Main Menu

What’s driving the entry-level air-cooled Porsche market?

Thursday, May 4, 2017

Article by Rob Sass

Lead image, clockwise from top: Two 1976 Porsche 912E models; 1973 Porsche 914 2.0-liter; 1982 Porsche 911 SC Targa. Photos courtesy Porsche

Without wading into the eternal conflict of the merits of air-cooled versus water-cooled, it’s sufficient to say that air-cooled Porsches have a certain cachet. To anyone born in the last 30 years, the technology is novel — it’s been obsolete for all of their adult life. Since Stuttgart isn’t making any more of them, the extant population of air-cooled Porsches is the most that will ever exist. Through natural attrition, it can only be downhill from here and the normal rules of scarcity and demand dictate only one result. 

But the story isn’t quite playing out according to the usual script of empty-nesters in their mid-fifties with lots of disposable income snapping up showpieces. Younger people are competing for a grittier, arguably hipper piece of the air-cooled Porsche pie. It’s a purely anecdotal observation of mine, but at the moment, air-cooled cars that are suspiciously affordable to someone in say the 25 to 40-year-old range (the 911 SC, 914, and 912E) seem to be flying off of Craigslist and Bring a Trailer in nearly any condition. Particularly on the West Coast.

That twenty- and thirty-somethings would gravitate toward vintage Porsches makes perfect sense. They have a well-documented penchant for quality experiences, food, etc. Gen-Xers and millennials also seem to have a fondness for analog tech, having brought back things that Boomers took for granted like turntables and vinyl records, mechanical watches and fixed-gear bicycles. And in-part because entry-level air-cooled Porsches have found a new legion of younger fans, that market has proven resilient to the general cooldown in the collector car market that has hit pricier long-hood 911s. Even the exodus of European buyers hasn’t put a lasting dent in prices. 

Above: Longhood Porsche 912 proudly wearing its patina at the 2015 Monterey Motorsports Reunion Porsche corral. Photo by Damon Lowney

European buyers (Germans in particular) were a big part of the demand picture for American-owned vintage Porsches. Until recently, we were the world’s low-cost supplier of air-cooled Porsches. The last two 911 SCs that I sold were both repatriated to Germany. Techno Classica in Essen had been filled with fresh-from-shipping-container, hugely marked-up U.S.-spec 911s that had been bought for retail money in the U.S. But the fact that European demand for U.S.-market Porsches has cooled down with the drop in the Euro doesn’t seem to have affected prices here one bit. If anything, demand is even stronger. New buyers are filling the vacuum and they’re clearly not coming from Europe. 

Nathan Merz, a longtime Porsche enthusiast, PCA Pacific Northwest Region member, and owner of Columbia Valley Luxury Cars in Redmond, Washington thinks there might be something to this theory, and not surprisingly given the demographic, it’s in part social media-driven. “Southern California has been the bellwether of American car culture since the 1940s,” Merz says. “A new, younger subculture is developing around air-cooled Porsches — a ratty 911T with the right patina has definitely found a new life.” Ratty cars it seems make for better photographs on Instagram than shiny perfect ones, and these people are heavy posters on Instagram, he says. 

Above: Mid-'70s 911 2.7-liter with patina. Photo by Damon Lowney

Among younger buyers, the demand for these heavily patinated cars — that traditional concours people wouldn’t look twice at — is quite strong. What might be a project car to someone in their 50s or 60s is a daily driver with killer patina to someone in their 20s or 30s. 

Brian Rabold, VP of Valuation Services for Hagerty looks at it this way: “Buyers currently favor affordability, and this certainly applies to the air-cooled world as well. The biggest movers among this class of Porsches in the most recent update of Hagerty Price Guide were for the 1976 912E at 4%, and the 1978-83 911 SC and 914 at 3% over the past four months. These cars had lagged the rest of the Porsche market, which made them a safer option in the eyes of a lot of enthusiasts.”

Top: 1976 Porsche 912E sitting on a used-car dealership lot — looking like it might were you buying one on a budget today. Photo by Abehn / Creative Commons. Above: Three 914s on display at PCA's Werks Reunion Amelia Island. Photo by Damon Lowney

With cars like the new 911R and GT3 RS and ultra-desirable after-market creations from places like Singer and Ruf, the popularity of the 911 franchise is at an all-time high. But so are prices. With a base 911 now approaching $100,000 new, a 911 SC with some cosmetic challenges in the low twenties is a pretty attractive way of joining the 911 cult for someone younger and without a trust fund or a promising tech startup. 

Perhaps adding some fuel to the fire is Luftgekühlt, Patrick Long’s and Howie Idelson's LA-based celebration of all things Porsche air-cooled. Now in its fourth year, Luftgekühlt skews heavily Millennial/Gen-X, reflecting that demographics’ current fascination with analog tech. Maybe not coincidentally, prices for entry-level, air-cooled Porsches have remained quite strong over the last several years. This in spite of a general cooling in the collector car marketplace. Is there perhaps a small Luftgekühlt-effect going on here?

At the top of the classic car market, event eligibility has always been a widely-accepted driver of desirability and value. Cars eligible for elite events like the Mille Miglia carry a hefty premium. A pre-1905 veteran car eligible for the London to Brighton Run might be worth three times more than an identical car built a year later. Luftgekühlt is hot at the moment, so it’s not much of a stretch to reason that the cars/tickets into said event might be hot as well. Even if a particular Porsche buyer never intends to go, the fact that the car is eligible for the show in theory affects the car’s value to the next person. 

During the time of Luftgekühlt’s rise in the Porsche world, entry-level air-cooled Porsches have appreciated in value. Correlation may not equal causation, but hey, this is old cars, not science, and lack of peer review aside, it seems plausible that the Luftgekühlt phenomenon is exerting some influence on the entry-level air-cooled Porsche market. At the very least, it’s helped put the cars on the radar of younger buyers. As for me, I’m buying up transaxle cars in anticipation of the inevitable hipster-driven Wassergekühlt backlash. You can’t count anything out in the Porsche world.

Average: 4.5 (13 votes)