Car culture has taken a turn. Boomers, with their penchant for 1960s muscle, are getting too old to climb in and out of low-slung classic cars, while enthusiasts who grew up in the '80s and '90s now have disposable income. As a result, interest in the so-call “RAD” era cars — those of the Reagan / Bush / Clinton era — has exploded.
We have Radwood festivals (when public health regulations permit). Websites like Cars&Bids have emerged to auction those specific cars. Toyota resurrected the Supra due to rabid interest. And Acura earned more attention resto-modding a not-so-iconic 1990s SLX than doing anything Acura-related.
Such interest in all cars Rad is understandable — but it's gone beyond reason to become a fixation. And it is leading car people to spend silly amounts of money on unreasonably pristine old cars.
It’s true for the era’s gems. In August, someone paid $250,000 for a 1988 E30 BMW M3. That’s more than three times what a new M3 cost in 2018. $250K should be enough to fund a fleet of classic BMWs and keep a BMW mechanic on retainer. And that’s not a one-off; two other E30 M3s on Bring a Trailer have gaveled for $100,000 or more.
But that's also true for less-storied cars. Someone paid $80,000 for an Acura Integra Type R in September 2019. It was a rare model year Type R and super low mileage; the unicorn of Type Rs, if you will. But we’re still talking about a 20-plus-year-old sports coupe with less than 200 horsepower. And that's not a one-off; two Type Rs have hit $58,000 or higher on Bring a Trailer just in the past few weeks.
Let’s go for a truly mundane example. In June, someone bought a 2000 Honda Civic Si with 5,600 miles for $50,000. That’s about twice what a new Civic Si costs. And the new Civic Si has not fallen off; it’s excellent. Hell, that price is more than a new Civic Type R. That’s more than any person should pay for any Honda Civic ever.
You could argue automakers have lost the plot when it comes to making enjoyable vehicles. But no brand has stayed truer to its initial concept than Jeep with the solid-axle Wrangler. Yet, in June, someone paid $26,500 for a 1995 YJ Jeep Wrangler (the one with the unfortunate squared-off headlights). A three-speed automatic 1995 Wrangler that happened to have fewer than 5,000 miles and rad splash graphics.
I get the nostalgia. Earlier this year, VW loaned me a 1984 Rabbit GTI from their heritage collection. It was 90 horsepower of pure delight. It handles like a dream, and its engine sounds positively diabolical. It may have been the most fun I’ve had in a car this year...and I’ve driven a lot of fun cars this year.
That 1984 GTI also felt unsafe and very flippable. The plush red-on-red-on-somehow-even-more-red interior looked like it should have smelled like cigarettes. But I would still love one for the weekends. What does one in particularly fine fettle go for on Bring a Trailer? In the $25,000-30,000 range. In other words, about the cost of a new Mk7 GTI with a backup camera I could use every day to drive around my kids.
Who's to blame for the absurd prices we see for rad cars? Well...probably us, the automotive media. We have created a clear car nerdery bubble, which means the real nerds like to “well actually” conventional wisdom and bypass the obviously great cars for the unheralded ones. We write and talk; others read, listen and respond affirmatively; a feedback loop forms. Suddenly, paying $80,000 — enough to buy an Alfa Romeo Giulia Quadrifoglio — for a two-decade-old Integra Type R suddenly seems sensible, and the king of the hill becomes the person with an obsessively clean normcore car made in 1993.
Sure, there are greater issues in the world right now than wondering whether John Q. Inheritedmoney got good value adding that choice E30 M3 as the eighth car in his collection. (And there are certainly more pernicious and destructive media feedback loops occurring out there.) But the heedless fetishism for '80s and '90s cars is both rewarding and expanding the worst part of the culture: people keeping vehicles in suspended animation instead of driving them.
New cars are more reliable, more powerful, more pleasant, safer and more efficient than Radwood-era ones. If you have enough money to buy a new Land Cruiser, buy one while you still can. Don’t spend $80,000 on a low-mileage FJ62 because it’s the discerning car person’s choice. And I include myself in that...because I'm heading straight from dashing off this column to Bat to scope out any late 1980s Mercedes cars that have popped up.