ATLANTIC CITY — The 1965 Bentley exuded classic British luxury — from its stately, two-tone paint scheme to its wood-trimmed dashboard to the silver hood ornament depicting a winged “flying B.”
There was one big problem with this yacht on wheels, though.
It didn’t come with a chauffeur.
No matter. On Saturday, Philadelphian Robert Byrne imagined himself behind the wheel of the four-door Bentley, cruising through the countryside in grand, European style.
“I could take a nice Sunday drive, windows open, not too fast, just enjoying the road,” Byrne said, smiling.
Yes, it was a day for dreaming. Some came to browse, others to buy, at the Atlantic City Classic Car Show & Auction. When the show concludes today, an estimated 70,000 people will have attended the weekend event at the Atlantic City Convention Center, organizers said.
The car show, now in its 41st year, provides a boost of tourism for Atlantic City during the normally slow winter. By Saturday morning, the convention center’s entire 1,400-space garage was packed.
Jon Bates and his girlfriend, Pamela Robak, drove down from their home in Monson, Mass., and planned to spend the weekend. Bates said he was hunting for a 1955 Chevrolet Bel Air.
“I hope to be a buyer,” Bates said.
Byrne, who comes to the car show nearly every year, was accompanied by his 8-year-old son, Aidan, and other family members from Philadelphia. As Byrne marveled at the Bentley’s old-school look, Aidan got right to the point: “How much is it?” he asked.
The price would be determined later, once the car hit the auction block. A sign in the Bentley’s window beckoned buyers with the words, “Own this car today!”
“This is class, dignified class,” Byrne said. “It has beautiful style and lines all the way around. It’s not like the cars they make today. They’re mass-produced and they all look the same.”
The nearly 1,000 cars crowding the convention center’s sprawling exhibit hall represented virtually all eras, from the Model Ts of the 1920s to the latest exotic European sports cars. The older cars, steeped in historic design, were far more distinctive than the plain-vanilla, contemporary autos that drew Byrne’s wrath.
A 1931 Studebaker President attracted a lot of attention. Painted in battleship gray, it came with flawless red interior, a big, black steering wheel, oval-shaped headlights and gleaming chrome trim.
“It’s just awesome,” gushed Mike Ailes, of Medford, Burlington County. “The amount of detail work is just incredible.”
Tom Jaccoud, of Monroe Township, Middlesex County, also took an admiring peek at the Studebaker. He thought it was one of the nicest cars at the entire show.
“As far as the quality of the car, on a scale of 1 to 10, I would give it a 10,” Jaccoud said. “It’s like the day it came off the showroom floor.”
John Anderson also gazed at the Studebaker, but he was really on the lookout for a classic American muscle car, a 1970 Chevrolet Chevelle SS convertible. As a teenager in the ’70s, Anderson had owned a 1970 Chevelle SS. He recalled parting with it then for about $1,500.
“When that car was new, it sold for around $3,600. Now, you can see them selling for anywhere between $80,000 and $120,000,” Anderson said.
Anderson, of Tabernacle, Burlington County, said he was willing to spend between $55,000 and $65,000 for a 1970 Chevelle SS convertible. However, all he found at the car show Saturday were hardtops.
Jay Silberman, president of G. Potter King Inc., the car show’s organizer, said the growing popularity of muscle cars illustrates the recovery in the classic car market in recent years, following a downturn during the recession. The comeback is reflected in both auction prices and the car show’s attendance. Silberman noted that the paid attendance of 70,000 this year is up 32 percent over 2013.
“It is unbelievable,” he said.
Silberman said about $30 million worth of cars would be up for sale in Atlantic City. Not all cars are bought. The auction is expected to generate about $21 million or $22 million in sales.
Nationwide, sales at collector car auctions jumped 25 percent in 2013, topping the $1 billion mark for the first time, according to Hagerty Insurance, which specializes in classic cars and boats.
On Friday, the Atlantic City auction sold 73 percent of the cars that went on the block at the convention center, at an average price of $38,000. In a related auction at Trump Taj Mahal Casino Resort, a select group of high-end historic cars sold for an average of $214,000, Silberman said.
Silberman, however, stressed that higher sales at the classic car show are not necessarily a sign of a stronger U.S. economy overall. Most of the buyers continue to be wealthy collectors who are relatively immune to the fragile economy, he added.
“The car sales reflect people who have a lot of money and are making even more money. These are the 1 percent of all the people,” Silberman said. “They are spending their money on hard assets. They are investing in classic cars.”
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