusive of the cost of the car. And surprisingly neither seller had any idea who performed the restoration. They had both purchased the car restored.

Although there was no documentation at all, the 1968 Camaro was claimed to be an original “Big Block – RS – SS.” Had this been a 1967 or 1969 Camaro, sometimes there is information on the “cowl tag” that might support the claim that the car was an RS-SS, but this is not the case with 1968 Camaros. I was able to determine with little doubt that it was an original “big block” car because the original engine was still installed in the car. But beyond that, nothing could be stated with certainty.

The Packard had similar issues. The “data plate” that is normally affixed to the engine side of the firewall had never been replaced after the restoration. I found it in the glove-box. Did it belong to this car? Probably. But why, after such a comprehensive “frame-off” restoration, has someone not taken the thirty seconds to replace it? It not only defies logic, it opens the door to doubt.
Both cars passed their inspections with flying colors. But there is one section in my report that is titled “PROVENANCE.” The more information in this section…the better. Both of these reports were conspicuous in the lack of information that was present. And with cars of this nature, this translates into value.

If I were to estimate the cost of a nice “donor car,” and the cost of a restoration to these standards, I would say that both cars sold somewhere in the range of 30% – 40% of
the total amount invested. So, does that put these cars in the “well bought” or the “well
sold” column?

Unless the buyers intend to show these cars at high levels of judging, where the provenance will be scrutinized, I would say that the advantage went to the buyers. They both enjoy the experience of owning and driving cars that are among the finest examples of their type, and it is unlikely they will lose a penny at sale time. However, they may be more difficult to sell, as a segment of the buyers’ market will not entertain the thought of buying a car that is “probably” real.

People often say “If it looks like a duck, walks like a duck, and quacks like a duck, it’s a duck.” And that’s probably true for many things. But when it comes to collector cars, “probably” is sometimes not good enough. test test