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Kelley Blue Book has helped generations appreciate the depreciation

Vince Staten • Jun 22, 2013 at 10:24 PM

Long story short: My middle stepdaughter had her second kid and decided her family needed a van. My wife and I agreed to buy their old sedan. The only problem: how much should we pay?

Where did we go to get the value? Online to Kelley Blue Book.

Drop back a generation. I am a teenager shopping for my first car, a used car, of course.

Where did my father look for information on used car values? Kelley Blue Book.

He couldn’t look online, of course. He called up my cousin Carl, who was a car salesman, and Carl looked in the dealer’s copy.

Drop back another generation. My grandfather never bought a car. But if he had, he could have looked up car prices in the Kelley Blue Book.

Kelley Blue Book has been around that long. Four generations have used it to find used car prices. It was first published in 1926.

And thanks to my father-in-law I have a copy of one of those first Kelley Blue Books, a reprint of Volume 1, Number 4, dated October 1926.

It’s a fascinating read, as much for the car names as the car prices.

There were literally scores of car manufacturers in this country in 1926 (Kelley didn’t list foreign cars, only domestic models), everything from the Ajax to the Winton.

I loaned my copy to Dick Cartwright, my go-to guy for all things old and automotive. He counted 69 automobile manufacturers listed in this book, including the makers of Dort — not Dart but Dort! But of the 69 Dick says, “Only 7 are still in existence today.”

The 1926 Blue Book lists cars manufactured from 1921 to 1926 and includes the original sticker price as well as the 1926 used car price.

Dick says, “The highest priced 1921 car is the Locomobile sedan weighing in at $11,000 new with a 1926 Kelley Blue Book value of $350.”

That’s quite a dip in value. In five years the Locomobile lost 97 percent of its original worth. A pretty poor investment. At least it was in 1926.

However if you had held on to that ’21 Locomobile … and held on and held on. One sold recently at Dragone Classic Cars in Westport, Conn., for $185,000, which would be a nice return on your money.

The fact is very few cars held their value in the 20s, according to Dick’s examination of the Kelley Blue Book.

“The biggest loser, the 1921 Winton Tourer, sold for $4,600 new in 1921 and was valued by Kelley Blue Book at $90 in 1926, retaining only 1.9 percent of its new car price.”

Other 1921 cars that were worth only 2 percent of what the owner paid new included the 1921 Chalmers touring, $1,795 new, $50 Kelley Blue Book value in 1926; and the 1921 LaFayette Limo, $6,750 new, $150 Kelley Blue Book value in 1926.

Anyone who paid almost $7,000 for a LaFayette in 1921 must have been sick when he or she discovered in 1926 that it was worth only $150.

Dick found there were cars that held their value, apparently a result of quality craftsmanship and dependability.

“A 1921 REO (Ransom Eli Olds) sedan — no mention of speedwagon — sold new for $2,750 with a 1926 Kelley Blue Book value of $200, 7.2 percent of the new car price.”

Fans of comedian Jack Benny — notorious as a penny-pincher — may recall that he was still driving an old Maxwell into the ’60s. Dick discovered, “A 1922 Maxwell roadster cost $885 new and had a Kelley Blue Book value of $135 in 1926, 15 percent of its new price. Maybe Jack Benny was an astute car buyer.”

A 1921 Studebaker light six roadster sold for $975 and maintained a 1926 Kelley Blue Book value of $210, 21 percent of its original price.

Dick says the Studebaker was a quality vehicle manufactured by the Studebaker brothers. “Studebaker had a strong background as manufacturers of Conestoga wagons that moved America west. If anything Studebaker was ahead of its time, but due to unfortunate wage agreements made during boom times and lack of multiple product lines to share the cost of new models, an advantage enjoyed by their competitors, Studebaker fell on hard times. In an attempt to achieve economies of scale Studebaker merged with Packard, also in trouble, in the mid-’50s, this union was likened to two drunks trying to help each other across the street, ultimately both failed. This illustrates that the evolution of the automobile has not always been survival of the fittest.”

Contact Vince Staten at vincestaten@timesnews.net or via mail in care of this newspaper. Voicemail may be left at 723-1483. His blog can be found at vincestaten.blogspot.com.

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