Concept cars are the creative lifeblood of the auto industry, the visual language that designers use to communicate not just the specifics of an individual automobile, but also the future direction of an entire brand. And yet they lead the most limited of lives, rarely existing outside the auto-show circuit and almost never seen on public roads before returning to be stored, cataloged and forgotten about in a massive corporate warehouse once their year or two in the sun is over.
The end result is a continually growing legacy of past concepts nestled cheek-to-jowl with newer ones, taking up space that some automakers simply aren’t willing to pay for on an indefinite basis. It’s surprising how many brands seemingly walk away from showcasing their heritage: for every Volkswagen Autostadt or GM Heritage Center, which glorify their history by way of an enormous, well-appointed interactive facility, there are sad stories like that of the Walter P. Chrysler Museum, which shut down a few years ago after less than two decades of operation.
If concepts keep piling up and automakers are unwilling to pay the freight required to keep them presentable, then something clearly has to give. If you’re a collector, you may already be salivating at the thought that perhaps this space squeeze has some brands seeking willing suitors who’d be happy to take responsibility for the future care and feeding of one of these ultra-rare autos.
So, can you actually buy a concept car? The answer really depends on who you know, who you are and how lucky you happen to be.
Officially, “No,” Or Something Like It
I approached numerous car companies, through various channels, to ask them about their policies regarding concept-car sales, and almost each and every time the answer I got was the same, and to the point: these vehicles are not for sale.
There are a number of reasons why automakers aren’t jazzed about releasing concepts into the wild. A primary concern is legal liability. Although they may look the business sitting under the bright lights on a show podium, in reality concepts can run the gamut from cobbled-together sheet metal exercises with no interiors whatsoever, to barely-running experimental drivetrain mules, to high-strung, high-maintenance performers that require a team of mechanics to remain operational.
“Most concepts are not drivable and don’t have powertrains,” explains Dan Bedore, auto industry veteran and current PR honcho at Nissan. “Many concepts are not even ‘cars,’ and sit on plywood and aluminum underpinnings and feature fiberglass panels that can warp in the sunlight. They really don’t hold up well to hot, cold and humidity — or gravity, for that matter. Companies and designers would rather no one see a concept that hasn’t aged well, for understandable reasons, which is part of why so few of them change hands.”
It also goes without saying that the few concept cars with working mechanical bits don’t make any effort to obey emissions regulations, which puts them at odds with the state and federal legislatures that govern what can be driven on public roads. More importantly, they are never, ever crash tested, nor do they offer even a modicum of safety equipment, which makes them rolling death traps in the eyes of the attorneys duty-bound to protect a corporation from the stream of lawsuits — imagined or otherwise — that could result from a concept-ride-gone-wrong.
It’s for this reason that many show cars are either permanently locked away in storage, loaned out to third-party (or in-house) museums, or even crushed at their end of their tour of duty. The latter is also almost always the fate of prototype cars, those vehicles manufactured without a serial number prior to the actual production version hitting the streets.
Having Said That, Someone’s Buying
While all of the above sounds somewhat draconian, and certainly makes sense from a letter of the law standpoint, it doesn’t exactly apply across the board in the real world. Concepts have been finding their way to private collectors on a regular basis for decades, starting back in the ’50s, when companies looking towards the go-go future were particularly disdainful of their own pasts.
The issue is that public access to concepts-for-sale ranges from a closely guarded secret to a random auction bonanza, with everything in between wearing a distinct shade of grey.
“I’ll be honest with you — the way I do it is highly confidential, and I can’t reveal any of the details,” explains Joe Bortz, perhaps the highest-profile concept car collector in the country and owner of the impressive Bortz Auto Collection, which has been a going concern since 1963. “But I can tell you that, in my experience, there’s almost zero chance that the average person could directly approach an automaker about buying a concept. The only real opportunity is to buy once that’s already made it into private hands.”
Bortz is an industry insider with decades of experience and contacts on his side, all of which come into play when trying to purchase something as rare as a one-of-one concept. There have been occasions, however, where automakers have leveraged public sales to clean house in a fairly major way.
Ford, for example, sold a whopping 51 of its concepts back in 2002 through the Christie’s auction house, with the proceeds going to charity, and more recently let go of a few more prototypes in 2011 with RM. General Motors also did something similar in 2008 with Barrett-Jackson, moving not just concepts but also a number of pre-production vehicles in an effort to thin out inventory and reduce the costs associated with maintaining its collection. “It’s a clever way to take the cars off the books and do something nice at the same time,” says Bedore.
Sometimes, too, the auctions can lead to unexpected luck in terms of snagging a concept further down the road. This is what happened to Ken Yanez (who actually works for Special Projects, a company that often builds and stores one-off vehicles for Ford), when he picked up the Ford Lightning Rod concept.
“I was at Barrett-Jackson when it was originally sold, and I saw it driving through the parking lot. We so rarely get to see the vehicles moving when we work on them, and I thought it looked amazing,’ he says. “I walked up to the driver and asked him how much it sold for, and when he told me, I realized I should have bought that car. Three weeks later, my son found it listed online, and I got in touch and made an offer.”
Even though Special Projects maintains a significant portion of Ford’s concept fleet, Yanez isn’t privy to how the company decides which vehicles are going to be sold, and when.
“We get a little advance notice, because we have to go through the cars, take off any serial numbers that we might find, and put tags on them to say they are not street legal,” he explains. “But there’s often not much lead-up — they just come and pick them up.”
While all of the above might read as a bit discouraging to anyone with concept-car ownerships aspirations, there is hope out there. Not every automaker holds themselves to a rigid policy of store-and-destroy, as I discovered when speaking with Simon Sproule, vice president and chief marketing officer at Aston Martin.
“We’re fairly open about selling our concept cars after we no longer have use for them,” Sproule says. “A year, year-and-a-half on the show-car circuit, and then we’re happy to transfer them to private owners. They’re sold as works of art: there’s a big, thick contract explaining that they aren’t road legal, etc. It’s a regular thing for us. Most recently, we sold the concept version of the Valkyrie supercar.”
Aston Martin isn’t the only company willing to deal when it comes to brokering concept cars into the secondary market, but it’s here that things get murky. While high-profile collectors like Joe Bortz and Jay Leno have access required to maneuver through the red tape that surrounds the sale of a concept, unless you have some type of industry contact who can get you in front of the right people at the right time — or are known to the brand in question as a long-time, high-value customer — it’s extremely unlikely you’ll be able to purchase one of these vehicles directly from the source.
A better plan is to look for concepts that are already privately owned. Concept cars hit auctions and classified listings more often than you’d think, whether it’s a museum that’s rotating a collection, a private seller whose priorities have changed, or an estate being divested. Remember those cars from the General Motors Barrett-Jackson sale? They are still out there, and regularly pop up for sale. How about that Ford auction? One of the two non-driving, but still easy-on-the-eyes Indigo concepts just came back on the market. Pricing is tough to predict, but these vehicles don’t always appreciate. While the Indigo’s ask is much higher than its initial gavel drop, Yanez’s Lightning Rod was nearly half off its original auction figure by the time he acquired it.
Buying a concept is going to take determination, research skills, a little risk-taking, and a fair amount of luck. There are very few of these unusual automobiles out there, and that supply is dwindling by the day.
“I always say that all collecting — coins, stamps, motorcycles, cars — can be reduced down to five simple words: I have it, you don’t,” says Joe Bortz. “Rare is not really a number, it’s a ratio, and many of these concepts are one of one. When everyone wants the same thing, they leverage their money to get it, which is why some concepts sell for millions.”
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