Christmas sales of classic cars are as traditional as turkey. Simon de Burton eyes up the market

The weeks running-up to Christmas are not only the busiest days of the year in the High Street - there's a great deal going on in the world of old car auctions, too.

The weeks running-up to Christmas are not only the busiest days of the year in the High Street - there's a great deal going on in the world of old car auctions, too.

During the classic-car boom of the late 1980s, the major auction houses realised the pre-festive season was an ideal time to sell old Jaguars, Ferraris and the like because "loadsamoney" city types were itching to spend their bonuses on a flashy car.

Despite the bust which inevitably followed the boom, pre-Christmas classic car sales have remained as much a seasonal tradition as drink-driving purges and frozen door locks.

Between today and 7 December, 350 veteran, vintage and classic cars will change hands and more than £5m will be spent in seven major UK auctions at locations from Buxton, in Derbyshire, to Olympia in central London. Thousands of items of automobilia will be sold together with motoring art, posters and ephemera.

One of the largest events is traditionally the Bonhams sale at Olympia, which is highlighted this year by a 1929 Mercedes-Benz SS originally owned by New York movie hall impresario Roxy Rothafel.

The 7.1 litre cabriolet is expected to fetch £1.6m, but the 6 December sale will also include many more modestly priced offerings, including several in the £2,000-£3,000 range. The event also offers a rare opportunity to bid for a selection of "as new" modern classics, which are being off-loaded by the Midlands-based Patrick Collection. The 36 cars from the collection include a 1995 Range- Rover (£10,000-£15,000), a 1985 Porsche 928 (£7,000-£10,000) and a 1987 Ford Capri 280i (£5,000-£8,000). All were purchased for the collection new or almost new and are being offered with minimal mileages. Bonhams is not, however, the only house to be holding a Christmas car sale in the capital. Coys has its auction at the Horticultural Halls in Pimlico two days before and will offer a 1967 MGC, reputed to be one of the most important post-War MGs in existence having been raced by Paddy Hopkirk and Graham Hill among others. It could fetch up to £100,000.

Christie's has its event on 7 December and will offer a five-car, single-owner collection which has been stored away in a block of garages in a Kensington mews. They range from a 1936 Packard 12 convertible to a 1980s Bentley Turbo S. Other consignments include an Aston Martin Le Mans special, which was the Olympia show car in 1933, and the last surviving Bentley 8 litre with original HJ Mulliner Sedanca bodywork. It could fetch up to £260,000.

Outside the capital, H and H has 50 cars at its sale in Buxton, ranging from a rare Bentley "woody" shooting brake to one of just 29 factory-built, supercharged AC Cobras.

Cheffins sale, near Huntingdon, in Cambridgeshire, takes place on 4 December and includes a 1986 Ferrari Testarossa, once owned by music producer Pete Waterman, and a 1920s Austin Seven special.

Although the classic car market crashed dramatically in 1989 after reaching an unsustainable peak, strength has gradually returned in recent years to the point where the "right" cars are making enormous sums. In September, Bonhams sold a 1929 Mercedes-Benz SSK at Goodwood for £4.18m with the sale as a whole grossing £7.7m, while earlier in the year Christie's extracted £2.7m for a Bentley Speed Six with Le Mans race history.

There's no doubt that a gleaming classic car makes the ultimate special Christmas present but before you rush in and bid, remember the golden rule of auctions: caveat emptor.

Read all catalogue descriptions thoroughly and always attend the pre-sale viewing (normally held the day before the sale). Most auction houses will provide an engineer's report if you give them sufficient notice, and major defects will usually be pointed out in the catalogue. If you're unsure, it might be worth paying a professional mechanic to accompany you to the view.

Also, note that the estimate printed beside each lot is not the reserve price. It is the sum the auction house specialists believe the car will sell for. The reserve - a private matter between the vendor and the auctioneer - is around 10 per cent less than the low estimate.

Most importantly, remember to budget for what is called "buyer's premium". This is where the auction house makes its money: Christie's charges 19.5 per cent on the hammer price up to £70,000 and 12 per cent thereafter. There is VAT on the premium, too, meaning a car knocked down for £10,000 will cost £12,291.25. Cheffins charges a more modest 7.5 per cent plus VAT with a minimum premium of £150.


Saturday, 4 December
Cheffins, Britten Arena, King's Bush Farm, Godmanchester, Cambs.
Viewing Friday 3, 2pm-7pm. Sale commences 10am. Entries on

Saturday, 4 December
Royal Horticultural Halls, Vincent Sq, London SW1.
Viewing Friday 3, 12-8pm. Sale commences 11am (automobilia) and cars 2pm. Entries on

Monday, 6 December
Bonhams, Olympia, Hammersmith, London SW14.
Viewing Sunday 5, 10am-5pm and 9-10am Monday. Sale commences 10am. Entries on

Monday, 6 December
BCA, Blackbushe Airport, Camberley, Surrey.
Viewing Sunday 5, 1pm-4pm. Sale commences 1pm. Entries on

Tuesday, 7 December
Christie's, Nine Elms, London SW8.
Viewing Sunday 5, 2-6pm, Monday 9am - 5pm, Tuesday 9am-4pm. Sale commences 4.30 (automobilia) and car sales at 7pm. Entries on

Tuesday, 7 December and Wednesday 8 December
H and H, Pavilion Gardens, Buxton, Derbyshire. Viewing Tuesday 10am-7pm.
Wednesday 9am-1pm. Entries on

Saturday, 18 December
Bonhams (Ferrari sale). Palace Hotel, Gstaad, Switzerland
Viewing Friday 10am-6pm, and on Saturday 9am-7pm. Sale commences 7pm. Entries on

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