Collector car auctions are starting to see an evolution among bidders — and it’s having an impact on the block. As prospective buyers get younger, they’re looking for cars that were desirable when they were coming of age. That means prices and demand for cars from the 1970s are picking up.
Wisconsin-based Mecum Auctions has become one of the top auctioneers for cars from the “muscle” era … and while a lot of the iron that crosses their auction blocks sells for eye-wateringly high prices, a look back at results from the last couple of years shows some potentially desirable muscle cars can be purchased for less than $10,000. Here’s a look at some extremes on both ends of the spectrum, with the usual caveat that past performance is no guarantee of future returns.
10 (expensive): 1970 Oldsmobile 442 W-30 -- $225,000
A lot of factors can influence a collector car’s price, including originality, rarity, and condition. This particular 442-- equipped with the go-fast W-30 package that included Olds’ monster 7.5-liter (455 ci) V8 and special red fender liners-- checks all those boxes. Sold new in Canada and still equipped with its original engine and transmission, the black 442 was the subject of a detailed frame-off restoration and finished to an impeccable standard. That attention to detail paid off, with the car hammering at Mecum’s Indianapolis auction in May 2019 for $225,000.
Their scarcity relative to their Chevelle SS and GTO brethren means 442 W-30s (and Buick Skylark GS Stage 1s) can command somewhat higher values at auction. It doesn’t hurt that they’re among the best looking cars of the muscle era.
9 (bargain): 1977 AMC AMX — $10,000
Another big factor driving collector car values is desirability: was the car popular when it was new? In the case of this AMX, the answer may explain why it’s leading the “bargain” section of this list. A far cry from the Javelin-based AMXs that led AMC’s performance effort in the late 60s and early 70s, this Hornet-based AMX — sold at Mecum’s Kissimmee auction in 2017 — is serving full-on “malaise” realness, with its 5.0-liter (304 ci) V8 and automatic transmission.
The Hornet hatchback body’s odd proportions make it look a little ungainly, especially around the rear quarter area. But this may represent the best of the late-70s AMXs: the Spirit-based models made do with AMC’s well-worn 4.0-liter (258 ci) straight-six. Of course, those are likely even less expensive, so … tradeoffs.
8 (expensive): 1970 Ford Mustang Boss 429 — $275,000
Investment-grade through and through, this “Boss Nine” has it all: rarity, originality, condition and an entertaining provenance: the owner of this Grabber Orange coupe bought it in 1973 from a guy in Mississippi who used it to run moonshine. It’s not likely that anyone in Hazard County would be able to catch this limited-production Mustang, equipped as it is with the race-ready 7.0-liter (429 ci) V8 installed by Dearborn’s Kar Kraft.
Documentation can also affect a car’s value, and this Mustang -- sold at Mecum's suburban Chicago auction in 2019 -- had a whole sheaf of receipts, including the window sticker, the build sheet (unearthed during restoration) and a full history.
7 (bargain): 1978 Ford Mustang II — $9,075
OK, you may have to adjust your definition of “muscle” for this category, but remember that with the exception of the Corvette and some Trans Ams, none of the so-called “performance” cars available in the late ‘70s were really tearing it up. And while the Mustang II gets very little love from the collector-car crowd, that means some potential bargains are out there.
Case in point: this ’78, with a real Windsor V8 and a four-speed manual transmission, plus very rare factory T-tops, selling at Mecum Indianapolis in 2018 for just under our $10,000 bogey. Slightly less well-equipped Mustang IIs from this era can be even more reasonable, and parts from this generation are still plentiful.
6 (expensive): 1970 Plymouth Road Runner Superbird — $357,500
Plymouth’s Superbird — and the related Dodge Charger Daytona — are the most legendary “aero” cars designed to challenge NASCAR tracks in the late 60s and early 70s. Fun fact: even though the donor cars are based on the same B-body chassis, the “beak” and rear spoiler added to the Belvedere-based Road Runner Superbird are NOT interchangeable with the similar aero aids on the Coronet-based Charger Daytona.
Only about 1,500 of these were built before the Superbird was caged, thanks to NASCAR rules that forced “aero” cars to run vastly smaller engines than other competitors. As a result, even rough basket-case Superbirds can sell for what a fully restored Road Runner will fetch. Clearly, this one -- sold at Mecum's suburban-Phoenix auction in 2019 -- is far from "basket case" material.
5 (bargain): 1970 Ford Ranchero — $8,800
In case you want your ‘70s muscle car to haul more than ass, you could do worse than Ford’s Torino/LTD II-based Ranchero. The formula here is the same as with Chevrolet’s El Camino: midsize coupe-based business in the front, pickup-bed party in the back, with most of the same performance options as on the donor car.
The 1970 featured here -- sold in 2018 at Mecum Kissimmee -- may be the best looking of the Rancheros, with its pointy 70s beak and laser stripe, but newer Rancheros can be found for less money. The notable exception may be a brief run of ’79 1/2 Ranchero “Limited” models, equipped with leftover “Heritage” leather interiors from the related Thunderbird.
4 (expensive): 1971 Chevrolet Corvette ZR2 —$368,500
This ‘Vette is a bit of a unicorn: it’s one of 12 C3s sold in ’71 (and one of only two convertibles) with the “special purpose” version of the LS6 big-block V8, which was essentially a race engine in a street-legal package. That said, relatively few Corvettes were sold in the 70s with the 7.4-liter (454 ci) V8 in any tune, so they will always command a higher value than other C3s.
The big-block C3s also happen to be some of the purest Corvettes available, coming as tighter emissions controls were being mandated, but before the government’s tougher bumper standards took effect. As a result, the fastest ‘70s Corvettes are also some of the best-looking, which doesn’t hurt their value. It certainly didn't hurt this one, which sold at Mecum's high-roller Monterey auction in 2019.
3 (bargain): 1979 Chevrolet Camaro — $8,800
Values for “Bandit”-era Pontiac Firebird Trans Ams have been north of $20,000 for some time, and fans of “The Rockford Files” have helped drive prices for bread-and-butter Firebirds higher as well. By comparison, the Firebird’s F-body sister is downright reasonable. As an example, here’s a decently-equipped ’79 Camaro (V8, factory air, automatic) that Mecum sold at its suburban Chicago auction in 2019 for $8,800.
The view down the Camaro’s hood is slightly different, and the dashboard is more toned down than on the Pontiac, but it still delivers that voluptuous pony car style, and will still get the buyer approving looks at any “cars and coffee” meet-up.
2 (expensive): 1970 Plymouth Hemi ‘cuda Convertible — $1,980,000
Any ‘60s and ‘70s Chrysler Corporation product that came from the factory with the original "Street Hemi" engine is a blue-chip collectible. The only-slightly-detuned race engines were more expensive than other available power plants, so sales numbers were low. This may be the Holy Grail of classic Hemis: one of only 14 ‘Cuda convertibles so equipped in 1970, selling at Mecum Indianapolis in 2019 for nearly two million dollars.
This Lemon Twist Yellow car’s mix of options and colors makes it especially valuable, as does its Concours-level restoration. But low production figures mean most E-body coupes (Barracudas and Challengers) with Hemis change hands at six- and seven-figure levels.
1 (bargain): 1979 Chevrolet Corvette — $6,000
Yes, that’s right. It’s possible to find an honest-to-Zora ‘70s Chevrolet Corvette for less than ten thousand dollars. Now, let’s be clear: the C3 you buy for under 10 Gs won’t have an engine bigger than 5.7 liters (350 ci), and it probably won’t be a Silver Anniversary or Pace Car edition. But this ’79 we found from Mecum’s 2017 Kansas City auction was at least equipped with the right powertrain for that year (L82 V8 and four-speed), seemed to be in good condition, and came with a fair amount of documentation.
The value of this example was probably also affected by its less-than-eye-popping color story (beige on beige) and the relative glut of ‘79s on the market (highest ‘Vette production year ever). But: it’s still a Chevrolet Corvette, which means it’s still athletic, still beautiful and still buys you entry into an exclusive club of classic car enthusiasts. Just don’t challenge a Ford Escape to a drag race.