TOLEDO, Ohio — When Bob Christy takes the wheel of his old emerald green Jeep, it hints of simpler times.
“I just like driving down country roads in it. I like feeling the wind. It’s like riding a motorcycle,” he said. “You smell the smells out there when you go past a farm or a cornfield. It’s more of a pure driving experience. You don’t have your windows rolled up and the AC on. If it rains, you’re getting wet. It’s just kind of pure.”
Like many vehicle collectors, Christy’s passion for old Jeeps goes back to childhood. All it took was one surprise trip with his dad to a local Jeep rodeo. The vehicles. The mud. The obstacle courses. He was hooked.
Christy bought his first Jeep as a teenager and has had a string of them since, including a beautifully restored 1953 CJ-3B that gets regular usage on the back roads near his northeast Ohio home.
Though Jeeps aren’t for everyone — many early models struggle to break 50 mph — a good number of models have become collectible over the years.
“There’s a really strong affinity for Jeeps within the collector car market. It has such a storied past,” said Megan Boyd, car specialist with Auctions America in Auburn, Indiana.
The auction house has sold a number of Jeeps in recent years, and while most typically bring between $8,000 and $20,000, there are exceptions.
In 2013, for example, Auctions America sold a low-mileage, original-owner 1952 CJ-3A that had a number of farm attachments for $30,250.
Collector car experts say one of the more popular models of late has been the Willys Jeepster, a quirky cross between the traditional military-style Jeep and a sporty roadster aimed at returning servicemen who were fond of the Spartan Jeep. The vehicle was produced from 1948 to 1950 in Toledo.
“It was a family-oriented Jeep but it was just a little too expensive for the boys coming back from the war,” said Jim Vaccaro, who has made a second career out of restoring the old cars. The cars were priced at $1,750, which was about the same as a well-equipped Ford or Chevrolet convertible that had far more options. The Jeepster didn’t even come with side windows and there was only a canvas top.
Vaccaro, who is based in Florida, estimates there are 3,000 to 4,000 Jeepsters still out there. Many of those have been through his shop. In spite of not advertising, he has a 2½-year waiting list for restorations.
Though unrestored Jeepsters can still be found for relatively low prices, well-restored examples are quite valuable.
“My cars are now bringing as much as $55,000 at auction. They’ve really gone up in value, a lot more than most cars from that vintage,” he said.
Though some people buy them as show cars, most are bought to drive. Vaccaro is a great ambassador for that.
In 2014, he and eight others drove from Florida to California and back, and he’s planning a 10,000-mile round trip from Key West to Alaska.
Over the last several years, the faux-wood-paneled Jeep Grand Wagoneers have also become an improbable sensation. First launched in 1962, the Wagoneer became the world’s first real luxury sport utility vehicle. With some minor changes, it was sold all the way up to 1991.
Though some rough ones can be found on discount used car lots, original low-mileage examples and professionally restored ones are bringing serious money.
“It’s one of those trends that completely came out of left field and no one expected it,” Boyd said. “It’s sparked a whole counter-culture, specifically with the restoration shops popping up to restore just those vehicles.”
The Texas-based company Wagonmaster has made a big business out of buying, restoring, and selling Jeep Wagoneers. The company has more than dozen listed for sale, with asking prices as high as $69,000.
“They were popular when they came out and they’ve remained popular. They’re still very much a status item. You’d see them in North Hampton, Martha’s Vineyard. And people still buy them for that reason,” said Dan Strohl, a Web editor with Hemmings Motor News.
For most Jeep collectors, though, it’s not about status, or luxury, or owning something of great value.
“Jeeps obviously aren’t blue chip collectibles in the strictest sense of the word, but they’re getting more popular,” Strohl said. “They’re kind of their own unique market in a lot of ways.”
Christy, who works as a photographer at Kent State University, said Jeeps are just fun. He did nearly the entire restoration of his CJ himself and has a number of other projects in the works right now.
It’s a small community — you might only see one or two other classic Jeeps at a large cruise-in — but it’s a dedicated and tight-knit group.
“People are willing to help with parts or knowledge,” he said. “It’s really a nice group of people I’ve met.”
Information from: The Blade, http://www.toledoblade.com/