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Beware of fake vintage muscle

Standard '60s, '70s models are billed as rare GTOs, Cobras

By Earle Eldridge / USA Today


The most common faked cars

- 1964 and 1965 Pontiac GTO

- 1970 Chevrolet Chevelle SS 396 or SS 454

- 1965-67 Chevrolet Corvette 427

- 1969 Chevrolet Camaro Z28

- 1972 Oldsmobile 442

The American love affair with 1960s and '70s muscle cars and the resulting price surge in the collectors' market have spawned a slew of fakes.

Both buyers and dealers have been duped into paying a premium of thousands of dollars for what they thought were rare muscle cars only to find out later they weren't.

In the world of fakes, that 1967 Pontiac GTO may really be a Pontiac Lemans with a GTO engine, emblems and decals. That hot 1970 Ford Mustang Boss with the V-8 engine may have started life as a 6-cylinder secretary's car worth $10,000 to $20,000 less than a real Boss.

Dan Mershon, owner of Mershon's World of Cars in Springfield, Ohio, bought and then sold what he thought was a 1964 GTO only to have his buyer say five years later that it wasn't.

Mershon gave the buyer his money back, then advertised and resold the car as a clone, a replica that had the performance and look of the original but sells for thousands less.

"I go to several car shows on the weekends, and every show I see at least one phony car," Mershon says. "There are a lot of ways to counterfeit a car, and it takes someone with a lot of knowledge to catch a phony."

Over the past three years, muscle car prices have skyrocketed as aging baby boomers with spare money grab up the cars they drooled over when they were young.

Prices have been increasing 10 percent to 15 percent annually, with high-quality, restored muscle cars selling for $60,000 to $75,000. The rarest muscle cars, such as Hemi-engine-powered Plymouth Barracudas, have seen price increases of 30 percent to 40 percent the past three to four years.

Some have sold at auctions for as much as $300,000, said Rob Myers of RM Auctions.

Auction companies say they try to identify sellers known for pushing fake cars.

"It's a significant problem, but we try to find those con artists and refuse to let them sell at our auctions," says Thomas duPont, chairman of duPont Publishing, which publishes a buyer's guide of classic cars, including muscle cars.

Insurance companies say new buyers entering the market are the most likely victims.

"When you see a growth market like muscle cars and see the hype around the rare model, that's when you see people getting taken advantage of," says McKeel Hagerty, president of Hagerty Collector Car & Boat Insurance. "We will insure clone and fake cars," he says. "But we don't protect a buyer if they get taken by a seller."

The insurance company will check the vehicle identification number (VIN) and may hire an expert to determine if the muscle car is authentic, Hagerty says.

Some muscle cars are easy to fake because there is nothing within the vehicle identification number to indicate it was a muscle car. In 1964 and 1965, General Motors did not put any indicator - such as a special number or letter stamped into the VIN - to differentiate the Pontiac GTO from the Tempest, the model the GTO was based on.

The 1967 Corvette with the big, much-desired 427 engine is easy to fake, too, because Chevrolet didn't provide any identification that a certain Corvette came with the V-8.

Famed racer Carroll Shelby says there are so many fake Shelby Cobras on the road imitating his race car of the 1960s that he stopped suing over it.

"The thing that ticks me off is that they take the shape of the Cobra and put on all these junk pieces and then advertise it as Shelby Cobra," he says. "Then the buyer can't get insurance, and they sue me, only to find out the car is not real."

Shelby says there are thousands of fake Cobras selling for about $50,000. A 289 Cobra is worth $150,000 to $275,000. The 429 gets $250,000 to $500,000. Fake Ford Mustang Shelby GT 500s also are popular.

Fake muscle cars have spawned a cottage industry of experts specializing in determining if a car is an original.

About 15 years ago, Jim Mattison, a former Pontiac employee, was able to get all the factory build sheets for every Pontiac dating back to 1961. He has used the data and other information he has compiled through his company, Pontiac Historical Services, to help buyers verify whether that 1971 Pontiac GTO Judge convertible - one of only 17 built - is really worth the $250,000 asking price.

Mattison charges $35 and gives customers providing a VIN precise details about the car, its options, colors and even the date and factory where it was built.
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