Dream Machines: What Drives a Classic Car Collector?

Some collectors are born that way; others find the passion over time. Designer Tom Samet counts himself unambiguously in the first category. “I was born loving automobiles,” says the veteran resident of the Hamptons, New York City and Palm Beach. “My first word was ‘Ford.’”

However they come to the pastime, what connects all classic car owners is a passion for machinery and the freedom of the open road. This is an investment class that can transport you, in every sense of the word. To be sure, chasing cars isn’t for everyone. There’s no guarantee that values will appreciate over time, and keeping old-timey rides in roadworthy condition can require a steady infusion of cash. “Plan on spending a lot of money,” Samet advises. On the other hand, you can’t put the top down on a share of Apple stock and take it for a spin on a winding Long Island road, as Samet likes to do with his 38-year-old Fiat Spider.

A McLaren with Butterfly doors
A McLaren with Butterfly doors; Photo: Michael Shaffer/Capitol Sunset Photography

“These are machines. They’re meant to be used,” agrees Jeff Einhorn, the car enthusiast and attorney who cofounded the annual classic-automobile event The Bridge. “The fun part isn’t getting in it to make money; it’s meeting people and getting on the road.” There are almost as many approaches to car collecting as there are collectors. Some are drawn to the supercar that captivated them in their youth; others want to lovingly restore a piece of yesteryear to its former state of perfection. And then there are those like Samet who can’t quite articulate how this thing works. “I drive past a dealership and a car calls out to me,” he says. “Usually it will be dark blue. There’s something about a dark blue car. Put a red stripe on it, and it looks like a boat.”

Collecting Classic Cars
A classic Porsche takes a turn on the track. Photo: Michael Shaffer/Capitol Sunset Photography

Whatever that ineffable quality is, Samet believes that possessing it in automobile form helps him define who he is. “My cars speak about me,” he says. “My energy. My style.”

As someone who designs interiors for wealthy clients, he is an expert at helping others find and develop their personal sense of style, and often finds himself using that expertise to advise first-time car collectors. “Clients come to me and say, ‘I’ve always driven boring cars; now I want one that’s fun,’” he says. “I look into their eyes, and their pocketbooks and help them find something that makes them happy.”

Getting Started

Collecting Classic Cars
A Toyota Icon 4×4 FJ40 sits in a sand trap, an apt setting for an off-road vehicle. Photo: Michael Shaffer/Capitol Sunset Photography

Do your research. Samet advises would-be collectors to take their time and research the market carefully. Older vehicles have a lot more quirks and idiosyncrasies than today’s robot-built models, and it’s essential to check out each potential purchase thoroughly. “It’s like going on a date,” he says. “You have to kiss a lot of frogs.”

Look for unrestored cars. Einhorn recommends eschewing heavily restored cars in favor of those that have all their original parts, even if they look a little more worn. “Unrestored cars drive better. They were put together at the factory by people who knew what they were doing,” he says. “Plus, the idea that you’re sitting in the seat that every owner before you sat in—nothing’s cooler than that.”

Collecting Classic Cars
A vintage Ford GT40, a high-performance racing car. Photo: Michael Shaffer/Capitol Sunset Photography

Follow your heart. Samet, who once owned 11 cars, has since pared his fleet down to seven, and organizes his schedule so that he can drive them wherever his work requires. “I’m lucky that I love driving,” he says. “It’s the only time of the day I’m by myself and not distracted. It’s a selfish time.”

At his age, he figures he should be plumping for a luxurious, well-cushioned ride, but for some reason he gets the most pleasure out of his beloved Spider, which has neither power steering nor power brakes. Once again, he is at a loss to explain his heart. “I’ve gotten more pleasure out of that car than I ever imagined,” he says. “It’s surprised me how much I love it.”

Bridge Party

Collecting Classic Cars
The Bridge course’s striking clubhouse design suggests blades in a turbine wheel. Photo: Michael Shaffer/Capitol Sunset Photography

Both hardcore lovers of vehicular machinery and the merely car-curious converge each fall at The Bridge, a three-year-old invitation-only event that has taken the world of classic automobiles by storm. “It’s blown up,” says cofounder Jeff Einhorn. Part of the appeal is the location, a sprawling tract of land that is now a golf course but was once the Bridgehampton Race Circuit, one of the preeminent road-racing tracks in the U.S. before it closed in 1998. Adding to the event’s historical allure is an eclectic menu of delights that includes food, wine, fine art and more than 100 classic cars.

Collecting Classic Cars
Cigars on display at The Bridge. Photo: Michael Shaffer/Capitol Sunset Photography

The Bridge takes place Sept. 15, 2018. A free related event called Cars & Coffee—at the Bridgehampton Historical Society on Sept. 16—gives the public a chance to admire the golden age autos.

—by Jeff Wise

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